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.
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“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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
Khodorkovsky refused to set politics aside
When Putin came to power, he moved to curb the power of the “oligarchs,” a group of industrial magnates who had deployed chicanery and political connections to acquire vast fortunes in the freewheeling privatizations of the 1990s. Khodorkovsky, for example, picked up Yukos in a 1995 auction that was supervised by his own bank, Menatep, for just $350 million. The value of Yukos, which included about 17 percent of Russia’s oil reserves – or some 12 billion barrels – soon ballooned to about $30 billion.
Khodorkovsky subsequently transformed Yukos into Russia’s first Western-style corporation, and he increasingly invited the Kremlin’s ire by contributing large sums to civil society projects, such as the pro-democracy Open Russia foundation. He also backed dozens of opposition candidates in 2003’s parliamentary elections.
“All the oligarchs were guilty, but Putin couldn’t prosecute them all. That would have led to civil war,” says Mr. Markov. “The other oligarchs admitted their crimes, agreed to set politics aside, and to work for the benefit of the country. Khodorkovsky will be in court endlessly because he didn’t [make that deal]. Once the legal machine has started, he’ll have to answer for all his crimes.”