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Russia: Will Khodorkovskii Verdict Undermine Support For Opposition Parties?

Khordorkovskii (file photo) The nine-year sentence that wrapped up the trial of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovskii yesterday has trained the international spotlight on Russia. Observers have widely slammed the verdict as a move by the Kremlin to crush the oil tycoon’s perceived political ambitions and punish him for funding opposition parties. To what extent will Khodorkovskii’s heavy sentence now act as a deterrent for politically-involved Russian businessmen?

Moscow, 1 June 2005 (RFE/RL) – A court in Moscow yesterday sentenced oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii to nine years in prison on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement.

The heavy sentence -- just one year under the maximum 10-year prison term sought by the prosecution -- is viewed by many as the Kremlin’s revenge for Khodorkovskii’s growing influence on the political scene.

Political analysts largely agree that Khodorkovskii had riled the Kremlin by funding opposition political parties and using his wealth to try to install deputies in parliament ahead of the 2003 State Duma elections.

Khodorkovskii was also rumoured to plan to run as a candidate for the 2008 presidential elections.

The fact that his arrest on financial charges so closely followed upon his increased political activity has helped fuel widely heard charges both in Russia and abroad that his trial was politically motivated. It also has raised questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to democracy and justice.

Some Russian analysts say that the prosecution of Khodorkovskii – and now the stiff sentences – send a strong message to Russia’s business community: stay out of politics.

Yevgenii Volk, the director of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, puts the message this way: “Of course [the sentence] is a vengeance, but maybe even more so a signal to other oligarchs and rich people not to engage in a political fight with the current regime. This is a very serious step in the fight against any type of political opposition.”

Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Center, says the Kremlin has fully succeeded in reining in prominent businessmen: "The definite result is that businessmen are frightened. They are horrified by all that has happened, they are shaking, at least as far as big businesses are concerned. Today, big businesses cannot finance anything political unless they obtain ten times the Kremlin’s total consent.”

She notes that businessmen had begun distancing themselves from politics as soon as Khodorkovskii was arrested at gunpoint in October 2003. The guilty verdict against the jailed billionaire, she says, will simply reinforce this trend.

Lipman, however, contends that Khodorkovskii’s funding of political parties, or even his possible personal political ambitions, were not the sole reasons that landed in prison.

The oil tycoon funded not only political parties but also an array of projects aimed at building civil society in Russia. The Kremlin, Lipman says, therefore felt threatened by Khodorkovskii not merely as a political opponent but as an increasingly prominent and influential public figure.

“The question here is not about the concrete financing of political parties," she said. "Khodorkovskii sought to have decisions that he needed approved in the Duma, but the nature of these decisions were for the most part economic rather than political. This was another sign of his huge influence as a person owning an enormous oil company. The persecution of Khodorkovskii is an attempt to get rid of a very serious rival.”

At any rate, Khodorkovskii’s trial and his subsequent nine-year sentence bodes ill for opposition parties in Russia.

Volk of the Heritage Foundation predicts that the Khodorkovskii sentence will sever most of the opposition parties’ financing channels and thereby strip them of their real power of opposition: “[Opposition parties] won’t die, but they will exist in a half-comatose state, on the verge of survival. They will formally exist in this state of vegetation, they will make statements, but the Kremlin has no desire to give them any kind of real political power.”

The 41-year-old Khodorkovskii was arrested in October 2003 when his jet stopped at a Siberian airport to refuel. He has been held in prison ever since.

Russian tax authorities claim that Yukos dodged $27.4 billion in taxes. Yukos, which once had a market value of $40 billion and was considered Russia's most transparent company by foreign investors, is now worth only around $2 billion.

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