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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Sense of Perspective

The dramatic jailing of Russia's richest man proves once again that Russian politics can still shock and surprise the outside world. One day Mikhail Khodorkovsky is hob-nobbing with presidents and ambassadors. The next day he finds himself sitting in a Moscow prison cell with two other unfortunates, his daily diet and toilet facilities being dissected in the popular media. Try to imagine Donald Trump turning overnight into Nelson Mandela.

The standard explanation for Khodorkovsky's arrest is that he is being punished for funding opposition political parties and standing up for Russian democracy. But this is a red herring. The liberal parties that Khodorkovsky was backing have only a few dozen seats and do not represent any sort of threat to President Vladimir Putin. To understand the arrest, it is important to keep a sense of perspective, and understand just what has been happening in Russia over the past decade.

The incarceration does not signal the death of democracy because there was no democracy in Russia to begin with. Like the police inspector in Casablanca, Russia-watchers say they are shocked, shocked to discover that men in uniform are running the Kremlin. But these are the same people who have run Russia for the past 1,000 years, including the past 10.

Remember how Boris Yeltsin came to power in August 1991? By standing on a tank in front of the Russian parliament. This was very heroic and something rightly welcomed in the West. But things did not look so good in October 1993, when Yeltsin turned those same tanks on that same parliament and rewrote the constitution to create a super-presidential regime. A year later the generals were rewarded for their loyalty when Yeltsin allowed them to invade Chechnya, which they promised would be a short, victorious war. This was a blunder for which, nine years later, Russians and Chechens are still paying dearly.

So let us leave democracy aside and look at the real issue: power. With the collapse of central planning, the Kremlin lost its direct control over the economy. Under Yeltsin, two types of economic bosses emerged. One group headed corporations still owned by the state -- like the railways, the natural gas monopoly and the electricity monopoly. The second group was the flamboyant oligarchs, dynamic individuals who carved business empires out of the chaos of post-Communist Russia.

Putin consistently has pursued a policy of dismantling the power of the oligarchs. His goal is to rebuild Russia's power and influence with a capitalist, market economy. But he does not want to share power with oligarchs, whom he sees as putting their private interests before those of the state.

The rules of the game were clear: The oligarchs could keep their assets acquired during the headlong privatization of the mid-1990s, but they were to stay out of politics and show loyalty to Putin. Khodorkovsky wanted to change the rules. By turning Yukos into Russia's largest oil company, and then selling it to a Western partner such as ExxonMobil and staying on as CEO, Khodorkovsky thought he could guarantee his independence from the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky also planned to develop a network of privately owned export pipelines that would break the monopoly of the state-owned Transneft corporation. Not only would these projects lock in his financial independence, they also amounted to a parallel foreign policy for Russia.

In April, Khodorkovsky overcame objections and won government approval for a new $4 billion pipeline to carry West Siberian crude to Murmansk for export to the United States by sea. And in May, Yukos signed a declaration of intent with the Chinese National Petroleum Co. to build a 2,240-kilometer pipeline from Angarsk to Daqing in China. This would almost certainly preclude the building of a parallel pipeline from Angarsk to Nakhodka favored by the Japanese and the Russian government, which for strategic reasons do not want to become dependent on China.

It was Khodorkovsky's aggressive business strategies, not his alleged commitment to democracy, that set off the alarm bells in government circles. The government relies heavily on loyal energy companies such as LUKoil and Gazprom to fill its budgetary coffers with taxes; to subsidize domestic manufacturers and hard-pressed citizens by providing cheap energy; to gain influence over neighboring states by buying up pipelines, oil refineries and power plants, and to win friends in Europe, which relies heavily on fuel imports from Russia.

Khodorkovsky's plans -- and achievements -- threatened to break up these cozy relations, which have been the backbone of the country's political economy over the past decade.

Did Khodorkovsky really expect Putin to stand by and watch Yukos eclipse the state bureaucracy as the major player on world energy markets? Did he not notice that in every other country that is a major oil exporter, oil is a state-owned monopoly?

In the 1990s, U.S. State Department officers used to worry about what would happen if Russia "goes bad." With the horrified reaction to Khodorkovsky's arrest in the West, many observers are now arguing that the doomsday scenario has finally arrived: Russia is reverting to its default mode -- a police state in which dissent is not tolerated and power is centralized in a single chain of command. Some even suggest that we should hunker down for a new Cold War, or what Republican Senator John McCain has called a "cold peace."

But these responses are misguided. Putin already has demonstrated that, despite his KGB past and authoritarian domestic politics, he can be a friend to the West, a partner in economic integration and in efforts to control rogue regimes in Iraq and North Korea. Russia is what Russia is, and not what America wants it to be.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University. This is excerpted from a comment that first appeared in Newsday.