The life and trials of Khodorkovsky

Neave Barker traces Mikhail Khodorkovsky's life, from financial power to a Siberian cell.

    If convicted, Khodorkovsky could face more than 22 years in jail on top of his current term [AFP]

    The life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky have grabbed the world's attention once again, as Russia's former richest man faces new charges that could see him behind bars into old age.

    Khodorkovsky was born in 1963 and grew up in a normal Soviet family, the son of chemical engineers.

    At university he was deputy head of the Communist Youth League. The contacts he made there brought him into the ranks of the Soviet apparatchiks and later modern-Russia's political elite.

    During Gorbachov's policy of glasnost [openness] and perestroika [restructuring], Khodorkovsky used his contacts to gain a footing in the developing free market.

    He set up a computer and software business with fellow students and even a cafe, but it was the foundation of the bank Menatep in 1987 that allowed him and his associates to generate enough money to buy up fertiliser company Apatit, and then, in 1995, the oil company Yukos for a mere $300m.

    With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state had been forced to sell off its assets at bargain prices. 

    Many became immensely rich but seven individuals, known as the oligarchs, bought up most of Russia's natural resources, often in return for favours from key politicians.

    By the late 1990s Mikhail Khodorkovsky was among the richest men in Russia with a personal fortune of between 2 and $2.5bn.     

    Some of the oligarchs lost their status as a result of the August 1998 financial crisis. Others like Khodorkovsky, would see their fortunes change with the arrival of the Vladimir Putin, the new Russian president, who during his first term in office moved to control the Yelstin-era oligarch's ambitions.

    On October 25, 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested at Novosibirsk airport, in Siberia, while his private jet was being refuelled. 

    Shortly afterwards, government action led to a collapse in Yukos' share price and a major sell off of the company's assets. 

    The firm was finally dismantled after being hit with massive tax back-claims.

    'Political posturing'

    Khodorkovsky is currently serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion and was denied parole last August.

    His critics argue that he is criminally responsible for shady methods used to take advantage of the bargain sell-off of Russia's natural resources by the government.

    The Russian general prosecutor's office claims Khodorkovsky and his associates cost the state more than $1bn in lost revenues.

    As president, Putin moved to control the ambitions of the Yelstin-era oligarchs [AFP]

    But his supporters and activists insist his long detention and the new legal proceedings are a way of silencing potential opponents of Putin.

    Khodorkovsky had openly financed opposition parties such as the liberal Yabloko party in the run up to the 2003 parliamentary elections. 

    He had also become a philanthropist, setting up a number of organisations to promote political reform. 

    Many of his opponents saw this as political posturing. 

    At the same time Khodorkovsky's wealth had been steadily growing. 

    Shortly before his arrest, he announced a merger between Yukos and fellow Russian oil company Sibneft that would have controlled the second largest oil and gas reserves in the world after Exxon Mobil. 

    Following the arrest of Khodorkovsky, the deal was stopped.

    Kremlin critic

    Khodorkovsky remains a firm Kremlin critic, recently accusing Putin, now prime minister, of using his power to target political opposition and businessmen like himself

    Khodorkovsky, left, and Lebedev are both serving eight-year sentences

    The arrival of Dmitry Medvedev as Russia's new president, a lawyer by trade, has brought with it hopes of a more transparent legal system in Russia. 

    Many think Medvedev will take a softer line than his predecessor, but, as Russia struggles with the financial crisis, the example of Kodorkovsky remains a potent warning to Russia's rich and powerful to keep away from politics.

    Khordorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, his former business associate, who is also serving an eight-year sentence, now face new charges. 

    The trial taking place in Moscow is examining charges that between 1998 and 2003 Khodorkovsky carried out embezzlement and illegal transactions worth $25bn.

    Khodorkovsky's defence team have dismissed the charges as absurd, but if convicted he could face another 22 and a half years in prison on top of his former sentence.

    Remarkably, despite nearly four years behind bars, Forbes magazine still estimate Khodorkovsky's personal fortune at about $500m.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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