Sending Signals

Russia’s prosecutors have opened a new murder investigation against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, leading the country’s most prominent exile to wonder aloud whether this was a response to various governments and courts in Europe seizing Russian state property under the terms of the Hague Yukos judgment, or the series of papers he has published about Russia’s (eventual) post-Putin future.

It’s probably neither.

The decisions by France, Belgium and Austria to seize Russian assets as part of a $50 billion judgment against the Russian government by the European Court of Human Rights are a problem to which there is no easy solution for Russia, but the Kremlin is, I think, smart enough to know that putting pressure on Khodorkovsky won’t help. At this point, the whole process is in the hands of courts and bailiffs. If anything, opening a new case against Khodorkovsky himself will only add fuel to the fire.

And while Khodorkovsky’s thoughts on the future of Russia are trenchant, others – including figures who are neither exiled nor under investigation – have said more or less as much without consequence.

It seems more likely that the Kremlin is keeping its promises: When Khodorkovsky was released in December 2013, it was very clearly implied that he would stay out of politics. Less than a year later, Khodorkovsky himself repudiated that condition, as he re-launched his Open Russia foundation with a rather clear focus on supporting anti-Putin opposition.

Power is a slippery thing, and if you don’t use it, people might begin to believe you don’t really have it. Hence the slapdash decision to reopen the investigation into the 1998 murder of Nefteyugansk mayor Vladimir Petukhov, for which Alexei Pichugin was already convicted and Leonid Nevzlin is still wanted. “New evidence”, the prosecutors say, now points to the involvement of Khodorkovsky himself.

Never mind that Khodorkovsky will never stand before a Russian court. That’s not the point. Vladimir Markin, head of the Investigative Committee, signed off his announcement with the following reassurance: “I don’t think that Khodorkovsky’s absence from Russia will be an insurmountable obstacle to the conduct of all necessary investigative activities.” And he’s right – both because there are no necessary investigative activities, and because the real target of this investigation are all other prominent Russians who might be wondering whether the Kremlin is as good as its word.

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