Is he a political prisoner, or just a rich crook getting a
belated taste of justice?
For the past month Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man,
has been sitting in Moscow's squalid Matrosskaya Tishina remand
prison on tax evasion and fraud charges while that very debate has
swirled around him.
For supporters of the Kremlin, Mr. Khodorkovsky is the dean of
Russia's arrogant "oligarchs" who manipulated their way into
fabulous riches during the lawless 1990s. Impatient to modernize and
energize his country's economy, President Vladimir Putin is using
Khodorkovsky to warn the wealthy that they must win the legitimacy
of their property by helping to rebuild Russia.
For many human rights activists and Western analysts,
Khodorkovsky's fate is another sad chapter in Russia's thousand-
year history of arbitrary power, in which an all-powerful Kremlin
sets - and changes - the rules at will.
Both sides may have a good case.
Khodorkovsky's troubles stem from his disputed acquisition of the
Yukos oil empire during the quick-and-dirty privatizations of the
In the legal void after the collapse of the USSR, virtually every
Russian committed some infractions, such as tax evasion, smuggling,
or currency violations. That leaves just about everyone legally
vulnerable today, should tax auditors or prosecutors decide to dig
up the past.
But the oligarchs, who today control an estimated 70 percent of
the economy, are a special case. Often with nothing more than a
vague decree signed by then- President Boris Yeltsin, this small
coterie of Kremlin insiders gained control over the crown jewels of
the former Soviet economy through a series of rigged auctions known
"If Putin decides tomorrow to put everyone in prison, including
his wife, it would be easy," says exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky,
who reigned as Russia's richest man until the Kremlin drove him out
of Russia, using a variety of threatened criminal charges, three
At a meeting with 800 business leaders in Moscow Nov. 14, Mr.
Putin made his clearest statement yet that the Khodorkovsky case is
an isolated example. At the same time, he laid down tough marching
orders for Russian capitalists: "[Businesses] must aim their efforts
at developing a system of new social guarantees for the population
in line with the new demands of the time," Putin said. "We must make
the lives of the people economically sound, so they have plenty to
Oleg Kiselyov, Russia's leading steel tycoon, commented: "It is
clear that businesses must cooperate with the state, or it will be
impossible for them to exist."
Yet even Kremlin supporters agree that it's a problem - more than
a decade after the fall of communism - that the country's direction
still depends on the will of a single man. "The key question that
faces us in this situation is: How do you establish rule of law?"
says Sergei Markov, head of the Center for Political Studies, a
Kremlin- connected think tank. "No one has an answer for that."
Riches and responsibility
Mr. Markov, whose center is Kremlin-funded and who has so far
accurately forecast the course of the campaign against the
oligarchs, insists that Putin is not trying to destroy the rich but
to prod them into more patriotic avenues of economic activity.
"Whatever form privatization took in the '90s, there was an
underlying social contract: People were given property in order to
improve the economy and raise the population's living standards," he
Markov points to Khodorkovsky's rumored plans to sell a stake in
Yukos to a US oil company and the recent purchase of Britain's
Chelsea soccer team by another oligarch, Roman Abramovich. "It's not
part of the deal to sell Russia's natural assets to foreigners or
buy English football clubs," he says.
Opinion surveys show that Khodorkovsky is loathed by most
Russians, who regard him and other super-rich individuals as