EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The EU has indicated that the severity of punishment meted out to Mikhail Khodorkovsky could have an impact on bilateral relations after Moscow courts found the oil tycoon guilty of embezzlement on Monday (27 December).
“The European Union will continue to follow developments very closely, including the forthcoming announcement of the sentence … the EU expects Russia to respect its international commitments in the field of human rights and the rule of law,” a spokesman for EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement emailed to press four hours after the guilty verdict was made public.
It is unclear what the EU might do if Mr Khodorkovsky is sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison, as expected.
The case has attracted interest at the highest levels in Brussels, with EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy reportedly voicing concerns about it in personal conversations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at an EU-Russia summit in early December.
Meanwhile, Ms Ashton in a strategy paper on Russia presented to EU leaders two weeks’ ago said the Union “can use considerable issue-based leverage” to press for progress on human rights. Russia is keen for the EU to drop visa requirements for Russian travelers and to encourage high-tech European companies to help modernise its petro-based economy.
The EU and Russia recently agreed on the first practical steps to take in 2011 on their so-called Partnership for Modernisation.
For his part, Mr Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, told this website on Monday that the guilty verdict underlines Russia’s lack of respect for private property rights in a worrying sign for investors. “It was many times declared from the West that this case is a test for Russia about the rule of law, independent courts and modernisation. The test is failed. Why not say this clearly?” he said.
Mr Klyuvgant believes Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and energy chief Igor Sechin attacked Mr Khodorkovsky in order to profit from the break-up of his oil company, Yukos, and to destroy him as a potential political opponent.
Many commentators agree.
Amnesty International’s top analyst on Russia, Nicola Duckworth, said in a statement on Monday that: “The Russian authorities’ consistent disregard for due process in this trial only strengthens the impression that this second round of convictions has been politically motivated.” German human rights commissioner and liberal politician Markus Loning said: “I am deeply disgusted about the guilty verdict … It shows that President Medvedev’s rhetoric on [improving] rule of law is actually just rhetoric.”
The reading of the guilty verdict in Moscow attracted a small group of protesters who shouted anti-Putin slogans outside the courthouse.
But a leaked US cable dating to December 2009 noted: “Most Russians believe the Khodorkovsky trial is politically motivated; they simply do not care that it is. Human rights activists in general have an uphill battle in overcoming public apathy and cynicism.”
Another US cable from 2008 described the “squalid” conditions which the 47-year-old Mr Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, faces in jail. The memo spoke of cells where prisoners have just two square metres each, go to the toilet in buckets and have a high risk of tuberculosis infection. “Some prisoners were then stripped to the waist, stretched out over tables and beaten with billy clubs by the guards. This is routine behavior,” the cable said on treatment of prisoners in one facility.
EU ministers declare war on Lukashenko
In a separate development, four EU foreign ministers – from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Sweden – have in a joint statement said they plan to take Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko to task for his crackdown on protesters after presidential elections earlier this month.
Hundreds of demonstrators remain unaccounted for in police custody, while fears continue to grow that 64-year-old opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev may have been beaten to death.
The EU ministers said in an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune on 23 December: “There can be no business-as-usual between the European Union and Belarus’ president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, after what has happened.”
The letter depicted Mr Lukashenko as being worse than the late Serb autocrat Slobodan Milosevic and compared his actions to the imposition of Martial Law in Poland in 1981.
“Continued positive engagement with Mr Lukashenko at the moment seems to be a waste of time and money,” it added. “We must now deepen our engagement with the democrats of Belarus and those inside the government who disapprove of the fateful turn their country has taken.”