Prague, 1 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- If anyone thought the saga of Mikhail Khodorkovskii would end with his sentencing last May to nine years in prison on tax evasion and fraud charges, they were wrong.
Khodorkovskii may have swapped the boardroom for a grimy, 15-man cell in a notorious Moscow prison, but he appears determined to keep making trouble for the authorities.
Until recently a symbol of Russia’s robber-baron era of capitalism, Khodorkovskii is trying to transform himself into a popular hero, a modern-day David fighting the Kremlin Goliath.
In a statement issued from prison, Khodorkovskii said yesterday he intends to run for a State Duma seat from Moscow’s single-mandate Universitetsky district. The seat was vacated after deputy Mikhail Zadornov traded in his legislative mandate for a management post at Russia’s Vneshtorgbank.
The Central Election Commission is widely expected to set the by-election for 4 December. The district is home to many students, academics, and wealthy Muscovites who have traditionally supported pro-Western liberals in elections.
The solution for the authorities would be to let Khodorkovskii contest the elections. If he loses these elections, the issue will resolve itself and the authorities will have a very strong argument that Khodorkovskii has no support and that everything has been artificially blown out of proportion."
Khodorkovskii, in his statement, said he wanted to show the world that “the current Kremlin regime has exhausted itself and its days are numbered.”
Lev Ponomarev is executive director of the Moscow-based For Human Rights organization. He shares the belief held by many in Russia that Khodorkovskii’s trial and the stripping of his Yukos oil company were engineered by the Kremlin as punishment for his financial support of the political opposition.
He tells RFE/RL Russians should applaud Khodorkovskii’s courage.
"He is taking a risk. Being in prison and declaring: 'I am taking part in these elections' -- moreover being in jail as the result of a political trial ordered by the Kremlin [and declaring his candidacy] -- this is of course a risk. It's a special risk for Khodorkovskii, the prisoner. But he is doing it nonetheless. People should have great respect and understanding for this move. And the fact that many people are calling this a PR campaign -- well, one should not treat this very serious move like that," Ponomarev said.
Ivan Starikov, a senior member of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces, is one of the people backing Khodorkovskii’s candidacy. He believes many Russians -- who once despised Khodorkovskii when he was Russia’s richest oil baron -- already see him in a different light.
"For many people, Mikhail Khodorkovskii is no longer the oligarch who was nabbed for not paying his taxes, but a person who is suffering for his principles, a prisoner of conscience," Starikov said.
Khodorkovskii’s candidacy is backed by a highly diverse group of Kremlin outsiders. They span the political spectrum from far-right to far-left. Among Khodorkovskii’s newfound supporters are National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov and former news anchor Sergei Dorenko, who is a Communist. But pro-Westerners like Starikov and liberal politician Irina Khakamada are also behind Khodorkovskii's bid.
Khodorkovskii has yet to announce a political platform, and may find it hard to draft a program that unites his supporters. At this point, the only thing they have in common is their opposition to the Kremlin. But Starikov explained why he decided to help Khodorkovskii in his political campaign.
"We consider that the number of people in the State Duma who have an independent point of view and who genuinely represent the interest of voters instead of the ruling bureaucracy is very, very small. Therefore, the appearance of a person of Mikhail Khodorkovskii's caliber is worth its weight in gold," Starikov said.
The Moscow City Court is due to begin hearing Khodorkovskii’s appeal against his conviction on 14 September. If the vote by-election is called for 4 December, registration will start on 19 September.
Obviously, if Khodorkovskii wins his appeal and his conviction is quashed, he will be free to run. If the appeal decision is delayed and Khodorkovksii’s registration papers are in order, he can be registered on the ballot. If Khodorkovskii’s appeal is rejected, however, and his conviction finalized, he will be barred from the election.
Many analysts say the odds of Khodorkovskii ending up in the Duma are not high at this point.
But his political challenge once again puts the authorities in a tough spot. If Khodorkovskii -- for whatever reason -- is barred from the ballot, it could reinforce the perception among his supporters that he is being victimized by the Kremlin and enhance his popular status.
Few in Moscow would be surprised if Khodorkovskii's candidacy is blocked, either by the court or by the Central Election Commission. But Starikov, who doesn't believe in the independence of either institution, says he would take such a move as a sign of the Kremlin’s weakness.
"I think this will be a serious capitulation on the part of the government before Mikhail Khodorkovskii. The solution for the authorities would be to let Khodorkovskii contest the elections. If he loses these elections, the issue will resolve itself and the authorities will have a very strong argument that Khodorkovskii has no support and that everything has been artificially blown out of proportion. But this is out of the question," Starikov said.
Of course, even if Khodorkovskii is allowed to contest the election and wins, it won’t guarantee him a ticket out of jail or immunity from possible future prosecution, as political analyst Vladimir Pribilovskii explains.
One of the cases he cites is that of Yuri Shutov, a former political adviser from St. Petersburg who has been held in pre-trial detention for the past six years, accused of running an organized crime group responsible for the killing of several local officials. Shutov, as Pribilovskii notes, was elected to the local legislature but remains in jail nonetheless.
"There a minimum of two precedents in Russian when prisoners were elected to the legislative branch. The first example is Yuri Shutov, who was arrested at the beginning of 1999 in St. Petersburg. He is still being held without trial. Can you imagine how many years he has been detained without trial? He is Putin's personal enemy, for some reason," Pribilovskii said. "Well, he was elected in 2002 to the St. Petersburg legislature and he has figured on the list of deputies since that time, although he remains in jail. There was also the case of Sergei Sasurin in Tatarstan. He has once again been arrested and tried. But before his most recent arrest, before his sentence was confirmed, he was elected to the State Council of Tatarstan."
Expect more twists and turns in the weeks ahead. But if it’s true that voters love an underdog, then right now, there is probably no greater underdog in Russia politics than Mikhail Khodorkovskii.
(RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report.)