Russians may come to rue loss of human rights

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 December, 2010, 12:00am

If a reminder was needed that the spread of democracy has been checked by authoritarianism, it came with the conviction of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on theft charges, which will extend the political imprisonment of a critic of Vladimir Putin's autocratic rule.

Any hope that justice would be seen to prevail was extinguished with Putin's public comment ahead of the verdict that a thief must be behind bars. Legal arguments were dispensed with. The difference between the price of oil at the point of extraction and at the point of resale was represented as adequate proof of Khodorkovsky's guilt. As to whether or not he was guilty, we remain none the wiser. But we do know that Dmitry Medvedev, who may be keeping the presidential seat warm until Putin can legally serve another term, is powerless to honour his pledge to uphold the rule of law.

Russia's retreat from democracy is defined by the role reversals of Putin and Khodorkovsky. The former KGB chief came to power pledging to build democracy from the economic ruin, corruption and anarchy of the Yeltsin era, but instead he rules an autocracy where corruption is rife. Meanwhile Khodorkovsky, who ignored Putin's warning to the oligarchs to stay out of politics, has been transformed from a greedy tycoon into a political martyr, now respected for refusing to bow to the system.

Foreign leaders have deplored the impact of the case on Russia's climate for foreign investment. The question for Russians is whether they see a return to stability and a better life under Putin as worth the reversal of democratic gains after the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin's popularity indicates they do. Supporters see this as evidence that Russia's authoritarianism, like China's, is a model for other countries.

Evidence that life is better than it would have been if Putin had built a more accountable system is not convincing. Human rights, on the other hand, are a net loss that Russians might not find so palatable in different times.