The chairman of Yukos, the Russian oil giant, was dramatically arrested yesterday but the company insisted its merger with Roman Abramovich's Sibneft remained on course.
The Kremlin launched an apparent crackdown on some of the country's powerful "oligarchs". Mr Abramovich, the billionaire who has just announced a deal to buy Chelsea Football Club, has not been implicated in the crackdown. He is the dominant shareholder in Sibneft, which is in the process of merging with Yukos.
Police in Moscow detained Platon Lebedev, the chairman of Yukos and a very high-profile businessman, on suspicion of embezzlement in a deal nine years ago. Last night Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the chief executive of Yukos and Russia's richest businessman, was ordered to appear at the General Prosecutor's office in connection with the investigation.
Analysts said the move was a big surprise, as Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, had in 2000 publicly drawn a line under the scandal of how fortunes were made in the country in privatisation deals in the 1990s. State assets were sold off on the cheap to favoured businessmen when Boris Yeltsin was in power.
Stephen O'Sullivan, the head of research at United Financial Group in Moscow, said: "It's very odd that this pops up right now. It cannot be unrelated to the [forthcoming] elections. The Kremlin wants to show business leaders that it is in charge."
Mr O'Sullivan said he viewed the arrest as a warning to the oligarchs not to meddle in politics. Unlike Mr Yeltsin, President Putin has tried to keep his distance from the business elite. "The worry of investors will be that this is the beginning of an assault [on business]. I think it will be short-lived. It's a shot across their bows."
Mr Lebedev, 43, is under suspicion of embezzling 20 per cent of state-owned shares in a fertiliser company to the tune of some $280m (£168m), the prosecutor's office said.
Mr Khodorkovsky, worth an estimated $11bn, said the Yukos merger with its smaller rival Sibneft was going ahead as planned, even though Mr Lebedev was a driving force behind the deal.
"I have, of course, consulted my colleagues from Sibneft. But neither I, nor they, see any reason to stop the merger. Everything is on schedule," Mr Khodorkovsky said, adding that he had cancelled a planned trip to Britain.Reuse content