The Boss Behind Bars; It Is a Year since Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Billionaire Head of Russian Oil Giant Yukos, Was Arrested at Gunpoint at a Siberian Airport. TOM NICHOLLS Looks at the Tycoon Who Is Still on Trial

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Boss Behind Bars; It Is a Year since Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Billionaire Head of Russian Oil Giant Yukos, Was Arrested at Gunpoint at a Siberian Airport. TOM NICHOLLS Looks at the Tycoon Who Is Still on Trial


Byline: TOM NICHOLLS

YOU ARE on remand in a hellish jail, being tried in an illegal court for breaking a law that does not exist. The prosecution is as shambolic as your defence is watertight, but you will be convicted anyway. The only question is the length of your prison sentence - five to 10 years, probably.

That, says his defence team, is the predicament of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon on trial in Moscow on charges of large-scale fraud and tax evasion.

You are the richest of Russia's loathed oligarchs. You made yourself a multibillionaire by buying up State assets on the cheap in dodgy privatisations while the rest of the population, which should be benefiting from that wealth, wallows in poverty. The authorities are right to prosecute you and you should go to prison. That is the view of many Russians.

Khodorkovsky has a knack of polarising opinion. For the Kremlin, he is a political irritant and a springboard to greater popularity - by taking a tough line with the oligarch, President Vladimir Putin has boosted his own ratings. For many Western businessmen, he is a pioneer of good corporate governance in Russia, a clear-thinking entrepreneur who has fallen foul of the jealousies of an autocratic political system.

True, Westerners are wary of the origins of his fortune, but they find the apparently personally targeted and politically motivated nature of his prosecution more troubling.

Critics say he is a fool. He funded opposition parties, criticised creeping authoritarianism, cosied up to foreign politicians and made pronouncements on sensitive policy issues - reckless and hubristic challenges to Kremlin authority. Among colleagues, he elicits fierce loyalty. Former employees - at least those never on the receiving end of his alleged ruthless streak - describe him as attentive, polite, a competent manager and natural leader, as well as more down to earth than many less successful executives.

He is also renowned for self-control. A Western oilman recalls a recreational weekend with Yukos leaders in the wilds of Siberia. Away from the media, Khodorkovsky had a rare opportunity to relax, and got drunk.

Someone ushered one of the beautiful local girls making up the numbers towards him: "As soon as she invaded his personal space, he made a gesture to one of his security guards and she vanished. He never, never loses control."

IINTERVIEWED Khodorkovsky in 2001 when he was well on the road to making Yukos Russia's largest oil producer, a position it recently ceded to Lukoil.

He was feted for revolutionising corporate governance and for achieving a 3000% rise in Yukos shares in two years, and oil executives, politicians and journalists hung on his every word. He was immaculately turned out and extremely courteous. His image seemed to have been meticulously devised to convey calm, thoughtful authority - weighing each word, he spoke very quietly, knowing that he did not have to raise his voice to make himself heard.

Just as Khodorkovsky polarises opinion, his character itself is full of polarities. He jealously guards his privacy yet relishes being in the public eye and influencing Russian life. So who is the real Khodorkovsky?

Born on 26 June 1963, Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky grew up in a two-room communal Moscow apartment. He made his fortune buying Yukos at a bargain-basement State auction in 1995 through Menatep, the bank he founded in 1989. His wealth has been estimated at between $8 billion ([pounds sterling]4.4 billion) and $11 billion, but since most of it is tied up in Yukos stock some has been wiped out by the firm's share-price slump.

Khodorkovsky, who until last October lived in a mansion outside Moscow with his wife and four children, is being prosecuted over alleged irregularities in the 1994 privatisation of fertiliser maker Apatit. The trial had been expected to end this month, but the "pre-trial detention" of Menatep colleague Platon Lebedev, who is being prosecuted simultaneously, has been extended to 26 December, suggesting the case will take longer. …

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