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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
At 9 a.m. on February 5, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, was taken from the Siberian prison camp where he has been serving a nine-year sentence for tax evasion and fraud since June 2005, to the regional prosecutor's office. There, he and his former business partner, Platon Lebedev, who was brought from another camp, were formally notified that they were now also being charged with embezzlement and money laundering.
Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina, had been hoping that her son could be released on parole as early as this fall, but the new charges could add another 10 to 15 years to his sentence.
Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were once the heads of Yukos, the largest private oil company in Russia, which was dismantled after they publicly challenged President Vladimir Putin. Their trial, the biggest in post-Soviet Russia, was closely followed - and criticized - in the West.
"The conduct of Russian authorities in the Khodorkovsky/Yukos affair has eroded Russia's reputation and confidence in Russian legal and judicial institutions. Such actions as this and other cases raise questions about Russia's commitment to the responsibilities which all democratic, free-market-economy countries embrace," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in reaction to the new charges.
Many civil rights and advocacy groups say that the Yukos case is just the tip of the iceberg of the erosion of freedom of the press, undermining of civil rights and political murders in Russia. In 2006, the American advocacy group Freedom House again gave Russia one of the lowest marks on its "freedom scale" - a six for political rights and a five for civil liberties (with one the highest and seven the lowest). In fact, Russia hasn't been listed as "free" for three years in a row, and it's not likely to be this year considering the current political climate in the country.
Last year was marked by three shocking political murders. Award-winning journalist and human-rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, who was well-known for chronicling the killings, tortures and beatings of civilians by Russian servicemen in Chechnya in reports that put her on a collision course with the authorities, was found shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. Andrei Kozlov, top Russian Central Bank official, was shot at point-blank range as he left a soccer game in Moscow. And most notoriously, former spy Alexander Litvinenko, another fierce critic of Putin, died in London, where he had sought asylum, after being poisoned with the rare radioactive element polonium-210.
THE KREMLIN strenuously denies responsibility for any of these murders, shifting the blame to various individuals, including several millionaire oligarch expatriates - many of whom are Jewish and Israeli citizens - who fled the country with the rise of Putin.
But critics of the Russian regime claim the authorities themselves encourage such murderous acts by creating an atmosphere of chauvinism and nationalism.
"The pogroms are taking place under conditions of a nationalistic fever sanctioned by the authorities," Grigori Yavlinsky, head of the opposition bloc Yabloko, said after Politkovskaya's killing. "This could easily lead to a situation in which the criminal world feels that it is absolutely beyond punishment."
And Maria Gaidar, coordinator of Da, an opposition movement, notes that "the free media in Russia have become extremely limited, almost nonexistent." This is backed up by Freedom House, which says that although Russia has numerous TV channels, radio stations and newspapers, the majority are state-controlled.
"I can choose from 200 newspapers or more, but in fact I cannot choose at all," says Igor Petrov, a middle-aged doctor of science who lives in Moscow. He explains that he listens to only one radio station, Echo Moskvi, and reads mainly one newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which is considered by many to be the last beacon of objectivity. He says he stopped watching TV a few years ago, when he realized that it was no different than it had been during the Soviet era. "All these glossy magazines and fancy papers - and not one word is true," he says, adding that he and many of his friends and colleagues followed the news of Litvinenko's murder and Khodorkovsky's trial on the Internet or foreign TV channels.
Like many other Russians, Petrov is quite sure about who is going to win next year's presidential election. "If the constitution is not amended to allow Putin to run for a third term," he says, "the next president will definitely be a Kremlin nominee, either Vice President [Valery] Medvedev or someone else, a dark horse perhaps. Someone who's close to Putin, but for the time being remains in the shadows."
During the last presidential election in 2004, Putin received 71.3% of the vote. Many say that were the election to be held today, he would receive 70 percent to 75%.
Putin's supporters say his popularity is due to economic growth and improved living conditions. But his opponents, both at home and abroad, attribute it to luck and manipulations. Oksana Dmitrieva, a member of Yabloko bloc, argues that "the standard of living in Russia improved due to huge oil revenues: A barrel of oil costs $60 today, while it was $12 in 1998. You can't sell foreign economic trends as Putin's personal achievement."
