(Russia-U.S. business relations, Khodorkovsky story, updated for Khodorkovsky's six year sentence)
NEW YORK (
) -- Seated in the Krushchev-era apartment of my great aunt a few years back, looking out on another bleak winter day in St. Petersburg, Russia, I wondered just how bleak the mentality of the Russian remains in the "democratic capitalist" era, as my great aunt gave me a piece of toast and homemade jam and said matter-of-factly, "Russians, they need to be ruled with an iron fist."
It was as if she wasn't a Russian herself -- or, if so, that she knew as well as every other Russian that every
Russian couldn't be trusted, and the state needed the iron fist to keep a grip on things, even far removed from the actual iron grip of a ruthless dictator like Stalin. The comment from my great aunt, all four feet five inches of her, came in lieu of my very New-York-Times-Op-ed-page-eque questioning of Russia's imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
With this week's news that Khodorkovsky was given a new guilty verdict and six-year sentence by the Russian courts for embezzlement -- i.e., whatever the Russians pulled from the index-card box of trumped-up charges on this occasion -- the usual lip service from the usual players was delivered, and it's time to watch closely to see if the verbal condemnations result in any changes to economic policy or trade agreements with Russia.
Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, said the verdict would have a "negative impact on Russia's reputation," that it would raise questions about the "investment climate" in Russia, and that it raised "serious questions about selective prosecution -- and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations."
The U.K. government, likewise, blasted the latest Russian sentence of former oil tycoon Khodorkovsky.
But let's not mince words like the politicians and diplomats. You want the weather report on the investment climate in Russia? It's raining corruption with a biblical plague of graft and extortion in the 10-year forecast.
It might not be a coincidence that in the week leading up to the latest Khodorkovsky show trial verdict, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was all over the Russian news with a new decree that any Russian politicians who couldn't prove where their wealth came from would face corruption allegations.
It was internal lip service to match the external lip service from Secretary of State Clinton, when the only true lips speaking of the state of affairs in Russia were my great aunt and Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself, who wasn't speaking at all but through his silence said more than anyone to accurately describe the situation.
According to press reports, Khodorkovsky wasn't even paying attention while the Russian judge read the verdict, quietly reading a book and expecting the inevitable, that he will live the rest of his life in jail.
In a country where the legal code is guilty until proven innocent, and where defendants sit in a metal cage during their trials, and where little old ladies who you want to help cross the Street defend the need for a Vladimir Putin's idea of democracy and justice, it's not an overstatement for Khodorkovsky to expect to die in jail,