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Russia Jails Jewish Oil Baron, but His Roots Seen As Irrelevant

October 29, 2003
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Russia’s Jewish leaders are unlikely to rally behind jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, citing his weak connection to the organized community and his self-described lack of a Jewish identity.

Khodorkovsky, the head of the Yukos oil corporation, was arrested over the weekend and faces charges on seven counts, including tax evasion and massive theft, in what most see as a politically motivated case.

Khodorkovsky has actively funded opposition candidates in the campaign for the country’s parliamentary elections, slated for early December.

Yukos is bankrolling the campaigns of three major opposition parties across the political spectrum, from the pro-reform liberals to the Communists, though Khodorkovsky has said his own sympathies lie with the liberal parties.

The jailed business leader is Jewish, but Jewish officials, while expressing concern about the arrest, said they don’t see any connection between the case and Khodorkovsky’s Jewishness.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with anti-Semitism,” Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, told JTA.

Viktor Shnirelman, a historian and an expert on nationalism and anti-Semitism with the Russian Academy of Science, also ruled out any ethnic bias in the arrest, saying it is most likely related to the power struggle in Russia’s higher echelons.

Adolf Shayevich, Russia’s other chief rabbi, said the whole case is “disgusting,” and would not comment further.

The 41-year-old Khodorkovsky, believed to be Russia’s richest man, was jailed Saturday night after security agents stormed aboard his plane during a refueling stop in a Siberian airport while Khodorkovsky was on his way to a business forum.

He was hauled back to Moscow and placed in the overcrowded Matrosskaya Tishina Prison, notorious for its bad conditions.

According to Russian law, he may remain in jail until Dec. 30.

Jewish leaders said although the arrest had no direct relation to the magnate’s Jewish roots, the situation gave little reason for optimism for Russian Jews and non-Jews alike, as it was likely to change the political and business climate in the country.

“If nothing else, the situation is bad because for the first time one of the country’s business leaders was arrested the way he was arrested, as if this was some terrorist,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Two other Russian Jewish magnates, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Goussinsky, now live abroad after Kremlin- led campaigns against them.

Indeed, shares on Russia’s stock market plunged earlier this week on the news of Khodorkovsky’s arrest.

President Vladimir Putin refused to meet with business leaders on Monday over the case and called on the business community to refrain from “hysterics,” adding that he had no reason to distrust the decision to jail Khodorkovsky.

But most business leaders agree that the decision to jail someone of Khodorkovsky’s stature would have been impossible without presidential consent.

The arrest of Khodorkovsky capped nearly four months of intense pressure on his company.

The pressure was launched in early July with the jailing of Platon Lebedev, the billionaire chairman of the board of directors of Menatep, Yukos’ financial arm.

Lebedev, who is not Jewish, was charged with fraud in the 1994 privatization of a fertilizer and chemical company.

Some of the Jewish leaders had earlier expressed anxiety over the pressure against some of the nation’s best-known Jewish individuals.

But Lazar said the issue of Khodorkovsky’s Jewish roots is irrelevant — to Khodorkovsky and to the Jewish community.

“I met him more than once and he doesn’t consider himself a Jew. Nor does he see” the case as anti-Semitic, Lazar said.

He said Jews could feel as safe today as they did before the arrest.

But Satanovsky disagreed, saying Jews are sensitive to any possible changes in the political and business atmosphere in Russia.

“The arrest will certainly make some Jews start thinking about getting an Israeli or an American passport,” he said.

Yukos’ former deputy manager, Leonid Nevzlin, left Russia recently and has reportedly applied for an Israeli passport.

Nevzlin, Khodorkovsky’s longtime personal friend, was president of the Russian Jewish Congress from 1999-2000.

Unlike his former deputy, Khodorkovsky has never been involved directly in organized Jewish life.

And he recently told reporters while on a visit to the United States that the pressure on him and his company could result in his arrest, yet he would never consider emigrating from Russia.

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