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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Sunday Dissident

The Financial Times rips Vladimir Putin several new ones over Khodorkovsky. This is the direct result of Putin's insane attack on the British Council. He has roused the lion! Jolly good show!

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s wealthiest oil baron, is no saint. He could not have survived in the free-for-all exploitation and seizure of Russian state assets in the 1990s if he were. But when he was arrested in 2003, charged with large-scale theft, fraud and tax evasion, and jailed for eight years in Siberia, it shook the western world, and foreign investors in particular. It was the first big move by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s increasingly assertive president, to reimpose the power of the Kremlin over the economy – especially the energy sector – after the chaotic rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Today Mr Khodorkovsky is languishing in his Siberian prison, facing new charges of embezzlement that could see him condemned to a further 22 years. He is on hunger strike to champion the cause of one of his fellow incarcerated oil company executives who has been denied proper treatment for Aids. Few Russians will have much sympathy: they resent the massive wealth of the oligarchs, and they appreciate the political stability that Mr Putin has brought back, combined with oil-fired prosperity.

Mr Khodorkovsky’s crime was not that he was too successful, nor that he cheated on his taxes: they all did that. But he was the youngest, cleverest and most charismatic of that first generation of oligarchs, and he entered the political arena. At precisely the moment when Mr Putin was determined to reassert the power of the Kremlin, Mr Khodorkovsky refused to stick to business. He financed candidates to lobby for his business interests in the State Duma, and backed liberal political parties that were not under Mr Putin’s effective control. For the president, it was unforgivable.

The former oil tycoon describes himself as a political prisoner. Certainly the way he has been treated – in contrast to his fellow oligarchs who have scrupulously avoided playing politics – suggests that he is right. In Russia, politics is about a struggle for power, and Mr Putin holds sway. He is ruthless, even vindictive. The danger for Mr Putin is that he could turn the unpopular oligarch into a political martyr.

In his interview with the Financial Times, Mr Khodorkovsky suggests that the absence of any independent rule of law in Russia is the critical failure of the Putin regime. In the short term, of course, it is Mr Putin’s success: that is why Mr Khodorkovsky is behind bars. But in the long term the ex-tycoon is right: no prosperous market economy or fair society can flourish without the rule of law. That is a lesson foreign investors must heed.

Will Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin’s chosen successor as president, dare to allow an independent judiciary to flourish in a country that has never known one? He faces enormous vested interests if he tries. In the end, Mr Khodorkovsky says he is still an optimist about Russia. Let us hope he is right.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The danger for Mr Putin is that he could turn the unpopular oligarch into a political martyr."

Thanks for posting this story LR, this quote is the single funniest thing I've read in a really long time. When the FT writes this way, I assume they're talking about him being a "political martyr" for the Russian people, because in Western eyes he's been one for a very long time indeed. If you think that Khodorkovsky will ever be a "martyr" for the average Russian, you know far less about the country than I thought you did...and that would be impressive!