TODAY LEONID Nevzlin, a Russian, a Jew and an Israeli, sees himself as a citizen of the planet, calling himself a "cosmopolitan," a word which was considered a curse and an insult - and sometimes even a crime - in the Soviet Union. The Russian expat made millions from Yukos and fled the country to Israel when he realized the political tide was turning against him. He insists he cares deeply for Israel, but still is very much concerned by the situation in Russia.
Russia in turn is very much concerned about Nevzlin and has repeatedly called for his extradition, most recently in connection to the murder of the spy Litvinenko (see box).
Nevzlin enjoys cozy relations with the American administration and made headlines by speaking before the Helsinki committee, a US government agency comprising legislators and administration officials that monitors international compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights, in 2005 and urging the West not to allow Russia to enter the World Trade Organization.
Despite his decision to distance himself from politics, Nevzlin never stopped speaking about political rights issues and freedom of speech in Russia, utilizing his popular Russian-language blog livejournal.com.
He believes democracy, education and a strong and free economy are intimately connected and he is skeptical about the chances of the opposition to Putin to influence the outcome of the 2008 election, as the people do not really have a free choice. The mechanism for the elections has already been set, he says, and the regime uses democratic means and tools to manipulate the population, since the opposition has no real access to the mass media.
A frequent visitor to the US, Nevzlin has a lot to say about Western influence in Russian politics.
"By now Americans have realized they were wrong in their perception of Putin," he says, "but now it's too late to admit to this mistake... As for Europe, it's a different thing altogether. Having lived through a Russian threat to cut off energy supplies, I'm sure that Europe sees the situation quite differently and is working on a backup plan so that this situation will never repeat itself."
But Nevzlin remains optimistic. "I think it's a positive thing that oil prices are going up and that the revenues are pouring into Russia and the Arab world. When it ends, when the world finally works out some kind of alternative energy source, their regimes will be headed for total collapse. But I'm very cautious about making predictions because they often become a reality."
AS FOR the man on the street, many say they value Putin as a "strong man who can take care of Russia and restore its honor." Yet many are wondering why Putin has not yet named his successor as he was expected to - but didn't - at a press conference earlier this month. On the other hand, Putin himself was not a known public figure just six months before his election in 2000.
Some say that whoever Putin's successor is, he will be be much better than the weak and fractured opposition.
"Living conditions have seriously improved since Boris Yeltzin's administration, especially in the big cities. In the countryside, the situation is more complicated," says Elena Dmitrieva, an activist in the Russian Democratic Party during the early 1990s, who has since become highly disillusioned by all the major political players. "Most Russians only care for political stability today, fearing a repeat of the economic collapse and chaos of the '90s, when the much-needed economic reforms were carried out too fast, too roughly."
She says the opposition will need a miracle to convince "disappointees" like herself of their agenda: "We are familiar with many of these politicians, such as [Grigory] Yavlinsky [leader of the liberal Yabloko Party] and [Boris] Nemtzov [leader of the Union of Rightist Forces]. When they were in power, they didn't really make much of a difference, and not much has changed since."
During the 2004 election, many voters couldn't name even two or three of the people who were running against Putin. The opposition leaders claimed they simply didn't get enough exposure in the government-controlled media, while those who backed Putin said they voted for stability and prosperity rather then gamble on unknown or hardly known players.
Now that there is a high probability that Putin will not participate, the opposition parties see the 2008 election as their chance to get engaged in the political process again.
Not many, however, are talking seriously about winning. "Russia does in fact have a long tradition of liberalism," says Nemtzov, a former deputy prime minister.
At the same time, he admits that the largest opposition parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces, have disappointed their voters before and hardly present a real option for Putin opponents. According to public opinion surveys, even if the two were to join forces, they wouldn't get more than 8% to 10% of the vote.
Other parties and alliances, such as the newly formed Other Russia, led by Garry Kasparov (see box), the world chess champion, believe their main goal is to raise the level of political awareness and to preserve at least some democratic flavor in a political system.
Despite the predictability of the upcoming election, many opposition leaders and activists say that the countdown for Russian politics has begun and are convinced that now is the time for a change.