Opinion: Is Khodorkovsky electable?

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MOSCOW, September 13 (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle). Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos CEO sentenced to a nine-year jail term, will appear in court on Wednesday to appeal his conviction. His plan to be a candidate in a Duma by-election this December has the conventional wisdom claiming that Khodorkovsky will lose his appeal.

Khodorkovsky returns to court Wednesday, earlier than expected, to appeal the nine-year sentence imposed on him in spring for tax evasion and other serious charges. It is widely believed that Khodorkovsky's appeal was moved forward after he decided to stand as a candidate in the Duma by-election scheduled for December 4, representing a southern Moscow district.

Under Russian law, Khodorkovsky can run for public office while his appeal is pending, although he would not be allowed to do so if his conviction was upheld anytime before the election. If he were to stand and win while under appeal, then he would be released from jail under parliamentary immunity.

The chances of Khodorkovsky attaining a "get out of jail free card" via election to the Duma appear very unlikely. The conventional wisdom holds that Khodorkovsky will not win his appeal and will remain in prison because the authorities fear he could win his election bid. In that event, a group of opposition politicians have launched a campaign to support his candidacy, and have even promised to stage a virtual poll if Khodorkovsky is barred from running.

Is conventional wisdom right? Could Khodorkovsky win an election to parliament? The Duma seat Khodorkovsky is hoping to take became vacant when Mikhail Zadornov, who won the single-seat constituency for Yabloko in 2003, resigned to enter the world of banking. The seat represents the University electoral district and is considered to be liberal in outlook. Is this electoral district Khodorkovsky's natural constituency? The answer to this question is not obvious, and is an issue that conventional wisdom appears to have not taken seriously.

Khodorkovsky likes to portray himself as a liberal. Many members of Russia's liberal opposition and members of the media also see Khodorkovsky in this light. Individuals from Yabloko and SPS have joined the campaign supporting Khodorkovsky's candidacy. However, do most liberal voters, particularly in the University electoral district, see Khodorkovsky as a liberal of their own strip? This is entirely unclear.

Yabloko and SPS represent two very different views of liberalism - Khodorkovsky liberalism appears to be little more than anti-Kremlin rhetoric. To some liberal voters, anti-Kremlin rhetoric may be the definition of their liberalism, but that can hardly be said of all liberal voters.

Another issue that is overlooked is the probability that Kremlin-friendly United Russia will run a candidate with respectable liberal credentials. Certainly the nationalist parties Rodina and Liberal Democrats would not miss the chance to run candidates in a race involving Khodorkovsky. Such candidates would have a field day belittling Khodorkovsky's status as a former oligarch and the economic chaos of the 1990s in which he played a leading role. To use American political parlance, Khodorkovsky's candidacy could be marred with more negatives than positives.

On Wednesday, Khodorkovsky will probably lose his appeal, and will remain in prison to serve out his nine-year sentence. This outcome will certainly be used by some as evidence that the authorities are afraid of Khodorkovsky's potential electoral appeal. In an ironic way, it would be a pity if he does lose his appeal petition as there is little reason to believe he could win an election to parliament.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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