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Sentencing of Russian Jewish Tycoon Seen As a Way to Keep Putin in Power

June 1, 2005
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Russian Jewish officials believe oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sentenced this week to nine years in prison, was not targeted because of his Jewish origin — but many believe the trial did lead to a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia. A Moscow court on Tuesday sentenced Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, after finding him guilty of six charges out of seven he faced, including tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement.

Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, also was jailed for nine years on the same charges. A third defendant, Andrei Krainov, was given a suspended sentence of five-and-a-half years. Lebedev and Krainov are not Jewish.

“This was to be expected,” Tankred Golenpolsky, founder of the International Jewish Gazette, Russia’s oldest Jewish weekly, said minutes after the sentence was made public.

“It was clear from the very beginning that Khodorkovsky won’t be free before 2008,” Golenpolsky said, referring to Russia’s next presidential election and echoing a common view that the Kremlin orchestrated the trial to curtail Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions. “Once he is free he will be the only and the strongest alternative” to President Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky has been in prison since October 2003. He has 10 days to appeal the sentence, and plans to do so.

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General’s Office said Tuesday that it would file new charges against Khodorkovsky and his partners.

Another leading Russian Jewish figure said the trial had little to do with the rule of law.

“This sentence has put this case in a line of other high-profile, politically tinged criminal cases in the history of Russia,” said Mikhail Chlenov, secretary-general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

Chlenov said the Kremlin saw the case as putting an end to an early era of Russian capitalism associated with former President Boris Yeltsin, during which many Jewish business tycoons got rich when formerly state-owned businesses were privatized.

Khodorkovsky’s sentencing sends a clear message to influential Russian business leaders, some of whom may have wanted to compete for power with Putin, Golenpolsky said.

The prosecutors demanded that Khodorkovsky receive 10 years. Khodorkovsky’s defense said the verdict in large parts repeated prosecutors’ conclusion in the case, almost word-for-word.

Khodorkovsky, 41 and the father of four children, has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Before his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky had mentioned privately to Jewish leaders on several occasions that he did not consider himself Jewish.

Though he was a prominent philanthropist interested in education and civil rights, he never contributed to Jewish causes.

Jewish leaders emphasized that the case wasn’t motivated by anti-Semitism, but believe many Russians based their attitude toward Khodorkovsky on his ethnic origin.

“Regardless of what Khodorkovsky himself felt about his Jewishness, any anti-Semite would readily list him as a Jew,” Chlenov said. “This has a certain impact on the way many Russian Jews feel today.”

A spokesman for Russia’s largest Jewish organization agreed.

“This case has already led to a rise of anti-Semitic moods in some circles of society,” said Boruch Gorin of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, referring to some Russians — mainly from the older generation or from low-income households — who feel animosity toward the wealthy.

Some Jews, especially former top Yukos shareholders now living in Israel, exploited Jews’ insecurities by describing the case as anti-Semitic, Gorin said.

Three of Yukos’ top shareholders fled to Israel shortly after Khodorkovsky’s arrest. One of them, Leonid Nevzlin, former president of the Russian Jewish Congress and the best-known member of the Yukos team after Khodorkovsky, has said the Kremlin went after Yukos in part because of anti-Semitism among prominent members of the Putin administration.

Many Russian Jews took special interest in the case because of Khodorkovsky’s Jewish roots. But they weren’t alone: Many non-Jewish Russians saw the sentence as a comment on the regime’s lack of respect for democratic freedoms and the rule of law.

“I certainly feel an extra sympathy for Khodorkovsky because of his Jewish background,” said Irina Miller, a Jewish legal assistant at a Moscow law firm. “But I know a lot more non-Jews who likewise feel this is a grand injustice being done before our eyes.”

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