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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

UK's Telegraph Lays Russia Bare

A phenomenal editorial in the UK's Telegraph captures Russia in a nutshell, condemning the idiots of appeasement who have lead us to our current predicament. It is time they too be condemned.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has not been killed with a dose of polonium-210 but there may be occasions on which he feels that his fate is little better. He has now served three years in a Siberian penal colony and, after a Moscow court on Friday refused to hear his appeal against sentence, he must contemplate another five years of misery there.

Krasnokamensk, where winter temperatures can fall as far as minus 40C, is 3,000 miles away from Moscow, where Khodorkovsky had enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. The dramatic reversal in his circumstances is the direct result of his political opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Although he was sentenced for tax evasion and fraud, there seems little doubt that Khodorkovsky might still be living the high life of a Russian multi-millionaire had he not become a public enemy of the President. An infuriated Kremlin exacted revenge on the former oligarch by bankrupting the company he headed, Yukos, and sending him to the steppes. That this treatment was meted out through the courts should have sent out the starkest of messages to the west. If the courts were prepared to follow the will of the President rather than the writ of the law, then nothing and no one was safe.

Yet there were plenty of people who chose to view Khodorkovsky's punishment as an exceptional case. They chose to believe that Mr Putin was a reasonable man who had just been pushed too far by a hot-headed rival. They closed their eyes to the unfortunate deaths that befell journalists who asked too many questions, or those who protested too loudly about the abuses committed by the pro-Moscow Chechen government. Largely, they persisted in their blind optimism because of the money to be made in Russia.

But now, even those who have struggled most fervently to cling to the idea that President Putin is a modern leader with whom the west can do business, rather than an old-fashioned Kremlin commissar who cannot be trusted, must be feeling queasy. The extraordinary death of Alexander Litvinenko is the work of professional assassins with access to the most deadly of radio-active materials. Whatever efforts Moscow makes to point the finger at others who might have perpetrated such a crime, the overwhelming suspicion is that the commission to kill came straight from the Kremlin.

If the reports on Mr Litvinenko's ghastly death, his shady associates and meetings in hotel rooms and restaurants, read more like the early novels of John le Carre than accounts of what we expect to happen in contemporary London, it is because President Putin's regime is still behaving as it did during the Cold War. Glasnost may have been celebrated but, as we report today, Russian spies are still alive and well and working in Britain. The difference is that now they are not only spying on Britons but on those who have left Russia for a more congenial life here, many bringing their newly minted fortunes with them.

Mr Putin has staged some lavish public relations exercises to try to show the world that he presides over a very different country to that of his predecessors. There have been glitzy galas at the Royal Albert Hall and family-friendly fairs in Trafalgar Square. And Russia is now, economically, a world away from the country of Krushchev. Its rich supply of natural resources has seen the economy grow at an average of 6 per cent a year for the last seven years.

But Putin remains at heart the KGB man he once was, and he now presides over an old-style autocracy that will brook no opposition. Later this week the law school at Pennsylvania University will host a symposium on "Human Rights and Political Prisoners in Russia", taking as its base the apparently politically-motivated prosecution and punishment of Khodorkovsky. The likelihood is that Western governments and the business people who have invested heavily in Russia will not take part, nor will they wish to learn of the verdict. They have too much resting on the regime behaving itself.

Yet the positions of those businesses that have staked fortunes in the country look increasingly precarious. Quietly last month BP's Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, settled a bill for back tax that the Russian government had demanded but which the company had insisted was unjustified. This is just the first of several unexpected tax bills which have landed with the company, and with Shell and the other oil giants that thought the pull of Russia's resources outweighed the political risks.

They cannot now be feeling so sanguine. There are threats that if they do not comply with this demand for tax or that demand for compensation for some perceived offence, then their licences may be redrawn. Blackmail? None of the brave corporate chiefs is going to say so. They are well aware that it was an unreasonable, and resisted, tax demand on Yukos that started the process which eventually sent Khodorkovsky to the prison camp.

Companies such as BP and Shell now have too much invested in Russia to pull out and they may feel that they will have the backing of the British government should they encounter difficulties. Mr Putin, however, has already made clear that he cares little for the opinion of fellow leaders. When he temporarily turned off the energy supplies to the Ukraine at the beginning of this year, he demonstrated his preference for being seen as a bully rather than beneficent.

Whatever the Kremlin says about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, it should awaken a wider acknowledgement of the nasty realities of Putin's regime.

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