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Russian Economist Guriyev: 'I Fled Because I Don't Want To Sit In Jail'

  • VOA's Danila Galperovich
  • RFE/RL's Claire Bigg

"Maybe justice will prevail in Russia," says Sergei Guriyev. "Maybe Aleksei Navalny will be cleared and Khodorkovsky will be freed."

"Maybe justice will prevail in Russia," says Sergei Guriyev. "Maybe Aleksei Navalny will be cleared and Khodorkovsky will be freed."

Sergei Guriyev didn't have to think long after investigators searched his office and seized thousands of e-mails as part of a new investigation linked to jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Guriyev, one of Russia's best-known economists, quickly packed his suitcase and boarded a one-way flight to Paris.

News of his flight on April 30 broke only last week, sparking fears of a deepening crackdown on liberal-minded members of the Russian elite who, like him, have been critical of President Vladimir Putin's repressive course.

Despite Putin's invitation on June 4 to come back, Guriyev, whose wife and children live in France, says he would rather be free abroad than risk losing his freedom in Russia.

"I left because I don't want to sit in jail," he told Voice of America from Paris. "And I see that there is a sufficient risk that I end up in prison."

Guriyev, 41, has been questioned several times in recent months in a case stemming from a report into Khodorkovsky's prosecution commissioned in 2011 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.

The report, which Guriyev co-authored, found that the oil tycoon's prosecution for alleged tax evasion was deeply flawed and called for his prison sentence to be overturned.

But with Putin's return to the presidency, insiders seen as close to liberal-leaning Medvedev have come under investigators' scrutiny amid what many describe as a deepening rift within the ruling elite.

'The Last Straw'

Investigators earlier this year began proceedings into several experts who penned the Khodorkovsky report.

Guriyev, who so far has been questioned as a witness, says he fled Russia because he feared being named as a suspect in the case.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

"I noticed that the investigators' actions were growing increasingly harsh, and this was a complete surprise," he said. "The last straw came on April 25 when the investigator invited me for questioning but, instead of questioning me, he handed me a court order to seize all my e-mails since 2008 and to search my office. He also hinted that he may search my home. That's when I understood that my status could be changed at our next meeting."

Investigators have also looked into the funding of the respected New Economic School, where Guriyev was rector for almost a decade before tending his resignation last month.

The school received one donation from Khodorkovsky in 2003, although the sum was paid while Guriyev was on sabbatical and represented only 3 percent of the school's annual budget at the time.

Guriyev is reluctant to speculate on investigators' motives for harassing him.

He only says that his legal woes lend credence to rumors that the authorities are preparing to launch fresh charges to keep Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, behind bars.

Both are due to be released from jail next year.

"Maybe a case will be put together and then someone from the political leadership will say: 'We don't need this case. Let Khodorkovsky walk free,'" Guriyev said. "But facts remain facts: The people who worked on the first and the second cases have not gone anywhere. They are still working in investigative organs. All the names I have come across in my own case -- prosecutors, Investigative Committee employees -- appeared in the cases against Yukos. So I cannot exclude the possibility of a third Yukos case."

Paying The Price

Many believe, however, that Guriyev is simply paying the price for supporting the opposition as Putin scrambles to contain an unprecedented wave of antigovernment protests.

Aleksei Navalny

Aleksei Navalny

Last year, he contributed 10,000 rubles ($315) to an anticorruption group founded by blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is currently on trial on fraud charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Guriyev justified his gesture in an essay advocating more political competition in Russia.

He has since made no secret of his admiration for Navalny.

"I don't agree with many of Navalny's political views. We have met a dozen times, not more," Guriyev told VOA. "But I consider him a brave and honest person. I think he is a unique example on Russia's political scene. There is no compromising information about him. He doesn't have any skeletons in the closet. I don't know Navalny very well but, from what I know, he clearly has a bright future. I'm proud to have supported him and I will try to further help him."

The Kremlin has dismissed Guriyev's departure as a "personal affair" and many pro-government commentators have accused him of overdramatizing the situation.

But the embattled economist still appears to have the sympathy of influential figures in Russia's political and financial establishment.

Shareholders at state-controlled Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, overwhelmingly elected him in absentia to the board of directors last week with the largest number of votes.

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Sberbank CEO German Gref, a former economic development minister, praised him as "a great professional, very honest and uncompromising."

"Things happen," Gref told journalists, "and I'm hopeful that he can return."

But Guriyev, who has taken up a one-year position as a visiting professor at the prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, seems in no mood for a homecoming.

"As long as we have such courts in Russia there is no point challenging the Investigative Committee's actions. I'm not going to spend time on this," he said. "Let us see. Maybe justice will prevail in Russia. Maybe Aleksei Navalny will be cleared and Khodorkovsky will be freed. Then I will think about what to do."

With contributions from VOA's Russian Service