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The Khodorkovsky Show

From the Sunday Herald:

A symbol of selective Kremlin justice, his second trial – on embezzlement and money-laundering charges – promises to reveal whether Russia is really headed in a new direction. Does Medvedev really represent a loosening of the country’s soft authoritarianism, as liberals hope? Or is it business as usual, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a tight circle of Kremlin hawks pulling the strings? The Khodorkovsky Show, as it’s being called, should provide some answers.

The bespectacled businessman’s fall from grace was precipitous. In better times he was Russia’s richest man, worth an estimated $15 billion. He ran and owned most of its biggest oil company, Yukos, and was the most successful of all the oligarchs – the sharp-elbowed businessmen who made their fortunes in the 1990s.

He wasn’t an angel, but then none of the oligarchs were. They hadamassed fortunes by buying up industrial assets that once belonged tothe defunct Soviet Union at bargain-basement prices. In the process,they had bent or broken what few rules there were and fought oneanother tooth and nail to secure the best purchases in what would laterbe called the sale of the century. Khodorkovsky wanted more.Specifically, he wanted political power to match his bank balance, andbegan bankrolling parties opposed to Putin when he was president. TheKremlin’s response was swift and its retribution terrible.

In 2003, armed men stormed his private jet as it idled on a Siberianrunway. He was charged with massive fraud and a Moscow court laterfound him guilty, handing down an eight-year prison sentence. At thesame time, his oil company, Yukos, was effectively killed off. Hit withhuge back tax bills, its best assets were given to state-controlled oilgiant Rosneft. Yukos was declared bankrupt and many of Khodorkovsky’sformer top lieutenants were arrested or forced to flee the country. Itwas – or so it seemed – game, set and match to Putin.

But as Khodorkovsky became eligible for parole and the prospect ofhis release in 2011 loomed – just one year before Russia’s nextpresidential election – someone in the Kremlin decided to go after himagain. New charges have been drawn up and a new trial, handled by thesame state prosecutors who convicted him the first time around, isgetting under way.

This time he is charged with embezzling more than $20bn and withmoney-laundering. Early developments suggest he’s not going to get aneasy ride. The judge has rejected every request his lawyers have tabledand pro-Kremlin youth activists have picketed the courthouse, demandinghe be handed another tough jail sentence.

“The aim is not to let him out, especially now when there’s acrisis,” said Lev Ponamaryov, a veteran human rights activist. “They’reworried he will fight to recover his money and they’ve noticed hisgrowing potential as a public figure.”