Jailed oil executive says all of Russia has a stake in latest trial

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

MOSCOW - Freedom was so near for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once fabulously wealthy oil executive who was sent off to Siberia five years ago for tax evasion, although his real offense, his supporters say, was politically opposing Vladimir Putin.

His sentence was supposed to end next fall, just months before the 2012 presidential election. Putin, now prime minister, might run again for president. So Khodorkovsky and his business partner are expecting more time, now on embezzlement charges brought last year.

The verdict is expected Dec. 15. In a concluding statement to the court Tuesday, Khodorkovsky said he foresaw the worst - for himself and his country. This time, he said, the future of all of Russia is at stake.

"There is much more than just the fates of two people in your hands," Khodorkovsky said. "Right here and right now, the fate of every citizen of our country is being decided."

All over Russia, he said, people are setting up businesses, building houses, creating a life to pass on to their children, hoping that they will not lose it all to official lawlessness and "raiders in uniform."

The enormously successful Yukos Oil Co., built by Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon Lebedev, was declared bankrupt after their arrest and broken up, and much of it was acquired by the state-owned Rosneft. And now all of Russia is watching, Khodorkovsky said, and wondering whether anything has changed.

"They are watching with the hope that Russia will, after all, become a country of freedom and of the law ... where supporting opposition parties will cease being a cause for reprisals ... where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the czar."

As he was speaking, about 20 to 30 men clad in black, wearing ski masks and brandishing submachine guns, were raiding a Moscow bank owned by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian billionaire who owns the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers in London as well as 39 percent of Novaya Gazeta, virtually the only opposition newspaper in Moscow.

Police spokesmen said the raiders were law enforcement officers but provided no information about their agency or mission at Lebedev's National Reserve Bank.

Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, said he was puzzled about the show of force. "They took just a few documents that the bank would have provided if asked," he said. "It showed somebody was dissatisfied with something."

Sources told the newspaper's reporters, he said, that the raid was carried out by the FSB, the KGB successor, Sokolov said. "It doesn't matter who was behind it," he said. "It looked really alarming and was a demonstration of power. I can say it is not possible to have an honest business here. We cannot talk about modernization and investment of any capital if any captain of any law enforcement agency can easily bring these kind of forces against a business."

Modernization and economic investment from abroad are among the favorite themes of President Dmitry Medvedev, who has been entertaining delegations of powerful Americans recently, urging them to put their money to work here.

Those themes resonated in the courtroom Tuesday.

"With the coming of a new president [in 2008], hope appeared once again for many of my fellow citizens, too," Khodorkovsky said. "Hope that Russia would yet become a modern country with a developed civil society. It is clear that this cannot happen all by itself or in one day. But to pretend that we are developing, while in actuality we are merely standing in one place or sliding backwards ... is no longer possible."

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