Khodorkovsky: tainted oligarch or dissident martyr

30th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man, the head of a flourishing international oil giant with a 15-billion-dollar fortune who was even touted as a possible alternative Russian leader.

But that all changed at dawn on October 25, 2003.

Khodorkovsky's private jet had landed in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk for a routine refuelling stop as he headed for a business meeting.

Armed agents from the FSB security service stormed the plane and arrested the tycoon, starting a process that two years later saw him sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

With his release due next year, Khodorkovsky and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev were this week found guilty and sentenced to 14 years in prison in a second trial on embezzlement and money laundering charges.

Under the terms of the verdict, the conviction means that Khodorkovsky will stay in jail until 2017.

Khodorkovsky has repeatedly said that he expected nothing less of a Russian court that he believes answers to the whims of his arch-nemesis Vladimir Putin.

Russia's president-turned premier Putin has painted Khodorkovsky, 47, as a common financial criminal who profited illegally from the chaotic asset-stripping of post-Soviet Russia's natural resources.

But rights activists and many Western commentators claim he is a martyr suffering a purely political persecution.

In an emotional closing address to the court last month, Khodorkovsky portrayed himself as a visionary crusader for clean business and social freedoms in Russia who had paid the price for endangering the authority of the elite.

"I remember the end of the last decade. I was 35. We had built the best oil company in Russia," he said.

"We all hoped that the time of troubles was past and that in the stability that our sacrifice and labour created we could calmly build a new life and a great country.

"Alas, this hope has so far not been fulfilled."

Putin earlier this month used a national television appearance to reveal again the extent of his personal revulsion of Khodorkovsky, declaring that a "thief must be in prison."

Khodorkovsky said that Putin was incapable of feeling human emotions, only displaying "a love for dogs."

Khodorkovsky was serving his first term in a remote Siberian prison camp before being transferred to a Moscow detention centre in 2009 for his second trial.

Even before the second conviction, his life's work -- the oil company Yukos which he built out of the privatization of Soviet industry -- had already been broken up by the state and its remnants sold off.

Prior to his arrest, Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man, with a worth that Fortune magazine estimated at 15 billion dollars and one of Russia's most famous post-Soviet oligarchs.

Born into a family of chemical engineers in Moscow, he obtained his first degree in chemical engineering before going on to study economics. He is said to have been an energetic member of the Soviet Komsomol youth movement.

Even before the fall of the Soviet Union and aged just 26, he established Bank Menatep which he would later use to acquire a majority stake in Yukos.

He gained control over Yukos through a shady privatization during which insiders picked up Russia's choice natural resources assets for bargain-basement prices at questionable auctions.

Khodorkovsky and his associates paid a reported 390 million dollars for Yukos, which before his arrest had a market capitalization of more than 30 billion dollars.

The softly-spoken Khodorkovsky proved a ruthless operator, aggressively consolidated control over what eventually became Yukos, muscling out foreign minority shareholders.

After the 1998 financial crisis, he invested massive amounts back into Yukos, which became the first Russian major to adopt international accounting standards and began to hire Western-trained managers.

Some suggested President Dmitry Medvedev might grant Khodorkovsky a pardon upon entering office in May 2008 as a signal that he was serious about fulfilling promises to end what he had called Russia's "judicial nihilism".

But the authorities have shown little sign of relaxing their attitude towards Russia's most famous prisoner.

© 2010 AFP

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