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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Family Squabble for Oil, Power

The pressure on Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky reflects a shifting balance of power in the Kremlin, where players who have emerged during Vladimir Putin's presidency are asserting themselves to challenge well-established alliances between the old guard, leading financial-industrial groups and political parties ahead of the elections.

Yukos has traditionally relied on Boris Yeltsin's retinue, known as the Family, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's team for leverage in the corridors of power, sometimes playing these clans off each other to remain relatively independent, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

However, with the influence of the Family waning, Yukos can no longer rely on it for patronage and protection, and was vulnerable to attack from other clans, such as the one led by two deputy heads of the presidential administration, Viktor Ivanov and Igor Sechin, political observers said.

Ivanov served in the Federal Security Service, including in its St. Petersburg branch, for years before joining the presidential administration in January 2000, and his clan is known as that of the St. Petersburg chekists, or security service officers, who come from Putin's hometown. This clan has many supporters in the law enforcement, defense and security agencies. Sechin began working with Putin in 1990 in St. Petersburg, and when Putin moved to Moscow in 1997 he brought Sechin with him.

Having assumed high posts under Putin, the chekist clan's leaders have been working quietly to expand their influence and apparently decided to make their influence felt as the elections near. Yukos, with its financial resources and lobbying capabilities, is an obvious prize.

Ivanov and Sechin have competed with the clan of the so-called old St. Petersburgers, which includes Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais. The chekists seem to have even less love for the Family, which includes presidential chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

Roman Abramovich, the main shareholder in Sibneft, which is merging with Yukos, is reported to be among the Family's men. In a sign that he may also come under pressure, Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin said Monday that Sibneft is one of the "biggest tax cheats" among Russian companies.

"We think that we have to change the way we collect taxes from our largest oil companies," Stepashin said, Interfax reported.

Khodorkovsky himself has made no secret of his belief that the fraud charges brought against his business associate Platon Lebedev and the pressure being put on his oil company are the result of a Kremlin power struggle.

"My opinion is that what we are seeing here is the beginning of a fight for power between various branches of the sphere around Vladimir Vladimirovich," Khodorkovsky said late Saturday in Tomsk in an interview with Krasnoyarsk's TV-2 television.

He declined to say which Kremlin clan was putting pressure on him, and by not naming names he avoided an all-out war.

Khodorkovsky was tough in defending his company. "We are the largest company in the country and we are an independent company." He said Yukos has "sufficient resources for its legal and political defense" and suggested it had powerful supporters of its own.

"There are enough forces in society that are not interested in having people with epaulets thinking that they have received a carte blanche," he said in the interview, which was posted on Ekho Moskvy's web site.

But Khodorkovsky sought to downplay his and his company's political clout. "One should not exaggerate the real influence of our political activities. ... We are not as formidable a force in the sphere of politics as many try to imagine. " Yukos, he said, is not the "subject" in the struggle for power but the "object."

He also sought to demonstrate that he and his company are careful not to cross the president.

"If he has any objections, he directly states them. And we then try to ensure that these objections do not grow," Khodorkovsky said.

At the same time, though, Khodorkovsky gave no clear answer to a direct question on whether he may run for president in 2007 when Putin's second term would end.

These statements indicate that Khodorkovsky does not plan to surrender and will fight to keep control of Yukos, although he is ready to negotiate with the new heavyweights in the Kremlin, according to Pribylovsky and Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

It may remain unknown to the general public what specifically those putting pressure on Khodorkovsky want from him and on what terms Khodorkovsky will settle, but one clear sign that a deal has been struck would be the release of Lebedev, analysts said.

Lebedev, the third-largest shareholder in Yukos' parent company, Group Menatep, was arrested last week and charged with defrauding the state of $280 million in a 1994 privatization deal.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, said the main goal being pursued by the people behind the attack on Khodorkovsky is still unclear.

"If it is all about trying to scare him off from going too far into politics, then it has been pretty much already achieved. Khodorkovsky can be kept on a short leash for as long as [Lebedev] is in prison," Nikonov said.

Khodorkovsky has been openly funding political parties that will challenge the pro-Kremlin United Russia coalition in December's elections.

There is little doubt that pro-Kremlin deputies will form a substantial part of the next State Duma and that Putin will get re-elected.

"However, the question still remains, who will Putin have to thank for forming the majority in the Duma and helping him" to secure a second presidential term, Petrov said.

Nikonov said the presidential administration's efforts to beef up a pro-Kremlin party ahead of the elections are clearly uncoordinated.

"There are a lot of towers in the Kremlin: Spasskaya, Vodovzvodnaya, Arsenalnaya ... Two of them are not even named and not all of the towers are connected to one another," he said.

The chekist clan is behind the recent decision by People's Party, whose members control more than one-fifth of the Duma, to break away from United Russia, which is supervised by Voloshin and his deputy Vladislav Surkov, according to the analysts.

The co-chairmen of United Russia's higher council include Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

There has been some speculation that the highly publicized arrests last month of senior Moscow police officials and one of Shoigu's deputies, who are accused of running an extortion ring, were aimed at discrediting Gryzlov, Shoigu and, by extension, United Russia.

Interestingly, the same investigator from the Prosecutor General's Office -- Salavat Karimov -- conducted the first interrogations of the arrested police officials and is now investigating the alleged crimes committed by Lebedev.

Over the past three years, Karimov has made a career of investigating high-profile cases against Russia's tycoons. It was Karimov who handled the case against Vladimir Gusinsky in 2000 that led to the media magnate's departure from Russia's political arena and from the country itself.

It was also Karimov who was used to bring down once-powerful former railways minister and member of Yeltsin's inner circle Nikolai Aksyonenko in 2001.

Nikonov said that if the aim is to one way or another get a hold on Khodorkovsky's oil business, it will take more than the charges against Lebedev.

"If it gets to the redistribution of property then it is hard to say what will follow," Nikonov said.

The current troubles surrounding Yukos are smudging Russia's still very new image as a stable country and doing nothing to encourage foreign investment. But Nikonov said this is probably of little concern to the people behind the attack on Yukos.

"Not everyone thinks that this image or Russia getting a credit rating is needed at all," he said.