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.

Anna Shevelyova/AP/File
People hold a portraits of jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Russian oil giant Yukos, during a rally demanding the release of what they say are political prisoners in Russia, Moscow, Oct. 25.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Jailed former head of the Russian oil giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year sentence for a 2005 fraud and tax evasion conviction, is escorted to a courtroom in Moscow on Oct. 22, during his second trial.

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.

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."

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.”

'Going through the motions of a trial'

Several of Khodorkovsky aides and even lawyers working for Yukos have also been targeted in what critics allege is an expanding state crackdown.

“Today it’s obvious that the Yukos affair is part of the redistribution of property from one oligarchic group to another,” and the trials are part of that process, says Stanislav Belkovsky, director of the independent National Strategy Institute in Moscow. “If Putin keeps returning to this subject, it’s because he feels less and less sure of himself.”

Attorneys working for Khodorkovsky agree that their client has been targeted for political and economic reasons, but deny he’s guilty of the multiple criminal charges being flung at him.

“Basically, they wanted to send a political message by prosecuting Khodorkovsky, to eliminate contrary politics and seize his oil company,” says Sanford Saunders, a US-based senior member of Khodorkovsky’s defense team. “These cases have nothing to do with any criminal conduct on Khodorkovsky’s part. They’re going through the motions [of a trial] so that they can satisfy some predetermined verdict.”

Public support waning for Kremlin's treatment of Khodorkovsky

Though Khodorkovsky’s oil empire Yukos was dismantled and swallowed up by state oil firms, and the former tycoon has been out of public sight except for his Moscow court appearances, opinion polls show that declining numbers of Russians support the Kremlin’s repeated legal assaults on him.

“In 2003, when Khodorkovsky was first arrested, 26 percent of Russians believed it was part of Putin’s program to struggle against corrupt oligarchs and make businessmen pay taxes, and now just 12 percent believe that,” says Boris Dubin, head of sociological surveys for the independent Levada Center in Moscow.

Some experts say that if Putin’s hand-picked Kremlin successor, Dmitry Medvedev, ever follows through on promises to fight corruption and make Russia’s business environment more law-based, Khodorkovsky’s long ordeal might finally come to an end.

“Public opinion is swinging more and more toward Khodorkovsky, and it’s clear that this case will influence Russian political life as long as it goes on,” says Lev Ponomaryov, a leading Russian human rights activist.

“Khodorkovsky’s fate can only be changed by some revolutionary developments at the summit of power, but I wouldn’t rule that out,” he says.

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