Self-exiled economist declines Putin's offer to return

4th June 2013, Comments 0 comments

A liberal-leaning economist who fled Russia for France fearing for his freedom declined President Vladimir Putin's invitation to come back on Tuesday, saying it would not be safe.

Sergei Guriyev said even an innocent person may lose his freedom in Russia, after Putin said the top economists and government advisor was a free man who had not been threatened.

Guriyev last month stepped down from a number of posts and abruptly left for France after being interrogated over the case of jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was Russia's most powerful oligarch and one of Putin's most potent foes before being jailed in 2003.

"I agree with Mr Putin that I am a free person. In particular, I am free to disagree with him on whether it is safe for me to return," Guriyev told AFP by email.

"In modern Russia, even a person who has done nothing wrong (and I have done nothing wrong) can still face risks of losing his/her freedom," he said.

Guriyev is the former dean of the New Economic School, one of Europe's most prestigious economics universities.

He joined his wife Yekaterina Zhuravskaya, herself a prominent economist, in Paris after investigators interrogated him and ordered him to surrender his email correspondence.

Speaking to reporters after talks with EU leaders in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, Putin insisted that the economist could come back if he wanted.

"No one threatened him," Putin said.

"If he wants to come back, let him come back," he added.

"If he did not violate anything, he is not threatened by anything. That's 100 percent certain.

"And so are there any grounds to put him in jail? I know nothing about it. I only learnt his last name not so long ago."

A source familiar with the matter told AFP that Putin had discussed Guriyev's fate with his aides several times and had always insisted that the economist had no cause to worry.

Despite Putin's numerous assurances investigators continued piling pressure on the economist, the source said.

Guriyev's decision to leave Russia sent shock waves through Moscow elites and sparked concerns that the country's best and brightest are now being forced out of the country if they do not agree with Kremlin policies.

Guriyev, who publicly supports top Putin critic Alexei Navalny, was one of several experts who reviewed the legality of fallen tycoon Khodorkovsky's conviction for the Kremlin's own rights council, which advises Putin.

Based on the experts' views, the council in 2011 released a report saying Khodorkovsky's conviction in his second trial was unjust.

In recent months nearly all the Russian experts who worked on the report have come under pressure from investigators or have had their offices or homes searched.

Guriyev's colleagues have said investigators maintain the report was financed by Khodorkovsky himself, a claim the rights council called "absurd".

Observers have expressed concern that investigators may be preparing a fresh case against Khodorkovsky, who is currently set for release in 2014.

Khodorkovsky, who was initially convicted in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion, was convicted a second time in 2010 on another set of fraud charges.

© 2013 AFP

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