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YUKOS Case: Oligarchs Recognise Their Social Responsibilities

In the first days of August, shortly before the government summed up the results of socio-economic development in the first half of the year, Economic Development Minister German Gref announced that capital flight from Russia had started growing again in the past few months. It may be a reaction to the problems with Yukos, said the minister, but then, it may be just seasonal, as capital flight routinely gathers speed in the third quarter.

The markets have reacted rather calmly to Russian oil giant's problems with the Office of the Prosecutor General and the July 2 arrest of company co-owner Platon Lebedev. Yukos share prices fell slightly after reports about the Lebedev case, but quickly regained their former positions.

The value of Yukos shares has grown in the past few days thanks to rumours about the intention of ChevronTexaco to buy a 25% block in the company. Though it is rumoured that the Prosecutor General's Office plans to attack another major oil company, Sibneft, this news did not provoke panic. The market apparently does not see any serious danger of this so far.

Politically, the business community is worried by the Yukos problems and has been trying to free Lebedev. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has shown sympathy for these attempts, for which he was reprimanded by the Prosecutor General's Office. A spokesman for the office publicly accused Kasyanov of trying to pressurise the investigation team. Judging by the aforementioned statement made by Gref, the economic block of the government sympathises with the businessman, too, and has been trying to convince everyone who can influence the developments that the Yukos case could harm Russia's image abroad and frighten off foreign investments.

The Kremlin has tried to convince society - in the words of chief of the presidential staff Alexander Voloshin who met foreign journalists - that it is also worried by the problem and would like it to be cleared as soon as possible. But observers noted that the president, who met Interior Ministry officers several days after Voloshin's talk with the journalists, called on law enforcers to persevere in their struggle against economic crime.

The press offered two explanations for the actions of the Prosecutor General's Office. The first is that they were inspired by Yukos' commercial rivals, who found allies in the top echelons of power. And the second explanation is that the attack was instigated by the Kremlin, which is irritated by the oligarchs' energetic actions in the period prior to the December parliamentary elections.

Arkady Volsky, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said the president's answer to two of his July letters clearly stated that there would not be a mass revision of privatisation results in Russia.

The Yukos scandal has apparently benefited Russian society, as it has provoked a timely discussion of big business's place in modern Russia. The scandal forced businessmen to formulate, above all for themselves, replies to the key questions: How to find an end the "wild" privatisation of the 1990s? What can and must they do for the country and society? Does wealth carry additional social responsibility? And in what way may they influence policy?

In the West, oil companies get only 4% of post-tax profits from the overall volume of sales, while the figure in Russia is 24%. It is logical that the public doubts that the Russian oil companies' wealth belongs to the companies alone and was earned by their talent and hard work alone.

When replying to a question of a journalist once, President Putin said that he was most of all sorry and ashamed of Russians' poverty. But are the oligarchs sorry? This is what society wants to know. The behaviour of the Russian business elite clearly points to a complex of guilt for the 1990s and a feeling of discomfort for the chasm that divides the super-rich and the super-poor, who constitute the majority in Russia.

Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, Mr Volsky expressed businessmen's readiness to help the cabinet fight poverty by creating a working group, elaborating a special social programme, and engaging in charity work. Russia's capitalists have at long last realised that they should think about improving their image in the eyes of society. According to polls, 70% of the population have an extremely negative view of big business.

Marina SHAKINA, RIA Novosti