The trial of oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky comes as a relief to western observers. It offers at last a promise of resolution - for better or for worse -- to Russia's dominant news event since his arrest in October.
Yet for all the talk about Khodorkovsky as Russia's last hope for democracy, the outside world is less concerned with his personal fate than the fate of his company Yukos. The wild swings in Yukos stock amid its tax negotiations with the government testify to that.
Western policymakers and investors see the Yukos case as a threat to the way they want Russia to do business. Khodorkovsky was the first oligarch to play by their rules.
Khodorkovsky was not always the darling of the West. He was castigated by foreign commentators as one of the well-connected tycoons who manipulated post-Soviet privatization for personal gain - including the selloff of Yukos for $300 million, well below its believed value. He was pilloried again when his bank Menatep was involved in the Bank of New York scandal in 1999.
Khodorkovsky was well within favor among Russia's leadership of the time. It was only later, after his fortune and status seemed unassailable, that he began funding opposition movements.
It was not this political activity, however, that changed his image in the West. It was his shrewd move toward corporate transparency at Yukos, making it the first Russian oil major to apply international accounting standards.
Foreign investors, long frustrated by Russia's insular oil and gas world, cheered as Yukos disclosed shareholders and opened up its board to Western executives. Doubts about the company's past faded.
It wasn't only the cleaned-up books that exonerated Khodorkovsky. It was his willingness to admit that the books needed cleaning up in the first place, something no other Russian oligarch had been rich enough and secure enough to do.
It's misleading to compare Khodorkovsky to fellow oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. Yes, all three benefited from dubious privatization deals. All three were once friendly with the Kremlin but later turned critical of the government. And all three have been prosecuted for alleged financial wrongdoing.
But with Berezovsky and Gusinsky, their influential media holdings were seen as the targets, and no one defended their business practices.
With Khodorkovsky, his Western-style corporate model is under threat. The fear is that if he is convicted and Yukos is bankrupted, Russia's fledgling efforts at corporate responsibility will collapse and the powerhouses of the economy will return to state control.
The powerhouses of Russia's economy, of course, are the oil companies, and oil is key to Khodorkovsky's appeal to the West. The United States is run by fellow oilmen, and needs reliable sources of oil outside the Middle East. His trial comes as the continuing insecurity in Iraq guarantees a long wait before it becomes a stable, U.S.-friendly oil supplier.
Russians, meanwhile, are eager to see someone held responsible for the sins of the 1990s privatizations. They realize that targeting Khodorkovsky is selective and unjust, given how many other oligarchs remain unscathed. But Russians are unwilling to accept a "transparent" annual report as penance for plundering national assets.
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