Russian `dissidents' are rich, powerful

Oligarchs: As the Kremlin seeks to recover power, it targets the super-rich that it created.

October 21, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Dissidents in Russia were once a scruffy lot, living in dingy communal apartments, typing their subversive novels in secret, staging brief protests under the narrow gaze of the KGB. And living in fear of a knock at the door.

Russia now has a whole new cast of dissidents, who ride in SUVs with tinted windows, drink fine French wines and employ platoons of public relations specialists. Only one thing remains unchanged: fear of the knock on the door.

Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest person, is the newest member of this corps of tycoons regarded by the government as dangerous renegades.

Founder of the powerful Menatep bank and chief executive officer of the Yukos Oil Co., he has built a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and controls the world's fourth-largest petroleum company. He also is increasingly being treated as an enemy of the state.

Yukos or its executives are the target of seven investigations, linked to allegations of fraud, tax evasion and even murder. The company's chief of security was arrested in June and charged with killing a couple who were allegedly blackmailing him. One of Khodorkovsky's business partners, Platon Lebedev, has been jailed for questioning about an alleged $283 million fraud in connection with the privatization of a fertilizer plant nine years ago.

Khodorkovsky himself recently rushed out of a meeting in Moscow after his wife telephoned to say that about 80 police, some carrying machine guns, had battered down the front gate to the compound where he lives. Last week, police hauled off a computer server, said to weigh a ton, from a Yukos office.

Khodorkovsky belongs to a troika of Russian billionaires, including Boris A. Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, who have fallen from grace. All made the bulk of their fortunes in the mid-1990s when the government sold its valuable assets at bargain-basement prices. All three challenged President Vladimir V. Putin's burgeoning power. And all three became the subjects of aggressive investigations - which so far have turned up less-than-impressive evidence of wrongdoing.

The experiences of each oligarch usually end with the tycoon flying out of the country aboard a private jet and into comfortable exile. Berezovsky has obtained asylum in Great Britain. Gusinsky was released from custody in Athens this month after Greece's highest court ruled against the Kremlin's efforts to extradite him.

This time, though, the climax might be more dramatic because Khodorkovsky says he won't leave Russia.

"If the task has been set to push me out of the country or jail me," he said at a recent news conference, "they should jail me because I will not become a political emigre."

Putin, too, seems to be prepared for a fight.

"We have a category of people who have become billionaires, as we say, overnight," he recently told the New York Times. "The state appointed them as billionaires. It simply gave them a huge amount of property, practically for free.

"Then as the play developed, they got the impression that the gods themselves slept on their heads, that everything is permitted them."

He accused Russia's super-rich of trying to establish a system of "oligarchic rule."

The investigations of Yukos, Putin says, are the result of diligent law enforcement by independent prosecutors, over which he exercises no control. Khodorkovsky says the investigations are politically motivated and stark evidence of a slide back toward authoritarianism.

The consensus among political experts here is that the government's pursuit of Khodorkovsky is more about consolidating power than justice.

"This is a political affair in which the state is trying to get a businessman who is just too big and influential and important," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Russia's super-rich, Lipman said, "are getting stronger and stronger, they are efficient where the state is inefficient, they are competent where the state is incompetent."

Putin might not have ordered the investigation but he, at the least, must have given prosecutors approval to pursue the billionaire, she said: "It's unimaginable that they have acted without it."

Putin, who is expected to seek re-election in March, often says he is committed to democratic institutions and the creation of a civil society where power is shared between government and its citizens.

But Olga V. Kryshtanovskaya, of the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Sociology, said the Khodorkovsky case shows how the Kremlin is willing to fight to restore much of its Soviet-era control.

"It's the beginning of a huge struggle which I foresee between the bourgeoisie and the political class of Russia," said Kryshtanovskaya, who has been studying Russia's elites since the twilight of the Gorbachev era. "The fact is that all authoritarian methods of rule are being restored."

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