October 25th marked the one year anniversary of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest at gunpoint on a Siberian airfield, an anniversary which not only escaped my notice, but the notice of most of the world’s media. In Russia itself, only 15 people took to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate against his incarceration.
To be honest, I’m surprised. I, like most other people, I guess, thought that Putin would cut a deal with Khodorkovsky, allowing him to keep his Yukos business, for a cast iron guarantee that Khodorkovsky would stay out of politics for good.
Putin, though, seems to have decided that this is too risky a path to follow, and seems to be intent on breaking up Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s giant oil and gas company, and returning it to state hands, while at the same time destroying Khodorkovsky personally.
This process is messy. It is going to take many years to fully resolve the isse of who owns/controls Yukos, and in the meantime it’s going to upset foreign investors, not to mention the remaining oligarchs in Russia.
And, to cap it all, I wonder whether Putin can actually succeed in all his aims. While he may succeed in bringing Yukos under state control, what political benefit will actually accrue from that? He may appease some of his supporters, who will be able to take advantage of the chaos. But will Yukos really continue to make a profit once it is back in the notoriously corrupt state sector? Will the person on the street really see any benefits?
And I don’t think that even Putin’s best efforts will be enough to strip Khodorkovsky of all his fortune. Sooner or later he will have to be released from jail. When that does happen, he is going to have a pocketful of cash, and very few remaining business interests to take up his time. What price a Khodorkovsky tilt at the Presidency in 2008 or 2012?