Leading article: A verdict that may reflect badly on Russia

Monday 27 December 2010 01:00 GMT

The second trial of the fallen Russian oil magnate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, expected to conclude today, is an important day for Russian justice; a test of President Medvedev's stated resolve to reform Russia's judiciary and confront its notorious political partiality.

The verdict on Khodorkovsky, who has served seven years of an eight-year sentence for tax evasion and now faces up to 14 more years on embezzlement charges, will signify whether Russia's courts are able to operate beyond the shadow of the Kremlin.

A hero to some and a villain to others, in reality the ex-oligarch is a mixture of both – a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the sun in this case being Vladimir Putin, who has never forgiven the oligarch for his decision to place his fortune at the service of a variety of parties opposed to Mr Putin's rule.

Outside Russia, few dispute that this was a factor behind Khodorkovsky's fall and the harsh sentence that he received in 2003. The enmity between the two men endures. From his cell, Khodorkovsy recently described Russia's Prime Minister as a pitiable figure who feels affection only for his beloved dogs.

Pre-empting the court's decision, a significant gesture in itself, Mr Putin described Khodorkovsky as a thief, adding that thieves belonged in jail. The slanging match, so reminiscent of the personal arguments that tsars had with their imprisoned critics, suggests that both men regard this week's court verdict as a formality.

Outside Russia, many will shrug. The initial predictions, made after Khodorkovsky was first jailed, that foreign investors would shun Russia, seeing the Putin regime as anti-business, have not been borne out. Russia's principal business partners in the West, Germany above all, appear understanding of Russia's so-called "managed" democracy, seeing it as one of the least worst options. If nothing else, they argue, it has given Russia stability.

Britain has less to lose economically from speaking out. We do not have to buy into the myth of Khodorkovsky as a martyr to insist that Russia abide by the standards it has set for itself. If this looks like another verdict written by the Kremlin, we should say so.

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