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Yulia Latynina: The Theft Behind the Khodorkovsky Case

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Yulia Latynina has a powerful opinion column in the Moscow Times today about the second show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, driving home the point that back in 2003, “Putin and Khodorkovsky personified two possible paths for Russia’s development.”  Now in 2009, Russia is a different country, with diminished opportunities to transform into a democratic society.

I don’t think there is a point in discussing new charges against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. If a thief robs somebody at gunpoint, does it make sense to discuss the robber’s claim that his victim did not pay taxes?

In the Yukos affair, the robber is the state. On Oct. 25, 2003, police stormed Khodorkovsky’s private jet and “robbed” him at gunpoint by taking him into custody. In May 2005 he was found guilty of fraud in a classic Russian kangaroo court. As a result, Yukos was essentially expropriated by state-controlled Rosneft in a sham auction and that the oil that Khodorkovsky exported before his arrest is now traded by Gunvor, a company co-founded by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s friend, Gennady Timchenko. Thus, does it make a lot of sense to discuss the robber’s claim that Khodorkovsky did not pay of all his taxes?

In 2003 when Khodorkovsky was arrested, we had a different Russiaand a different Putin. During those early Putin years, the Kremlindidn’t fear an Orange Revolution and hadn’t yet befriended VenezuelanPresident Hugo Chavez, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and thedictators of Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Before Khodorkovsky’s arrest, oligarchs hired Western auditors toimprove their companies’ transparency because they wanted to launchsuccessful initial public offerings. Putin enjoyed large support fromthe West and many of the country’s liberals.

Nonetheless, by 2003 Putin had already surrounded himself withformer KGB officials and members of other siloviki organizations –none of whom knew anything about running a business. They didn’t knowhow to rule the state either. The only thing they were experts in washow to single out “enemies of the state” and destroy them. If therewere no real enemies, they created them.

The obsession with eliminating enemies had two big advantages forthe siloviki. First, they got very wealthy by expropriating theenemies’ assets. Second, they were able to turn Putin into theirhostage. The siloviki scared Putin with the conspiracy theory thatKhodorkovsky was planning to overthrow Putin’s regime. Then thesiloviki scared Putin with another conspiracy theory — thatnongovernmental organizations, funded by the United States and otherforeign countries, were plotting an Orange Revolution in Russia.

Photo: Journalist Yulia Latynina speaksduring an interview with Reuters in Moscow February 25, 2009. Fourreporters on the Russian opposition newspaper where journalist Latyninaworks have been murdered and most of their killers have goneunpunished, but she refuses to be silenced. Picture taken February 25,2009.REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin (RUSSIA MEDIA CONFLICT POLITICS HEADSHOT)