In 2004 Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia, according to Forbes, but Premier Vladimir Putin froze the shares of Yukos, his energy giant and drove his fortune down to a fraction of what it had been. Like all the oligarchs, who had more or less stolen their fortunes in assets once owned by the state, Khodokorvsky was warned by Putin not to interfere in politics and he would never be prosecuted for his economic crimes. But, the oligarch, a soft-spoken man, refused to submit to this threat from Putin, according to a documentary film called “VLAST” (for Power,) that I have seen prior to its PBS showing in 2 months. (Pilar Crespi, the producer and wife of my friend Stephen Robert, former CEO of Oppenheimer & Co., gave it to me).
The multi-billionaire oligarch Khodokorvsky was sentenced to a long prison sentence then- and just weeks ago, when his case was on appeal, the oligarch’s sentence was extended to 2017. It’s a primitive system of justice that could never exist in the U.S. When the 47 year old Khodokorvsky appeared in court in November, he exclaimed that he was “ashamed for my country… the bureaucracy and law enforcement machine can do whatever it wants. There is no right of private property.”
An aide to the judge who just extended the sentence, Natalya Vasileya, has just taken her life in her hands by appearing on television in Russia and explaining that it is “a rigged case” — that the presiding judge did not even write the decision.
I profoundly hope that Ms. Vasileya will be safer than Forbes’ fearless Russian editor, Paul Klebnikov, who before he was assassinated on a Moscow street in 2004, had given several oligarchs grief by investigating and revealing their ruthless ways. This took place just weeks after Forbes published its first issue in Russia, listing the 100 richest men in that nation.
At the time, Alexander Lebedev, listed at 25th richest in Russia, asked a friend to put him in touch with a Forbes senior editor. For hours uin a New York hotel I had to listen to Lebedev’s complaint that Forbes had endangered him and the other 99 oligarchs by publishing estimates of their wealth.
I seem to recall that Lebedev, a former KGB officer stationed in London, was worth $1.4 billion from his holding in Russian airline, bank and hotel businesses. Nothing came of my meeting which was before Klebnikov was murdered, a crime that has never been solved. Paul was the only American journalist to be killed in Russia, and to this day it is utterly scandalous that no-one knows why. Shamefully, Putin has done nothing.
What irony that today Lebedev believes he is Putin’s newest oligarch target. This week Lebedev sent an open letter to Putin- that got little if no publicity- complaining that was being persecuted and threatened with damages to his business empire . Lebedev owns two London newspapers ,The Independent and the London Evening Mail. His bank in Russia was raided last November, perhaps because he is supporting an opposition publication in Russia itself.
No wonder few American citizens invest in the Russian stock market, where its energy giants sell at a 40-50% discount from their US competitors. No wonder that my friend, the author Susan Richards, tells me that Russia’s “entire edifice is infected, utterly corrupted. It’s not just property, business, governance; you buy your way out of your kid being conscripted; you buy your idiot kid into the best college.:”
Ms. Richards, the author of a recent well received book on Russia, “Lost And Found In Russia, Lives In A Post-Soviet Landscape,” has written a perfectly brilliant bog for Forbes, entitled “It’s The Corruption, Stupid.” I recommend it and the book heartily.
Have a look at her blog; “It’s The Corruption Stupid,’ which is going up with this piece.