Mikhail Khodorkovsky Discusses Putin and Medvedev

Yukos Oil's Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's wealthiest man, is serving an eight-year prison sentence for fraud and tax evasion. Kremlin critics say the charges stemmed from the former oligarch's opposition to then-president Vladimir Putin. Since March, Khodorkovsky has been on trial again, this time for alleged theft, and the court has refused to allow him to address the allegations against him. In written responses to questions submitted to his lawyers by NEWSWEEK's Russian-language partner, Russky NEWSWEEK, Khodorkovsky talked about Putin, the charges against him, and the Russian justice system. Excerpts:

Do you think you made a strategic error in 2003 in misjudging the risks for the company and yourself?
Maybe I was too naive in 2003 in believing that certain democratic and legal institutions had already become entrenched in the country. But I could not have acted differently, taking off, abandoning Platon [Lebedev, Khodorkovsky's business partner, who was convicted on the same charges and is also serving an eight-year sentence] and betraying other people. If I had to go through it again, I would probably have done the same thing. As for the company, I did all I could from the very outset of this affair to remove Yukos and its employees from danger. Nothing helped. It seems to me that Yukos in that situation no longer had any chance of surviving as a single company. It was too tempting a morsel of property, it was too successful and prosperous a company that we created.

How do you feel about Vladimir Putin and Deputy prime minister Igor Sechin? Do you think the Yukos case was their handiwork?
I think the case was created and continues to run thanks to a great many individuals. In fact, right now the case is mostly being driven by bureaucracy that isn't even in the top echelon. Are Putin and Sechin involved? Yes, in the initial stages of the case they are the ones who shaped the political will. Now, I don't know. What's important to me now is to uphold my good name and achieve a fair court decision—the past cannot be recovered anyway.

Do you see a difference between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev?
Many commentators and experts go to extremes. The implication of what they say is that either Medvedev is merely a puppet in Putin's hands or he is just waiting for a chance to rid himself of Putin's influence. I think Medvedev is certainly different from Putin, but at the same time I have no doubt that the current president is completely loyal to the previous one. Will he be able to pursue his own policy, will he deem that to be necessary for himself? These are questions to which I don't have an answer yet.

Can you imagine a situation in which you would apply for a pardon?
For now, all my efforts are focused on achieving a legal and objective decision in the case that is now being tried in Khamovnichesky Court. To admit guilt for nonexistent crimes is unacceptable to me. As for everything else, time will tell.

On more than one occasion over the past year Putin has criticized certain major businessmen and their companies. Do you see today—especially in connection with the economic problems—preconditions for a new "Yukos case"?
There already are new analogies to the Yukos case. They're just not on the same scale. Such things can happen to a company and businessman on any level, not just to those who are included in the Top 500 in the world ranking. The practice of artificially turning civil or arbitration disputes into material for a criminal case, which was tested on us, has created tens and hundreds of new Yukos cases on a smaller scale. Another consequence of our first case has been a loss of trust in the courts. There aren't many people who have any doubt now that a court may issue an unlawful decision under political pressure. And how does one then distinguish legal complaints from illegal ones? For the past five years, every time some tax charges or other accusations are made against a business, the press declares that a new Yukos case is underway. And that's understandable.