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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Flies Into Firestorm in Rome

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday moved to calm growing unease in Europe over the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, saying he considers the tycoon "innocent until proven guilty" and that he is "categorically opposed" to overturning the privatizations of the mid-1990s.

Putin, speaking to Italian journalists before flying off to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II and attend the EU-Russia summit, admitted that some officials may have been a little over-zealous in their attack of Khodorkovsky and his Yukos empire.

Putin's attempts to limit the political fallout over the Oct. 25 arrest of Khodorkovsky and subsequent sequestering of 40 percent of his oil giant's shares came as Brussels warned that the affair could affect relations between the EU and Russia.

The European Commission issued a statement saying it intended to seek "clarifications" from Putin over his handling of the Yukos affair and that the rule of law was upheld in Russia.

"The commission will recall the need for the fair, non-discriminatory and proportional application of the law by the Russian authorities. Defendants must be granted due process so that they have a fair chance of defending themselves," the statement said.

Supporters of Khordorkovsky attempted to win over Italian public opinion by holding a news conference in Rome to denounce what they called the "illegal actions" by Russian authorities against Khodorkovsky and other Yukos employees. The conference, organized by Robert Amsterdam, a Toronto-based lawyer for Khodorkovsky, included representatives of Russian human rights organizations and a State Duma deputy from the Khodorkovsky-funded Yabloko party.

The 25-page "white paper" Amsterdam presented is essentially a laundry list of alleged procedural violations committed by prosecutors in the case, including the "torture" of Yukos security head Alexei Pichugin by means of psychotropic drugs. Pichugin is being held on murder charges.

Putin, however, seemed well prepared for the grilling he was about to receive in Rome.

Putin admitted there is a trend in society supporting a review of privatization, but that "we must not allow events to develop in this negative way."

Reiterating his dictatorship-of-the-law line, Putin said the Yukos investigation was "nothing extraordinary" and likened it to the recent corporate scandals in America, including Enron.

He also hit back at the United States for what the Foreign Ministry has called Washington's "double standards."

"The arrests of [U.S. executives] took place directly in their companies' offices. They put handcuffs on them and showed it all on television. One of the people charged killed himself. For some reason there are no questions raised about what's happening there," Putin said.

Putin conceded that the case was the "catalyst" for the resignation of his long-serving chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, who was close to Khodorkovsky and the other tycoons. Putin stressed, however, that Voloshin would have been out of a job shortly anyway.

Many of the privatizations of the mid-1990s were clearly rigged, but what sealed Khodorkovsky's fate, most observers say, was his decision to use his colossal fortune to dabble in politics.

The liberal Yabloko party, for example, said that much of its campaign funding had come from Khodorkovsky. In announcing that he was stepping down as Yukos CEO on Monday, Khodorkovsky said he would now devote his time to politics and philanthropic projects via his Open Russia Foundation, which is modeled on fellow billionaire George Soros' Open Society.

Soros, who recently ended his activities in Russia in order to concentrate on America, a country he said was more in need of his help, weighed in on the Yukos debate Tuesday.

In an interview with Open Russia's newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti, Soros said there is little doubt that Khodorkovsky's interest in politics is why he is behind bars.

As to whether businessmen should be upbraided for dabbling in politics, Soros said he thought that there was nothing illegal about Khodorkovsky supporting political parties. "I do the same in the United States," he said.

Analysts said Putin was well prepared to handle the criticism. In Rome, he will repeat assurances that human rights are alive and well in Russia and that ownership rights are not under attack, said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the U.S. Heritage Foundation think tank.

"I doubt there will be any twists or turns," Volk said. "But I do think that the doubts of Western leaders about the way this was done will remain."

Volk said Putin's suggestion Tuesday that law enforcement bodies were being overzealous was a sign of the "good cop, bad cop" line the president has been adopting.

After Putin harshly warned the government to stay out of the Yukos case last week, his new chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev, wasted no time doing just that, questioning the "legal effectiveness" of the prosecutors' decision to freeze 40 percent of Yukos' stock. "It is the typical style of Putin and his administration. In other words: take a step back, look at the reaction, then correct and tweak the political line," Volk said.

Putin's remarks Tuesday were similar to those made Monday by the usually media-shy Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who hailed the removal of Voloshin as the end of the oligarchy.

Political and economic analysts alike say Kudrin's decision to support Putin so whole-heartedly suggests he is gearing up to replace Mikhail Kasyanov as the head of the government. Kasyanov, a Voloshin ally who owes his position in large part to the oligarchs, is the last major political player left with strong ties to former President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, known popularly as the Family.

As if earthly troubles weren't enough, Putin will also face a potentially uncomfortable meeting with the pope on Wednesday that is designed to help heal the divisions between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy.