The 5-Minute Briefing: The Mikhail Khodorkovsy verdict

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, 41, used to be Russia's richest oligarch or businessman. Forbes magazine estimated that the tycoon was worth $15.2bn (€8.2bn) at the height of his powers. However, his wealth is reckoned to have shrunk to $2bn since he was arrested at gunpoint and thrown into jail 18 months ago. He made his millions by buying formerly state-owned assets on the cheap after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He founded a bank and then built what was widely considered to be Russia's most successful oil company, Yukos, most of which has, in effect, been renationalised. Like many of the other oligarchs who became rich in the 1990s, Khodorkovsky is Jewish.

Who is he?

Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, 41, used to be Russia's richest oligarch or businessman. Forbes magazine estimated that the tycoon was worth $15.2bn (€8.2bn) at the height of his powers. However, his wealth is reckoned to have shrunk to $2bn since he was arrested at gunpoint and thrown into jail 18 months ago. He made his millions by buying formerly state-owned assets on the cheap after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He founded a bank and then built what was widely considered to be Russia's most successful oil company, Yukos, most of which has, in effect, been renationalised. Like many of the other oligarchs who became rich in the 1990s, Khodorkovsky is Jewish.

What is he accused of?

Of not paying his taxes and of buying up the assets that made him wealthy for a fraction of their worth in a series of rigged, insider auctions. Of being part of a "criminal enterprise" that defrauded and embezzled money from the Russian state to the tune of $1bn.

What do his supporters make of the charges?

Not much. They contend that the charges are trumped up and that he is being punished for having dared to upbraid President Vladimir Putin on television for doing too little to root out corruption and started funding opposition parties. The Kremlin, it is argued, thought he was getting too big for his boots. He also allegedly broke an informal pact the oligarchs made with the Kremlin never to become involved in politics. Russian liberals compare his ordeal to the show trials orchestrated by Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

What do the Russian people make of his trial?

There isn't much sympathy for Khodorkovsky among ordinary Russians who view most oligarchs as slippery crooks who stole from the state. Soviet-era state benefits have recently been cut back and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. However, Russia's liberal opposition has rallied around Khodorkovsky.

What are his chances of being acquitted today?

Not high. Ninety-nine per cent of Russian court cases end in convictions, and the state prosecutors have asked that Khodorkovsky be given 10 years. They have also said that, in the unlikely event that he is acquitted, they intend to press more charges against him for allegedly laundering hundreds of millions of roubles. Finding him innocent after all the furore the case has generated internationally would make the Kremlin look silly, which is another reason he is likely to be given some kind of jail term.



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