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The Khodorkovsky Card

Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, has now lent his moral authority to the drive to free former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky from prison. This is an event of some significance and one that the Kremlin would be well advised to interpret correctly. That is especially true now when Russia is on a charm offensive to attract foreign capital and embarrassed by the recent spy scandal in the United States.

Wiesel invited former government officials, business leaders, human rights activists and journalists to the elite Lotos Club on Manhattan’s East Side. It is almost a rule in the West that high moral causes must be launched in posh surroundings. But it’s fitting for a billionaire in prison.

Unable to attend for health reasons, Yelena Bonner, lioness of the Soviet dissident movement and widow of Andrei Sakharov, sent a strongly worded statement read by her son, Alexei Semyonov. From the start of the Yukos affair, Bonner has spoken out in defense of Khodorkovsky, whom she considers a victim of political repression. She castigated the judge at Khodorkovsky’s second trial for openly favoring the prosecution.

Some commentators have likened Khodorkovsky to Sakharov. I attended Khodorkovsky’s trial in October 2009 and was impressed by his vigor and confidence when he entered the courtroom. He was like a heavyweight champion heading for the ring. But, to paraphrase former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, I knew Sakharov, and Khodorkovsky is no Sakharov.

Still, in one important respect, the two are alike. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signaled to the Russian intelligentsia and the world the seriousness of his intent to reform the Soviet Union when he released Sakharov from internal exile in late 1986. The Kremlin, now wishing to prove that it is moving in a new direction, could send a similarly powerful signal by releasing Khodorkovsky. The irony here is that we want an independent judiciary, yet we demand political intervention to resolve one of the most egregious violations of that very principle.

Some of the business leaders present at the luncheon pointed out that the symbolism of the Khodorkovsky case was practical as well as moral. Who wants to invest in an economy where billionaires are framed and journalists are slain?

So what could prevent the Kremlin from playing the Khodorkovsky card? Sheer vindictiveness is one possibility. Another is that Khodorkovsky is a symbol in the West and in Russia as well, an example for the oligarchs of what happens to those who confuse financial strength with political power.

According to opposition leader Boris Nemtsov: “Putin is pathologically afraid of Khodorkovsky, considers him an utterly powerful person — organized, serious, unbreakable.” But what specifically could Putin be afraid of? Khodorkovsky might well become the figure around which the opposition could rally and unite. But Khodorkovsky’s parole could be conditioned on his promise to refrain from all political activities. He could, of course, refuse this condition and choose to remain in prison. So even Khodorkovsky might someday have to play the Khodorkovsky card.

Stalin’s famous quote regarding suggestion that the pope participate in the Allies’ war conferences — “How many divisions does he have?”— is a question that could also be asked today of Wiesel. But the Kremlin should also not forget that it was a pope, John Paul II, who played a key role in bringing down the house that Stalin built. And what happened once can happen once again.

Richard Lourie is the author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”

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