20 February 2020
Vera Vasilieva is a freelance journalist leading the Radio Svoboda project “Freedom and Memorial” and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize in the field of human rights
Yukos has not existed for two decades, but the Yukos affair remains very much alive. On 18 February, the Hague Court of Appeal ordered Russia to pay $50bn to Yukos shareholders. In my opinion, this is an extremely important ruling, not only – and perhaps not so much – about a large amount of money.
Let me remind you of the history. The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on paying compensation for the illegal expropriation of the oil company on 18 June 2014. At that time, the trial had lasted 10 years. The Court found that “Russia’s actions against the oil company and its shareholders were destructive, illegal and associated with a campaign of harassment and intimidation.” The campaign was conducted against the senior management of Yukos, mid-tier employees, full-time legal advisors, third-party lawyers, and related entities.
The judgment was quashed by the District Court of the Hague in 2016 following a complaint from Russia. Now, after an appeal by Yukos, Russia is again ordered to pay a record sum of compensation to Yukos shareholders. This decision could still be appealed to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, as has already been stated by a representative of the Russian Ministry of Justice. This means, in my eyes: yet more colossal amounts of taxpayers’ money can be spent in order for Russia to seek to prove that black is white and vice versa.
In the context of yet more and more fabricated criminal cases such as, for example those taking place in Moscow and Penza, where according to many torture was used, the verdicts of “Basmanny justice” ceased to shock a long time ago. One gets the impression that Russian officials are trying to spread these methods outside of Russia. For example, it was previously reported that witnesses for the Russian state started to give evidence that was favourable towards it, possibly in exchange for stopping Interpol searches and criminal prosecutions. This related to figures such as, in particular, the former head of Yukos’ legal department, Dmitry Gololobov and businessman Evgeny Rybin. Rybin was one of the main prosecution witnesses in the case of former Yukos security officer Aleksei Pichugin – the European Court of Human Rights twice found that his guilt had not been proved in a fair trial and decided to cancel the unjust verdict. Some commentators argued that, in gratitude for Rybin’s dubious assistance, his son Vadim Rybin, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Nizhny Novgorod region, was appointed General Director of the Y M Sverdlov Federal State Enterprise at the end of 2009.
However, this kind of deal is useless in situations where law operates, as was demonstrated once again by the decision of the Hague Court. Even if Russia succeeds in appealing against the decision, in my opinion it’s important to understand that this possibility was there before and now remains only on procedural grounds. The conclusions about the actual circumstances of the case at all events remain unchanged.
And also, on Aleksei Pichugin, the last prisoner in the YUKOS case, whom many independent observers and commentators call a hostage. Formally, Pichugin has no relation to these 50 billion dollars, because he was never a shareholder in the company. But, in my opinion, the definition of ‘hostage’ is unfortunately not some light epithet. The procedure for pardoning in Russia has gone from being an act of humanism on the part of the President to becoming a deal: it happens when it benefits the state. As an example, one may recall not long ago, the pardoning of the Israeli woman, Naama Issahar. In addition to maintaining good relations with Israel, this, according to journalists, secured very specific material benefits for those in power in Russia. Or even more recently, the pardoning of scientist Igor Sutyagin, unjustly accused of espionage in Russia and who was, after eleven years of imprisonment, exchanged for a group of Russian agents, including Anna Chapman.
In spite of the collapse of the company and the ‘jailing’ of innocent people, the former co-owners and leaders of YUKOS do not want war with the Russian state, but rather negotiations, the former vice president of the oil company Leonid Nevzlin said publicly back in 2015. And the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe has said many times that Pichugin’s pardon would be considered to be the execution of two rulings of the ECtHR in his favour, which, despite the law, have not yet been implemented.
I would really like the Russian authorities to have enough – not even humanity (which in light of political and legal events is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in), but even just pragmatism, in order to make the only correct decision.