YUKOS update

American Named to Head Russian Oil Giant

Mikhail Khodorkovsky resigned as CEO of YUKOS, Russia’s top oil company. Semyon Kukes, a Soviet-born US citizen who made a successful career with Amoco and went on to manage TNK, the Russian oil major which happens to be BP’s Russian partner (BP has invested $7 billion or so into Russian assets.) Khodorkovsky remains the owner of a large (probably majority) stake in YUKOS.

Corriere della Sera, a prime Italian paper, interviews Putin. No reversal of privatization, he says. Yukos is just a Russian Enron. Well, Khodorkovsky probably broke the law more times and in more ugly ways than Ken Lay, but look, everybody was doing it then. Why is this one guy taking all the heat? Selective prosecution, anybody?

The KGB takeover version remains as plausible as before, but I am now more prone to think Khodorkovsky broke some gentleman’s agreement with Putin, who simply pulled the plug on the oligarch.

Two Visions for Russia And One Battle of Wills: The Washington Post‘s take on the YUKOS crackdown. Way too schematic for me, the piece suggests a nearly Manichean confrontation. “Today, Khodorkovsky sits in a four-man cell in one of Moscow’s most notoriously overcrowded prisons, eating fish soup for breakfast.” No, he does not: that cell is designed for four men, and if there are no more than four in it, as, apparently, is the case, that’s quite a decent situation by Russian standards. There is a TV set and a fridge in the cell. In other words, the oligarch is in a “privileged” section of the detention center. The fish soup was most likely for lunch (obed); porridge is probably for breakfast.

William Safire opines it’s Siloviki Versus Oligarchy. The title may be (unfortunately) right on the money, but the content is trash. Safire is one of those political writers whose opuses make one suspect the author both intensely dislikes Russia and firmly believes nothing good can come out of it. (Zbigniew Brzezinski is another of the cohort, but at least Brzezinski’s Russophobia is a rationalizable, and to a large degree justifiable, Polish hereditary syndrome.) I could refute every paragraph, and almost every sentence of Safire’s column, but I don’t want to bore my readers. Only a few quotes.

“Not all the new billionaires went along with the new corruption. Boris Berezovsky, manipulator of Yeltsin, had delusions of staying on as the man behind the throne, while Vladimir Gusinsky had hopes of creating a free national media network, not beholden to the Kremlin bosses.” All right. They all got rich in a corrupt way, but somehow managed to break apart from the evil ways. Are we supposed to believe it? Berezovsky manipulated Yeltsin? Hmm… well, and Cheney is manipulating Bush, right? “Gusinsky… hopes… free… not beholden to the Kremlin bosses.” I suppose that’s why he took hundreds of millions in loans from Gazprom, a semi-private company closely associated with the government. I know Safire loves Gusinsky, but come on, people like G. do not have naive hopes like that. Just look at his photo.

“But he apparently felt the need for more political protection than the siloviki would sell. Accordingly, this oligarch of all oligarchs began to ladle out largesse to the starving political parties. This ranged from the Communist Party, allied with the Putin followers, to Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalists, and included the democratic reform parties behind Grigory Yavlinsky and Boris Nemtsov.” Protection? Sounds more like a quest for political power. The Commies have never been allied with Putin, by the way, except on some issues.

“He [Putin] ordered the arrest, trial, conviction and jailing of Khodorkovsky and the seizure of his billions in stock.” Apparently, Safire is either very well informed or thinks he is. I would very much like to see proof of that; so far, I can only harbor suspicions — and contrarian hopes.

“…in Putin’s Russia, where mass media coverage is tightly controlled, the notion of a grass-roots national insurgency by a half-Jewish multibillionaire is laughable.” So Khodorkovsky is only half-Jewish? Only TV coverage is more or less under government control, but as there are different factions in the government, news coverage and reporting are far from centrally orchestrated; besides, the print media are mostly private, with oligarchs controlling a good deal. No one is talking about an insurgency, but Khodorkovsky might actually emerge as strong opposition figure. I don’t see a problem with that. Sure, he’s a robber baron, but there has always been a decent share of Russians who would vote for the opposition just because they hate the government.


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