April 28, 2010 / 12:57 PM / 10 years ago

Book Talk: Putin-Khodorkovsky battle a "bar room brawl"

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The fall of Russian oil company YUKOS chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the rise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is “a clash between two world views,” author Martin Sixsmith says in his book “Putin’s Oil.”

Former oil baron Khodorkovsky was sentenced to eight years in a remote Siberian jail for fraud and tax evasion in 2005, and is now on trial for new charges of money laundering and embezzlement that could keep him in jail for 22 more years.

Former President and now Prime Minister Putin has always rejected any hint of politics in the case, but in December last year he accused Khodorkovsky of ordering the murders of business rivals and opponents.

Khodorkovsky has repeatedly stressed his innocence and says all the charges were cooked up by highly placed officials who wanted him in jail so they could carve up his multi-billion dollar business empire.

The main production assets of YUKOS were sold off in murky state auctions, winding up in the hands of state-controlled oil major Rosneft, and last year a Dutch court ordered Rosneft to pay 13 billion roubles ($389.3 million) to a former YUKOS affiliate.

This year Rosneft began asking traders to defer some payments after it became clear the company, which pumps a fifth of Russia’s 10 million barrels a day, was facing a possible export deadlock in light of U.S. and British court injunctions over the Dutch ruling.

Earlier this month Rosneft presented guarantees that suited a British court, saying the freeze on its assets was lifted after it had presented collateral.

Here’s what Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent in Moscow and the author of two previous books on contemporary Russian history, had to say about the ongoing YUKOS affair:

Q: You write about a power point presentation that Khodorkovsky dared to give to Putin that implied the President’s staff were involved in corruption. Why did he think his information and research mattered to the Kremlin?

A: I think probably that’s the key question, and my answer, my speculation, is that he was like a man who got into a brawl in a bar, and however much his friends said ‘Leave it, back off,’ his blood was up.

He got into a fight with a very powerful man, the legitimately elected president of Russia. Khodorkovsky knew that what Putin said went, and nonetheless he didn’t have the perspective on the fight he was in to know that he should have stopped.

I don’t think Vladimir Putin wanted this terrible outcome, which was terrible for everybody. It made Putin look bad, it shook confidence in overseas investors in Russia, it was bad for the Russian economy, it was bad for everybody’s image.

Now Khodorkovsky is recasting himself as this great proponent of democracy and freedom, an almost Tolstoyan martyr figure, which is instantly recognizable to Russians as this martyr who suffers for the good of the country.

I don’t think any of that is true. This is all post-facto, just Khodorkovsky imposing his version of events on what happened.

Q: After Khodorkovsky and YUKOS went down, many if not all of the oligarchs in Russia began to toe the line with Putin and his inner circle of advisors known as the Siloviki. What lessons did the oligarchs draw from YUKOS?

A: Two lessons: One-that it worked, that Putin did something quite drastic and I think against his better judgment and it had short-term bad consequence for him, but that in the long term the consequences have been quite good.

The second lesson was if you’re being bullied on the playground, you pick on the biggest bully of them all, you beat him up and then the other bullies stop doing it. The Kremlin did that with Khodorkovsky and the Kremlin recognizes this.

There’s a chapter in the book where I speak with (Putin spokesman) Dmitry Peskov, and he says if you want to make people stop doing something, you need to make an example of someone. He laughs and says, ‘Well look, it worked.’

Q: Why did you write this book in the first place?

A: First of all because it’s quite a striking story, and really the human drama of the clash between Putin and Khodorkovsky that initially attracted me to it.

But it’s more than a human drama, it’s a clash between two world views, and it’s a very neat way of encapsulating the history of Russia in the last 20 years.

The first 10 years were pulling Russia in one direction, and the last ten years have been pulling Russia in the other direction.

The thing which interests me is that it is not a phenomenon which is unique to our times. If you look at the scope of Russian history it has been a history of centralized, powerful, autocratic rule.

There have been periods of what in the west would be called reform. Catherine the Great had a go at it. Alexander the First, Mikhail Speransky looked at decentralizing and democratizing.

Between 1991 and 2000, it was very much a western model that they tried to introduce, and I don’t think they did it very well.

They had a go at it, it didn’t work, they got themselves in tremendous problems, and the last 10 years have really been putting Russia back on course again.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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