Putin's Blunder

Few in Russia believe President Vladimir Putin's assertion that the spectacular arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky last weekend is simply the result of an aboveboard criminal investigation.

On the contrary, almost everyone believes it's a blatantly political act, meant to punish Mr. Khodorkovsky - the president of YukosSibneft, the world's fourth-largest oil producer - for daring to dabble in politics.

That's bad for Khodorkovsky, and it's bad for Russia, too.

At least Mr. Putin is consistent. He began his term by going after two of the most politically active oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. Both, like Khodorkovsky, supported the liberal political opposition, owned media outlets, and were Jewish. Both are now in exile.

Putin then cut a deal with the remaining oligarchs: They'd stay out of politics and he'd leave them alone. But Khodorkovsky increasingly violated that understanding.

Whether the oil tycoon is guilty of the tax-evasion, fraud, and theft charges against him is almost beside the point. The arrest confirmed the deepest worry of many investors that Putin is not really committed to democracy or a market economy - the Russian stock market plunged 10 percent the day after the arrest.

The affair spotlights infighting within the Putin administration between ex-KGB officers - many of them nationalistic, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic - and the liberal, pro-Western Yeltsin loyalists Putin inherited from his predecessor. With parliamentary elections coming this December and presidential balloting next March, the hard-liners appear to have the upper hand. Putin will lose few votes for moving against the oligarchs, whom average Russians widely despise.

But Putin is risking much. While he has stabilized and improved Russia's economy, the foreign investors it so desperately needs will not put their money in a country where leaders continue to selectively prosecute business people on political grounds.

Khodorkovsky's arrest also threatens Russia's relationship with the West. Already in the United States, for example, there are calls for Congress to refrain from repealing the 1970s-vintage Jackson-Vanik law, which requires Russia get an annual waiver for normal trade relations in return for allowing freedom of emigration.

President Bush and other Western leaders friendly with Putin must make it clear to the Russian president that instead of leading his country into the modern world and prosperity, actions such as this arrest can take it back to poverty and isolation.

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