Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Prosecutor General’s Office to probe the legality of the verdicts handed down to 32 prisoners, including former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, the Kremlin said on Monday.
President Medvedev’s move, just a day after his mentor and ally Prime Minister Vladimir Putin secured his third presidential term with a landslide 63 percent win, suggests the ruling elite wants to defuse public anger in Russia and is ready to offer concessions to the opposition, analysts say.
“The authorities want to tame the budding protests, which are now taking place on the internet, but will spill onto Pushkinskaya Square tonight. The authorities are reacting to this and want to show that if all remains calm they can make advances on several issues, which are important to the opposition,” Deputy Director of the Russian Political Studies Center Alexey Makarkin said.
Tens of thousands of protesters from a variety of opposition groups are expected to gather across central Moscow on Monday evening in reaction to Putin's election victory, which many of them claim was gained by electoral fraud. Pro-Putin rallies will also take place.
His opinion was echoed by the Left Front opposition movement coordinator Sergei Udaltsov. “In my view, the main reason [for the order] is the desire to appease society, and meet the demands voiced at the mass rallies.”
The deadline which Medvedev has set for carrying out the probe into the Khodorkovsky verdict shows he “wants this issue settled during his presidential term,” Udaltsov said, adding “technically, the document is neutral.”
Public attitudes towards Medvedev will change if the Khodorkovsky verdict is revised, Moscow Helsinki Group Chair Lyudmila Alexeyeva said.
“If Medvedev alters the fate of Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev in the two short remaining months [of his presidential term] he will leave a very good legacy and significantly change the attitude of the major part of Russian society and those who support him,” Alexeyeva said.
President Medvedev's order for a probe into the Khodorkovsky case is in response to society's demands, including those of the protest movements and Bolotnaya, A Just Russia party leader Sergei Mironov said.
Khodorkovsky “is guilty but he has already fulfilled his term, he should now be released,” Mironov continued.
“The earlier Khodorkovsky is set free, the better for all of us,” he said.
Khodorkovsky has been in jail on charges of fraud and tax evasion since his arrest on a Siberian airport runway in 2003, which his supporters claim was punishment for funding the liberal opposition at a time when Vladimir Putin was beginning to create a “vertical power structure.”
Khodorkovsky’s lawyer Yury Schmidt said he does not know what to expect from Medvedev’s order.
“It could be a purely formal decision, an insignificant one, or a signal that they have decided to close the Khodorkovsky and Lebedev cases…so they don't cause more trouble for authorities,” Schmidt said.
The move could be positive for his client if Putin signaled that a probe could be started, he said. “If there is no approval [by Putin], Medvedev’s decision will not lead to anything positive.”
Lebedev’s lawyer Konstantin Rivkin hailed Medvedev’s decision, saying the president’s patience over the Yukos case seemed to be near breaking point.
The president also ordered a probe into the verdict in the case of the former Yukos security head, Alexey Pichugin, who received a life sentence in 2007 for organizing murders and assassination attempts against Yukos rivals, the Kremlin press service said.
The president’s recent meeting with representatives of the country’s opposition was decisive for the initiative, co-chairman of People’s Freedom Party Vladimir Ryzhkov said.
“I positively estimate his initiatives. He reacted to all of the main question raised by me, Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Udaltsov at the meeting,” Ryzhkov said.
Medvedev’s move comes a month after two opposition figures, journalist Olga Romanova and State Duma member Gennady Gudkov, submitted a list of 39 convicts they describe as “political prisoners,” to the presidential administration.
Among the names on Romanova’s list are Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who were jailed on fraud charges, Other Russia activist Taisiya Osipova, who was convicted on drugs charges, and Interior Ministry officer Sergei Arakcheyev, sentenced for killing three civilians during the military conflict in Chechnya in 2003.