Russia: Why Kremlin still pursues banished oil tycoon Khodorkovsky
In Russia, where public support for Kremlin attacks on oil tycoon Khodorkovsky is waning, there are two starkly different narratives. But both sides agree he was singled out for punishment.
After former President Vladimir Putin shipped ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky to a Siberian penal colony in 2005, the oligarch, who refused to back down on his support for political opposition parties, largely fell off the radar in Russia. But nine months into a second trial on new charges that could add two decades to his eight-year sentence, Mr. Khodorkovsky's case is far from forgotten by those outside the country - or by the tiny knot of protesters who proclaim that Khodorkovsky is a victim of political persecution by a greedy and vengeful Kremlin.Skip to next paragraph
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Every weekday morning since March, an armored van has pulled up to Moscow’s Khamovnichesky courthouse. Police secure the surrounding block while two heavily shackled men, screened by automatic rifle-toting guards, are hustled from separate van compartments and into the squat, gray-brick building.
Khodorkovsky then sits in his glass-and-steel courtroom cage, listening impassively to a parade of state witnesses who accuse him of money laundering and embezzlement.
The quotidien display of massive security might suggest something significant is going on, but Russia’s state-controlled TV networks have virtually ignored the second trial of Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev. Only a few foreign journalists and reporters for small Russian opposition newspapers are typically on hand. Thanks to a bitter December cold snap, even the usual protesters have been absent in recent days.
Both supporters and critics agree Khodorkovsky was singled out
The political storm that erupted after Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, was arrested on a Siberian tarmac six years ago and hauled to Moscow to face charges of fraud and tax evasion, does not seem to have abated.
Prime Minister Putin, who as president ordered the arrest and prosecution of Khodorkovsky, used his annual teleconference with the Russian public earlier this month to lash out at the executive.
He accused him of complicity in murder – something Khodorkovsky is not officially charged with – and asserted that all the proceeds from seizing and selling off Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company were used for the benefit of the Russian people. Last month, in a press meeting, Putin compared the fallen Russian tycoon with Al Capone and Bernard Madoff.
“It looks like Putin is pathologically afraid of Khodorkovsky,” says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now a leader of the opposition movement Solidarnost. “The longer he stays in jail, the harder they try to punish him, the more Khodorkovsky becomes a leader of Russian public life."
There are two starkly different narratives as to why the Kremlin keeps pummeling Khodorkovsky, a soft-spoken former leader of the Soviet Young Communist League, who learned through prison bars this week that he's just become a grandfather. Yet, oddly enough, ardent supporters of Putin and staunch Khodorkovsky defenders all appear to agree that the one-time multibillionaire was singled out by the Kremlin for exemplary punishment due to his political aspirations.
"Of course it was a selective approach, but the prosecution of Khodorkovsky is not something artificial. He is guilty of all those things he's charged with, and much more," insists Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Duma deputy with United Russia, which is led by Putin. "Khodorkovsky was chosen because he tried to transform his money into political power. That didn't just constitute opposition to Putin, but to the state itself."