A free press is one of the primary reasons our form of representational democracy has survived so long.
However, you need only have first-hand knowledge of a newspaper story (or better yet, be the subject of that story) to know that sometimes they get it wrong. Joe Nocera is an excellent reporter, but this is one of those times when he gets it horribly wrong. [‘Unyielding, an Oligarch vs. Putin’ by Joe Nocera, New York Times, 5 November 2010]
I was living in Moscow and working for a private investment fund in 2003-2004 when Khodorkovsky was first arrested and imprisoned. My primary news source was the dissident press within Moscow, but then, as now, I read a lot of different news sources. Khodorkovsky was a thug in a business suit. Based on what I read, it appeared to me that he directly ordered the killing of several people who were blocking his business agenda, and was aware of the killing of several others. There is no question that he cooked the books, although, in his defense, every other similar firm did so as well. The suggestion of his corporate transparency is laughable; his illegal actions to squeeze out minority shareholders at below-market prices were well-documented in the Western press. His political efforts to game the system of Russia’s then nascent attempts at representative government made what the Kohl brothers and their ilk are currently doing look like Mother Theresa quietly offering a suggestion in a muted voice from the back of the room. As near as I could determine, his real crime was his attempt to take over the government run gas company, Gazprom. Putin had made a decision that he wanted to keep a large portion of the revenues derived from natural resources for the government and he told Khodorkovsky to back off. The real problems for Khodorkovsky began when he refused to back off this take-over attempt.
A long time ago, Victor Navasky wrote a book, Kennedy Justice, which detailed Robert Kennedy’s tenure as attorney general and specifically his efforts to jail Jimmy Hoffa. Navasky’s observation was that if the government decided to go after you, there was every likelihood they would be successful because: (1) nobody is perfect; and (2) perjured testimony can almost always be obtained. Perhaps the Russian government is guilty of violations of the rule of law in their efforts to keep Khodorkovsky in jail, but there is little doubt that he belongs there.
When I was in Russia I spent some time talking to ordinary people, and there is no question in my mind that the vast majority of the population is significantly better off under Putin and his policies than would be the case under any other alternative. Sure there is corruption and graft. Watch the new movie, Inside Job, and then tell me there is not similar corruption and graft here in this so-called bastion of democracy. In Russia, Rick Scott would most likely be in jail, not the governor elect of Florida.