I guess the Obama administration wants to prove that, in the wake of Senate ratification of the START Treaty, it’s not coddling Russia.
So the White House put out a statement a couple of days ago expressing its unease – no stronger word is called for here – with the conviction of former Russian business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on various charges thought up by Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky today was told he will spend another six years in jail.
What the White House has issued is about the mildest form of rebuke it could think of. And the statement reflects the usual misunderstanding Americans have with Russian politics.
Here’s a portion of the statement.
Statement by the Press Secretary, 12/27/2010
We are deeply concerned that a Russian judge today has indicated that for a second time Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev will be convicted. We are troubled by the allegations of serious due process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends.
The Obama administration stands in solidarity with the many people in the Russian government, in the legal system, and in civil society who are committed to strengthening the rule of law and deepening the commitment to universal values enshrined in the Russian constitution. Russia’s failure to keep this commitment to universal values, including the rule of law, impedes its own modernization and ability to deepen its ties with the United States.
President Obama has spoken frequently with President Medvedev about this case and others as part of their ongoing conversation about President Medvedev’s important campaign to strengthen the rule of law and modernize Russia’s political and economic system.
It seems tough, but lets look at what’s really happening here. The Russians certainly understand the subtlety.
The statement is not one made by the president. It’s made by the press secretary. Even worse, the president’s view is not even mentioned. “WE are deeply concerned,” writes the press secretary. “THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION stands in solidarity” with good people in Russian, he states.
Who is WE?
This is craven, adulterated stuff. It contains no specific threats, and doesn’t say that Obama himself is getting any heartburn over this at all. It’s pro forma.
This is a “Merry Christmas” note to Obama’s “partner,” Medvedev. Obama is fully buying the Medvedev-Putin “good-cop, bad-cop” routine.
Medvedev is the handpicked toady of Putin and part of his inner circle that migrated to Moscow from St. Petersburg. Like the supposedly scotch-drinking Yuri Andropov and the openness-seeking Mikhail Gorbachev, he is being presented as a reformer who might have a sweet spot for the West and Western political practices. The only sweet spot Medvedev has is for Putin, who created him.
Let’s be clear, Khodorkovsky is certainly guilty of plenty of crimes. You didn’t get to be Russia’s richest man in the 1990s by not squashing people and evading laws. He’s a pretty bad prisoner of conscience, as these things go.
But, since he uniquely was targeted among all the other criminals, he’s become a symbol of Russia’s unfortunate turn from democracy and the rule of law. The White House needs to come up with something stronger, starting with a real statement of protest and ending with tangible steps, like the freezing of assets of those directly responsible for the prosecution.