Prosecutors in Russia have been searching the world for a pair of oil tycoons who got on President Vladimir Putin's bad side. Maybe they should have asked Putin's friend President Bush.
There in the audience joining Bush at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday were two partners of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire imprisoned after defying the Kremlin. The two partners, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov, were allowed into the United States -- and the president's company -- despite Interpol notices filed at the request of the Russians.
The fugitive moguls' breakfast with the American president attracted the notice of the Russian press, which interpreted it as a slap against Putin on the day after Bush delivered a State of the Union address that renewed his vow to stand up for freedom around the world. In fact, Brudno and Dubov were just two of thousands of guests who packed the Washington Hilton Hotel ballroom at the invitation of the event's independent organizers, and Bush may not have even known they were there.
But some U.S. officials do not mind if the episode is seen as a signal to Moscow before a Bush-Putin summit in Europe later this month where the issue of Russia's retreat from democracy will be on the table. "It's a little message," said one administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
The Khodorkovsky case is viewed in both Washington and Moscow as a Kremlin political attack on a rival. As Russia's richest man and head of its biggest oil company, Khodorkovsky had angered the Kremlin by financing opposition parties and advancing his own policy ideas. He was arrested in October 2003 and remains on trial on charges of fraud and tax evasion, while his Yukos Oil Co. was dismantled in December, with its most valuable assets effectively renationalized.
The case has soured relations between Moscow and Washington. Putin delivered a testy lecture to Bush when the American president raised the issue of Russian democracy during a lunch in Santiago, Chile, in November, and the two then did not speak again until this week when they talked briefly by telephone about the Iraqi elections. Bush will meet with Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Feb. 24, in what advisers see as the first test of the president's inaugural vision of confronting "every ruler and every nation" about domestic repression.
Dubov, who will turn 47 on Monday, and Brudno, 45, were major shareholders in Yukos along with Khodorkovsky, each holding about 7 percent of the firm, making them billionaires as well. When prosecutors targeted Khodorkovsky, Dubov and Brudno fled to Israel, where they obtained dual citizenship.
Russian prosecutors asked Interpol, the Paris-based international police agency, to issue "red notices" for Dubov and Brudno, alerting member states that they are wanted on fraud charges. The Russians provided old photographs of the two tycoons that make them look more like wild-eyed, bearded terrorists, pictures now posted on Interpol's Web site.
But U.S. officials said they saw no reason to honor the Interpol red notices and noted that the United States has no extradition treaty with Russia. Traveling on Israeli passports with long-term U.S. visas, Dubov and Brudno were not stopped when they landed. A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency "had no active records in our law enforcement database on these individuals."
Margery Kraus, president of Apco Worldwide Inc., a public relations firm that represents the Khodorkovsky team, said Khodorkovsky before his arrest had attended the National Prayer Breakfast, which often includes foreign dignitaries. Khodorkovsky was invited this year as well, so Brudno and Dubov attended in his place. "The main reason to come was because others couldn't," she said.
Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, invited the two to an hour-long meeting Wednesday on Capitol Hill. "The proceedings against Khodorkovsky were outrageous," said Bob King, the committee's Democratic staff director. "By American legal standards, this is something that could never happen in the United States."