Young Russians are most fearful of upheaval

These doubts are just the old ones about Russia's commitment to reform and will be hard to dispel
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It is now exactly one week since the arrest at a Siberian airport of Russia's richest man, the oil tycoon and so-called chief "oligarch", Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Rarely has one unforeseen event so radically altered the way in which a country is viewed abroad and the way it views itself. Rarely has it been truer to describe a week as an eternity in politics.

From the first reports of Mr Khodorkovsky's arrest Moscow's usually bullish and "can-do" new elite was plunged into gloom. Current and potential foreign investors - of whom, by an unfortunate coincidence, there were many in Moscow at the time - tried to put a brave face on the drama before succumbing to near panic when it was announced on Thursday that Mr Khodorkovsky's 40 per cent share in Russia's biggest oil company had been frozen.

Meanwhile, President Putin's chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, was successively reported to have tended his resignation, to have resigned, not to have resigned, and then, finally to have had his resignation accepted. Formerly chief of staff to President Yeltsin, Mr Voloshin was seen as highly competent and reform-minded. His departure seemed to mean that the political reversal secretly feared by so many was now at hand.

The reason why this train of events generated such shock waves so far afield was because the signal achievement of Vladimir Putin in his first three years as president was to have brought Russia stability. Ask any Russian today to explain Mr Putin's 70+ per cent popularity rating, and the answer will contain some combination of "stability", "predictability" and "normality", spoken in a tone of warm approval.

This week, however, the word on everyone's lips has been neyasnost - lack of clarity, the conspicuous absence of clear explanations for what has happened. Why was Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested far from Moscow, and why just then, less than six weeks before Russia's parliamentary elections? Why had the heavy squad been despatched to arrest him, when his lawyer insisted he would have gone for questioning voluntarily? Why had the authorities apparently targeted his company, Yukos - a company which had lately pioneered western-style accountability and contributed to the impressive rise in Russia's stock market?

Why, simultaneously, was there suddenly a question mark over Mr Putin's right-hand-man, and why was speculation about his future allowed to swirl for four days unchallenged? Why was the definitive announcement of his resignation leaked to a news agency late at night, after all major Russian newspapers had gone to press?

Most worrying of all were the ambiguities in statements made by Mr Putin and the uncertainties surrounding his role. Had he authorised or even known about Mr Khodorkovsky's arrest in advance? Had he anticipated its implications for confidence in Russia? Had he quarrelled with Mr Voloshin? How much power does Russia's president really wield?

For many, this was all too reminiscent of earlier times: the feverish speculation that attended Russia's 1998 economic crash; the capriciousness of Boris Yeltsin's last years in power; the senseless policy turns that crowded the last chaotic years and months of the Soviet Union. Above all, there was the feeling of a political game that was being played for the highest of stakes behind those red Kremlin walls - a game to which the "common" people would not be privy until it was won.

Naturally, those with most to lose were the quickest to panic. Investors in the fledgling services and new technology sectors were less sanguine than those whose money was lodged in Russia's traditionally reliable oil, gas and raw materials market. Younger Russians, now too used to the ease of modern life to sacrifice their comfort and status willingly, feared more upheaval.

The extent of the alarm, however, also reflected the doubts that many - especially foreigners - still harbour about the permanence of Russia's market and constitutional reforms. And there is a view, which should not be discounted, that Mr Khodorkovsky's embattled retinue deliberately exploited these doubts. It is possible to argue that the Khodorkovsky camp sowed seeds of panic about re-nationalisation, confiscation of privatised property and a witch hunt against the billionaire "oligarchs", knowing it would upset the markets and hoping that it might save their patron (and themselves) from the courts.

By yesterday, Mr Putin had salvaged some of his authority with the appointment as his new chief of staff of Dmitri Medvedev, a respected lawyer, a reformer, and someone with no known history of working for the security services. Some equilibrium appeared to have been restored and the latest bout of Kremlin in-fighting at least temporarily resolved.

But too much still remains unclear. Was Mr Khodorkovsky being punished for his success, for his political ambitions, because he got in somebody's way or because he is really suspected of an Enron-scale fraud? Will he have a fair trial, or any trial at all? What does Mr Voloshin's departure mean and is Mr Medvedev more than a temporary appointment to reassure Russia's elite and the markets?

In essence, these doubts are just the old ones about Russia's commitment to reform. Now that they have been so dramatically revived, they will be doubly hard to dispel.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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