Russian tycoon writes contritely from prison

Newspaper article calls on business leaders to bow to Putin's authority

March 30, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW - Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the jailed Russian oil tycoon, published a long treatise yesterday lamenting the decline of liberal democracy here while acknowledging the part he and other business leaders played in it during the tumult after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Making his most extensive public remarks since his arrest in October, Khodorkovsky also wrote in the newspaper Vedomosti that Russia's largest companies needed to recognize President Vladimir V. Putin's political authority generally and to accept higher taxes on natural resources specifically in order to legitimize the privatization deals of the 1990s.

His remarks represented an important shift in his position on at least that significant issue. Only a year ago, as chairman of Yukos Oil, he lobbied extensively against higher oil taxes.

His efforts to influence politics reportedly angered the Kremlin and have been widely considered one of the causes of the criminal investigation that landed him and other Yukos shareholders in prison or in exile, facing what his supporters say are politically motivated charges.

Khodorkovsky's treatise broadly addressed democratization and social change as well as economic liberalization. He wrote that only by sharing with society the profits of the highly questionable privatization deals - which left a few privileged insiders such as himself fabulously wealthy - could liberalism as a political force regain the trust of ordinary Russians.

"It has to be admitted that 90 percent of the Russian people do not consider privatization fair or those who benefited from it legal owners," wrote Khodorkovsky, whose wealth Forbes recently estimated to exceed $15 billion. He did not discuss his own privatization deals.

It is unclear whether Khodorkovsky's treatise - a time-honored tradition from Russian exiles and prisoners - will have any influence on his criminal case. This month, a court in Moscow again extended his detention on charges of tax evasion and fraud, ensuring his imprisonment at least until the end of May.

In Geneva, Khodorkovsky's lawyers said they planned to appeal a decision by the Swiss government to freeze billions of dollars worth of assets at the request of Russian prosecutors.

At a news conference, one of the lawyers, Philippe Neyroud, said the assets were in several banks and belonged to 20 individuals and 30 companies, including a Russian pension fund and the Menatep Group founded by Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon Lebedev, who is also in jail in Moscow on similar charges.

Neyroud denied the funds were connected to any criminal activity, as the Russians have charged.

Even the lawyers, however, seemed puzzled by at least the tone of Khodorkovsky's published treatise. Neyroud called it "a strange change in Khodorkovsky's position."

Khodorkovsky did not address the charges he faces, but the tone of his remarks, including his acceptance of blame for some of the excesses of Russia's transition to capitalism, suggested a degree of contrition, though perhaps a calculated one. A former aide who has worked closely with him said the treatise reflected Khodorkovsky's attempt to reach out to Putin and the authorities.

"He is saying, `I will do what it takes to stand down,'" the former aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing the political delicacy of the criminal investigation. "The question is what will it take."

Since his arrest, Khodorkovsky has made only brief remarks on the fringes of his intermittent court hearings. His treatise suggested that he had spent much of his time in what he called "solitary Confinement Cell No. 4" at Matroskaya Tishina jail in Moscow considering the evolution of politics and business in Russia.

Writing beneath the title "The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia," Khodorkovsky said the country's two liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, were themselves to blame for their devastating defeat in parliamentary elections in December, when they failed to cross the 5 percent threshold of votes to ensure a bloc of seats.

Russia's liberals - "with whom I place my sinful self" - failed to anticipate nationalist and historic trends in Russia and ignored the interests of Russians left behind in the post-Soviet transition, he wrote.

He said liberals needed to "give up meaningless attempts to doubt the legitimacy of President Putin," who won re-election on March 14 with 71 percent of the vote, reflecting the country's desire for stability.

"Yes, Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat," he wrote, "but he is more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population."

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