As a president, Vladimir Putin would soon show that he had not forgotten about the working methods of the good old KGB. The most notable examples are the lawsuits against Mikhail Khodorkovsky (°Moscow, 20/06/1963) and Platon Lebedev (°Moscow, 29/11/1956), the former owners of the oil company Yukos. Khodorkovsky was a successful business man and known by his criticism of corruption in the Russian polity, and also by his commitment to openness with his movement Открытая Россия (Otkrytaya Rossiya) or Open Russia, and by his support to opposition parties.
In 2003, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were arrested on suspicion of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. Yukos got completely dismantled, and the most profitable parts were given to Rosneft, an oil company run by Igor Setshin (°Leningrad, 07/09/1960). Setshin is a former KGB spy and one of the most conservative advisors of Putin. He was Deputy Prime Minister in the cabinet of Putin and leader of the Комманда Силовиков (Kommanda Silovikov) or The Men of Power, a lobby of former KGB agents - and thus friends of Putin - in the Kremlin.
In an attempt to reduce the public interest for the trial, it was held in the less significant Meshchansky district court in Moscow. Behind the scenes, however, the Kremlin and the Moscow City Court, the supreme court of the city of Moscow, played a guiding role. On May 31, 2005, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were convicted for tax evasion and fraud to 9 years imprisonment. On September 22, 2005, in a session of one day, the verdict was upheld on appeal, but the sentence was reduced to 8 years.
Since there was a reasonable chance that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev would be released on parole before the presidential elections of 2012, and thus possibly could disrupt Putin's second presidential election, new "allegations" emerged, and a second trial against them was staged. This time they were accused of the theft of 350 million tons of oil. Besides the fact that this is physically rather impossible, it appeared that judge Viktor Danilkin (°1957) was regularly "adjusted" by the Kremlin during the trial. Danilkin struggled with the sometimes absurd accusations and had to be regularly "updated".
Natalya Vasilyeva, the assistant of judge Danilkin, testified on February 14, 2011, that the judge had prepared his verdict to be delivered on December 16, 2010. On December 15, however, the deliverance was postponed for unknown reasons to December 27. On December 16, it became clear why: That day, Putin delivered a controversial speech in which he said that Khodorkovsky was a thief and therefore should be stay in prison. Vasilyeva testified that the original judgment of Danilkin had been changed and that he had delivered the new verdict against his will. As a result of this adjusted verdict, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev can not be released before August 2014.
In 2011, the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev asked the Kremlin Human Rights Council to investigate the Khodorkovsky case further. The Council concluded that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were innocent. It did not lead to a release. On the contrary, the nine members of the Council were accused of being bribed. Five of them were the subject of interrogations and prosecutions. Some lost their jobs or had to go abroad. In addition, a third case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev was being prepared.
In the run up to the Olympic Winter Games of 2014 in Sochi, a project in which Putin wanted to shine in the eyes of the world, many world leaders had announced that they would not attend the ceremonies. Real reasons were not given, but it was clear that the way in which human rights were violated in Russia was at the basis of it. Especially the arrest of 30 Greenpeace activists a few months earlier, the Khodorkovsky case and the Russian anti gay law were an eyesore. On December 17, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would not come himself to Sochi. As members of the delegation which would represent him, he appointed two notorious gay people: tennis legend Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow. According to the American-Russian journalist Masha Gessen, Putin loomed for the specter to see himself accompanied by "only the Ukrainian president and two American gays" at the opening of his personal prestige project. On December 19, 2013, Putin unexpectedly announced that Mikhail Khodorkovsky could be released, which happened the next day. On December 20, 2013, Khodorkovsky arrived as a free man in Berlin. According to Putin, he can freely return to Russia, but whether that will ever happen is doubtful, as the investigations for a possible third trial have not been put on hold.
On July 28, 2014 Russia was condemned by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague for the way Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos were treated. Besides the fact that Russia was sentenced to a very severe damages of $ 50 billion, the Court was also very hard in its motivation. The dismantling of Yukos was politically motivated, with the aim to push the company towards bankruptcy to take its assets and transfer them to state owned enterprises and to silence politically the CEO of the company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
It is the largest ever compensation awarded by the Court in The Hague: it is 20 times larger than the second largest, and does not even take into account complaints from minority shareholders whose files have yet to be examined.
The consequences for Russia are huge: the sum is 11 % of the country's national currency reserves and 10 % of the government budget. Also, there will be consequences for Rosneft, the energy giant which got most of Yukos' assets, and of which BP became a minority shareholder recently. The Russians have to show the money before January 2, 2015. If they don't, interests start running. Although Russia can not appeal against the verdict, the Kremlin will try o use "all means to undo it." If the country doesn't pay, the 1958 Arbitration Convention allows the seizure of all Russian assets in 150 countries to execute the sentence.
In Putin's entourage, no one is in the least concerned. One of the people from his inner circle told the Financial Times that the verdict was unimportant in the light of the geopolitical issues with Ukraine: "There will be war in Europe. Do you really think that this case is of any importance.?"