Russia faces its first major test since the Duma took the unprecedented stop of ratifying Protocol 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in January. The European Court of Human Rights has now begun hearing the case of Yukos, once Russia’s largest oil company, which was at the centre of one of the biggest corporate scandals in the country since the fall of communism.
Faced with charges of $27bn-worth of tax evasion from the Russian government, the company’s executive were arrested and the business was broken up and sold to state-owned enterprises before finally being liquidated in 2007. Although many in the west had voiced their concerns over the seizure of former state assets in the early 1990s that heralded the rise of the oligarchs in Russia, many even within the Kremlin ranks were shocked at the handling of the Yukos affair. As a consequence Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the company and Russia’s richest man before his high-profile arrest on his private jet in 2003, has become a symbol for those angry at the perceived corruption and politicisation of the Russian Federation’s justice system.
In the past the Kremlin has strongly defended its stance, claiming Khordorkovsky abused his proximity to Soviet power structures to facilitate the purchase of state assets at large discounts in the chaos that followed the implosion of the USSR. On a state visit to France last year Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the imprisoned oligarch to Al Capone and disgraced American financier Bernard Madoff, noting: “Mr Madoff in the United States received a lifetime, and no-one sneezed.”