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Electoral Politics, Kremlin-Style

In retrospect, it should have not surprised anyone that Russia's richest man and aspiring politician - YUKOS CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky - was called to appear at the General Prosecutor's Office last week to answer questions about his business activities

One of Khodorkovsky's super-rich business partners and the center of the whole scandal, Platon Lebedev, was treated more harshly, being handcuffed while an in-patient in a hospital and transported to a city prison. Ostensibly, the authorities are demanding information on what is now an obscure privatization deal from a decade ago. The Kremlin's legal machinations against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are probably a power play to remind the political elite and the oligarchs of who is really in charge, with Duma and presidential elections on the horizon.

According to a number of analysts and commentators, Khodorkovsky had to be taught a lesson due to his increasingly public political aspirations - which, according to some groups in the Kremlin, had gone beyond the limits of tolerance and were, therefore, becoming a threat to the status quo engineered over the past three years by President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.

Khodorkovsky's detractors - especially among the security forces surrounding Putin - believe that this particular oil tycoon, with his openly publicized deep-pocket contributions to a number of political parties, needs a reminder on Kremlin political etiquette. Those who are slow learners of how to behave usually find themselves spending their enormous wealth in exile.

Clearly, Khodorkovsky desires to be a big wheel in Russia and not a rich nobody living in the south of France, London or Spain. Vladimir Potanin, an oligarch who appears to have understood Kremlin etiquette, made an appearance at a recent rally held by United Russia in the presence of the interior minister and publicly confessed to mistakes made during the initial accumulation of his fortune. The powers-that-be no doubt now understand this particular oligarch as obedient and very well aware of his place.

It is no secret that Khodorkovsky is one of the primary financial backers of Yabloko, the party he hopes he can help elect a dozen or so candidates into the Duma during the fall election. Khodorkovsky has also invested heavily in the Union of Right Forces and its campaign, with the hope of controlling the entire liberal-conservative block that may find itself in the next Duma.

Rich people don't like taking chances. YUKOS money can also be found in the campaign coffers of the Communist Party, and YUKOS executives Sergei Muravlenko and Alexei Kondaurov will most probably be elected to the Duma via Communist Party lists. It is also reported that Khodorkovsky's ambitions do not end with funding political parties. YUKOS is believed to be eyeing a number of single-mandate districts as well. (Bob Dylan was right - 'Money doesn't talk, it screams.') There is little doubt that YUKOS is looking to secure a significant presence in the Duma when it convenes in the spring, which is what apparently worries the Kremlin the most.

The torrent of negative press coverage in Russia (with the interesting exception of Kremlin-controlled television) focused on Khodorkovsky's heavy investment in people as well as his political future. According to some, Khodorkovsky intends to rearrange the 'correlation of political forces,' using his expensively paid-for pawns in the new Duma.

Changing the 'correlation of political forces,' it is claimed, would include depriving the president of the right of appointing a new government, including the prime minister. Khodorkovsky's long-term plan is not only to become president after Putin leaves office, but also includes being prime minister before the 2008 election to ensure his successful candidacy. (In Russia, the prime minister is seen as the most obvious successor of a lame duck president.) Since Putin has already stated a number of times that he has no intention of seeking a third term in office, he cannot realistically view Khodorkovsky as his personal rival. However, neither Putin nor his supporters can afford to be indifferent when the matter concerns Putin's successor (not unlike the case with Boris Yeltsin and his "Family" in 1999).

Khodorkovsky has been a problem for the Kremlin for a while now, and the latter has been closely watching his political maneuvers. Politically ambitious people with deep pockets have always been a concern of for Putin's Kremlin. (The smartest oligarch is Roman Abramovich. Russia politics is about control of the public sphere and ego. Abramovich is young and incredibly wealthy, and he now wants to have some fun. Owning an English soccer team is a great idea. If things go sour for Abramovich, he will always have fans who will welcome him with open arms. On the other hand, right or wrong, savvy or stupid, Khodorkovsky has taken on the political elite directly.)

Khodorkovsky is a product of bandit capitalism who has reformed himself. His credo of being Mr. Transparency and Corporate Governance has caught on - for good reasons. He made his fortune when Russia was in a state of chaos and the state was willing to sell itself to the highest bidder. Now, he wants to create a Russia based on principles of transparency and doing things by the book. Sadly enough, the Kremlin has not learned the same lessons.

The Kremlin's questioning of Khodorkovsky and the arrest of Lebedev look like a cheap election ploy, especially seen against the background of the recent 'clean hands' operation fighting corruption among elements in the security forces. Putin and his people have only a bully pulpit and the law at their disposal to influence public opinion. They hate big money and the power that it can command. The irony, of course, is that it is big money that the Kremlin protects. The Kremlin helped create Russia's money interests; now it doesn't know how to control the same.

If the attack on Khodorkovsky and Lebedev is the sort of thing the Kremlin has in mind for the campaign season, it is a signal that dirty tricks and administrative fiat are what the powers-that-be intend to fall back on. Khodorkovsky probably learned the lesson that the Kremlin had planned he take to heart when he left the General Prosecutor's Office - with Russian politics as impoverished as ever.

Peter Lavelle.

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