Across the Former Soviet Union As Russia Investigates Oil Company, Jewish Angle in Case Remains Uncl

As Russian prosecutors continue their pressure on Russia’s second largest oil company, Russian Jews disagree over a possible Jewish angle in the politically charged case.

On July 3, a Moscow court approved an arrest warrant for Platon Lebedev, the billionaire chairman of the board of Menatep, the financial arm of the oil giant Yukos. Lebedev was charged with fraud in the 1994 privatization of a fertilizer and chemical company.

Lebedev is not Jewish, but Yukos’ CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is believed to be the richest person in Russia, and Leonid Nevzlin, his former deputy at Yukos and former head of the Russian Jewish Congress, both are Jewish. Prosecutors questioned both men on July 4, and recently the case shifted to Yukos itself.

The case is the latest to be prosecuted in Russia against businesses with Jewish ties or against Jewish business tycoons.

In the most celebrated case, media mogul Vladimir Goussinsky — a major funder of Russian Jewish life — eventually left Russia after a Kremlin-orchestrated legal case against him.

Authorities accused Yukos, believed to be Russia’s largest taxpayer, of tax evasion. The charges resulted in a 17-hour search of the company’s main office in Moscow; the company quickly lost some $6.5 billion, or about one-fifth of its market value. Its stock fell rapidly after news of the investigation became known — indeed, the

Russian stock market has plunged recently as fears mounted that the investigation of Yukos could lead to the reassessment of private property rights.

Yukos owners have dismissed accusations of financial wrongdoing, saying the company is being targeted for political reasons.

A senior adviser to Yukos fingered two top administrators on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s staff who, some believe, instigated the Yukos investigation. Viktor Ivanov, deputy head of presidential administration, and Igor Sechin, head of Putin’s secretariat, are “hardened anti-Semites,” the source told JTA.

“There is clearly an anti-Semitic trace in this situation,” said Alexander Osovtsov, project director at the Open Russia foundation, a public organization funded by Yukos. “This is evident in the actions of those who stand behind the campaign and of those who serve as its direct executors.”

The government has remained relatively silent on the matter.

Putin distanced himself from the situation around Yukos and tiptoed around several opportunities to comment on the case — while stressing that “we need to punish economic violations.”

Osovtsov, former executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said he saw many parallels between this case and the situation around Goussinsky, who was president of the Russian Jewish Congress when legal proceedings were launched against him. The same team of prosecutors accused Goussinsky of financial wrongdoing and effectively forced him into exile four years ago.

While the reasons behind the current attack are unclear, many analysts say the case has little to do with the rule of law, but rather is an attempt by Russian security services and some members of Putin’s administration to redistribute property — either to another individual or to a member of the government.

“The actions of law enforcers in the economy have often gone beyond the framework of the law recently, and in essence are being based on political expediency,” said a carefully worded draft of a letter from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a lobbying group for big business, that was handed to Putin recently.

Some observers say Khodorkovsky, who often is credited with creating one of the most transparent business empires in Russia, may have aroused the Kremlin’s ire when he indicated that he might leave business for politics in a few years.

Named as the richest Russian by Forbes magazine, Khodorkovsky, 41, also recently publicized the list of political parties whose candidates he would support in December elections for Parliament. The list did not include the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party.

Gazeta.ru, a Web site that focuses on politics, has written that the Kremlin believes Khodorkovsky violated an unwritten agreement that Putin struck with top business magnates when he came to power in 2000.

Under that agreement, the Kremlin would not look into the legitimacy of capital accumulations if the most powerful business owners, referred to as oligarchs, renounced aspirations to political power. Instead, the Web site argued, Khodorkovsky began financing several political parties, which could give him influence over as many as half the deputies in the new Duma, the Russian Parliament’s lower house.

One Jewish leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told JTA that “there is definitely a Jewish angle to this story. It’s part of election politics.”

Those who fear that the case involves anti-Semitism say it might help Putin and his supporters if the public sees it as a Kremlin attempt to get rid of some of the new Jewish rich, who hardly enjoy public sympathy.

But not all Jewish leaders agree that the Jewish backgrounds of Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin, who is known as one of the most generous domestic donors to Russian Jewish causes, play any role in the case.

Nikolai Propirniy, editor in chief of the Jewish News, said his weekly publication was not going to write about the case.

“Since Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin were summoned to the prosecutor’s office not as Jewish leaders but as business leaders, this situation has nothing to do with the Jewish community,” Propirniy said.

However, another prominent Russian Jewish leader, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, said the situation could lead to serious difficulties for some of the leading Russian Jewish groups that have established close ties with big business and government.

“This is not directly a Jewish issue,” the leader said. “But indirectly it has great ramifications for the Jewish community. It will put those Jewish groups that are close to the government and to any of the oligarchs into a very difficult position.”

At least one U.S. Jewish leader responded to speculations about anti-Semitism in the case, JTA has learned.

On July 10, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, met in New York with Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergey Lavrov, to express his apprehension that anti-Semitism may play a role in the Yukos case.

The Russian envoy reportedly promised to report these concerns to Moscow.

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