- MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's
wealthiest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was snatched from his
jet in Siberia on Saturday, charged with fraud and tax evasion, and clamped
- Khodorkovsky, chief executive of YUKOS, had been engaged
in months of confrontation with the Kremlin, backing President Vladimir
Putin's rivals ahead of a parliamentary election in December and a presidential
contest next March.
- Prosecutors called the case against Khodorkovsky "unprecedented."
The action seemed calculated to demonstrate who was boss to the fabulously
wealthy "oligarchs" who control post-Soviet Russia's natural
resources and industry.
- It may also be a prelude to confiscating assets acquired
in chaotic privatization's in the 1990s, investment analysts said.
- "They want to cut him down to size," one international
official in Moscow told Reuters.
- A spokeswoman for the General Prosecutor said Khodorkovsky
was grabbed on the tarmac at Novosibirsk after failing to appear for questioning
in Moscow on Friday. State security agents flew him back to the capital
where he was charged on seven counts, some relating to purchases of former
state assets a decade ago.
- "It was decided to oblige him to appear," she
- A Moscow court later ruled that Khodorkovsky should be
held in jail. He was then taken to the Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailors Rest)
prison in northeastern Moscow.
- "Everything I saw underscores the fact that this
was all political. Khodorkovsky refused to admit any guilt," the oil
magnate's lawyer, Anton Drel, told reporters.
- "He asked me to make it clear that he has no regrets
over what he has done, no regrets over not leaving the country."
- A YUKOS statement denounced the charges as "absurd"
and said the company "views as humiliating the brute violence used
by Russia's law enforcement system." YUKOS, it said, "will fully
uphold its obligations to investors and creditors."
- $1 BILLION IN "DAMAGE"
- The prosecutor said $1 billion and more of "damage"
was done by Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev -- a key YUKOS shareholder
held in the same Moscow jail since July.
- Prosecutors made clear the charges were brought against
Khodorkovsky, 40, both as an individual and as head of YUKOS.
- Russia's biggest oil firm, YUKOS recently engineered
a merger with smaller Sibneft. U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil is said to be
interested in taking a stake.
- Neither Exxon nor another possible buyer, Chevron Texaco,
commented on the new turmoil, which followed searches of firms and institutions
associated with the oil major.
- Analysts said the arrest could open the way to Khodorkovsky
and his associates being stripped of their stakes in YUKOS.
- "This is clearly an endgame of some sort,"
said one foreign banker. "I think we have a very powerful change in
- Putin, a former KGB agent hailed by supporters for ending
post-Soviet tumult, is expected to run and easily win a second term next
year. Television showed him chairing a weekly meeting of top law and order
officials on Saturday without comment.
- Putin has preserved a lofty detachment in public from
the disputes with YUKOS and other business empires. But he has made clear
he does not wish to be in thrall to big business in the way his predecessor
Boris Yeltsin was to the "oligarchs."
- Khodorkovsky's political ambitions have won him no more
favor with the Kremlin than wealthy former Yeltsin allies like Boris Berezovsky
or Vladimir Gusinsky, now in uneasy exile.
- "He is being pressed to give it up or sell out.
People high up in administration do not want...their most powerful opponent
running the most powerful company in Russia," said an international
official in Moscow.
- YUKOS spokesman Alexander Shadrin said Khodorkovsky's
aircraft was accosted during a refueling stop by officers identifying themselves
as members of the FSB intelligence service, the domestic successor to the
- He was ordered out of the aircraft and taken away.
- Electricity utility boss Anatoly Chubais, former architect
of privatization, said moves against business chiefs "have considerably
worsened the atmosphere in Russian society.
- "We believe that only a clear and unambiguous position
by Russian President Putin can stop these extremely dangerous developments,"
he said after meeting fellow business leaders.
- Two liberal parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing
Forces -- backed by Khodorkovsky said in a joint statement the arrest would
"change the political situation and place in doubt the immutable nature
of Russia's constitution."