The Big Question: Who is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and why is he on trial again?
Friday 06 March 2009
Why are we asking this now?
Because a high-profile embezzlement and money-laundering trial opened this week at Khamovnichesky district court in Moscow. The defendants, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his erstwhile business partner, Platon Lebedev, are charged with helping to steal 900bn roubles-worth of oil from their Yukos oil company and laundering 50bn roubles through subsidiary companies between 1998 and 2003. The sum involved is equivalent to almost $25bn – far beyond the comprehension of most Russians and a great deal of money even by oligarch standards. They deny all charges.
But hasn't Khodorkovsky been tried before?
Indeed. He stood trial for very similar crimes relating to Yukos in 2004. The charges then excluded money-laundering, but included fraud and tax evasion on a grand scale. He was convicted of six of the seven charges, and sentenced to nine years in prison, cut to eight on appeal. To date, he has served four years in Prison Camp No.13 at Kamenokamsk in Siberia. His first request for parole last summer was refused by a regional court in Chita, the centre closest to the prison.
Why is he back in court?
This is the 64bn-rouble question. Prosecutors say these are new charges only just brought by subsidiaries of the former Yukos – which was declared bankrupt in 2006 – and so serious as to warrant another trial. However, his defence, family and supporters believe the new trial is political in origin and intended to ensure Khodorkovsky remains inside for a lot longer than eight years.
What grounds are there for regarding the trial as political?
Khodorkovsky has a history of feuding with the Kremlin. Unlike many of Russia's oligarchs, who were content to make, and spend, fabulous sums of money, he tried to use some of his money as a springboard into politics. And not just any Russian politics, but opposition politics.
And what was so wrong with that?
His timing was about as bad as it could have been. He made his first political moves around the time that the ailing Boris Yeltsin was preparing to vacate the presidency in favour of Vladimir Putin. At that time, Putin was concerned both that the country was on the brink of disintegration, starting with Chechnya, and that the oligarchs' wealth threatened to make them into a rival centre of power. He did not crack down on the oligarchs immediately; instead he offered a deal. They could renounce politics, keep their wealth and stay in Russia, or they could take their money and leave – for London, Switzerland or wherever. Oh yes, and large sums of roubles in lieu of unpaid back taxes would not be amiss.
Why did Khodorkovsky not play ball?
It is not entirely clear, but there were probably two reasons. First, everything he has said and done since the buccaneering 1990s supports the idea not only that he wanted to develop Yukos into Russia's largest oil group, but that increasingly he wanted it to be a model company, run to international standards of accounting and accountability. Absurd though many – especially in Russia – might have found it at that time, he apparently hoped to show that Russia was ready to support honest trade. And if he ran a business that conformed to the law, he did not see why he should not continue to engage in politics.
Was there not a personal aspect to the conflict?
This could be the second reason why he refused to play the Kremlin's game. Like many of the oligarchs who made huge fortunes at a very young age, Khodorkovsky has a headstrong and arrogant streak. This served him well as an entrepreneur in the 1990s. But while his supporters insist he tried his best to run a legitimate company, he seems to have rejected all advice to negotiate with the Kremlin, and dismissed Mr Putin's offer: money or politics, but not both. While others went, with varying degrees of willingness, into exile, Khodorkovsky vowed to stay and fight. You could say he met his match in Mr Putin: an equally stubborn individual determined to give no quarter once his offer was spurned. The prosecutor's office positively sprang into action on his case.
How did Khodorkovsky acquire his fortune?
An official of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) as a student, he used the freer atmosphere of the 1980s to set up a computer business. This was so successful that in 1987, aged 24, he was able to set up one of Soviet Russia's first commercial banks. He exploited the chaotic and often corrupt privatisations of the 1990s to buy first a fertiliser company, and then the Yukos oil company, building it up into Russia's biggest private energy company. At the height of his fortune in 2003, he was worth an estimated $15bn.
Is there any substance to the charges against him?
Anyone who became rich in the 1990s is almost certain to have bent, broken or flouted the law. Mr Putin's offer of a deal was tacit recognition of this, and an attempt to clean up and re-start Russian capitalism. As a rule of thumb, the greater the fortune, the more reckless the methods. Any prosecutions, therefore, look highly selective.
How is he seen in Russia?
Oligarchs as a class are highly unpopular, and Khodorkovsky is no exception. Most Russians would cheerfully see him locked away for life – if not executed – for, as they see it, plundering the people's assets in the 1990s. In some cases there is also a tinge of anti-Semitism: like many oligarchs – some of whom have sought exile in Israel – Khodorkovsky is Jewish. His support comes from a small number of free-market Kremlin opponents and intellectuals who see him as a victim of politicised law, rather like the Soviet-era dissidents.
Are there any wider implications of the case?
Absolutely. From the moment of his dramatic arrest in 2003 – snatched at gunpoint by special forces who stormed his private jet at Novosibirsk airport – to his incarceration in a remote prison camp, the case is seen not only as Mr Putin's pursuit of a personal vendetta, but as calculated to warn Russian businessmen about the risks of mixing money-making and politics. Unfortunately for Russia, it also had the effect of unsettling the legitimate business community, which was only just recovering from the 1998 financial collapse. It also scared foreign investors, who worried that they, too, could fall victim to capricious and politicised Russian laws.
Is another conviction a foregone conclusion?
Probably, but not necessarily. The new Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, is rumoured to have opposed the original trial – not least for the damaging impact it could have on business confidence. It has even been suggested that he wanted to give Khodorkovsky amnesty, but lost the argument. Just possibly, this trial could be used to cast doubt on the justice of the first case, and open the way for him eventually to be freed – a convoluted way of allowing all concerned, including Mr Putin, now Prime Minister, to save face. The fact that it is being held in Moscow, rather than near the Siberain prison, might support this. But that is to look on the very brightest of bright sides.
Will political considerations keep the former Yukos owner in prison?
* Khodorkovsky was convicted of crimes that many other oligarchs got away with
* Mr Putin has a long memory and something akin to a personal vendetta against Khodorkovsky
* The Russian court system is not only corrupt, but highly susceptible to political pressure
* Russia is trying hard to clear up its judicial system and make it independent of politcs
* The new President, Dmitry Medvedev, is rumoured to want Khodorkovsky freed
* The economic crisis means that Russia might want to send a positive signal to foreign investors
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