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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Khodorkovsky Seeks Peace With Putin

APKhodorkovsky: "Putin is more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of Russians."
Jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has called for an end to attempts to undermine President Vladimir Putin and said big business should pay more taxes in return for having its property rights legitimized.

In a sharp turnaround from the fighting talk and warnings of looming dictatorship before his arrest, Khodorkovsky conceded in an article published Monday and penned from his cell in Matrosskaya Tishina prison that Putin was a positive force for reining in increasingly popular nationalist politicians.

He lashed out at liberal Boris Yeltsin-era policymakers for lining their pockets during the privatization process as the vast majority of the population plunged into poverty. He blamed big business for feeding that crony system, which, he said, has led the nation to scorn liberal parties such as the Union of Right Forces, which he funded.

The article, published in Monday's Vedomosti, marks the first time the nation's richest man has vented his opinions since his Oct. 25 arrest at gunpoint on charges of large-scale fraud and tax evasion -- and is the closest Khodorkovsky has gotten to openly seeking peace with Putin.

The case has been seen as key for a Kremlin drive to establish greater control over big business and is seen as the result of a power clash between Putin and the increasingly ambitious Khodorkovsky.

If six months ago Khodorkovsky was squaring off with Putin, pushing for an independent foreign and energy policy and trying to block the passage of higher taxation on the oil industry through the State Duma, now he is calling for more support for the president.

"We have to reject senseless attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the president," he wrote. "Independent of whether we like Vladimir Putin or not, it is time to realize that the head of state is not just a person. The president is an institution that guarantees the integrity and the stability of the country."

"And God forbid we should live to see that institution collapse. Russia will not survive another February 1917. The country's history dictates that a bad leader is better than none," he wrote.

With the rise of nationalist parties, such as Rodina in last December's Duma elections, Putin, he said, had become "liberal No. 1."

"Putin is not a liberal or a democrat, but he's still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of our country's population," Khodorkovsky wrote, crediting Putin for not allowing nationalist forces to take power.

Analysts said that the article, which ran under the headline "The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia," appeared to be an attempt by Khodorkovsky to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin as his trial date nears. Some analysts said it could be a first step by Khodorkovsky to strike a deal with the Kremlin in a bid for greater leniency.

One insider said the article was an attempt by Khodorkovsky to distance himself from his business partner and fellow Yukos shareholder Leonid Nevzlin, who has been vocal in his criticism of the Kremlin, claiming in a recent interview that the Kremlin wanted to force a change of ownership at Yukos.

"This is a sign of a public split between the shareholders of Group Menatep," said one insider, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Public opinion in Russia is pretty radical and Putin is limiting the damage. ... In the meantime, Nevzlin is working together with Berezovsky to destroy Putin."

"Nevzlin is playing political games in which Khodorkovsky wants no part," he said.

Khodorkovsky's article comes a week after the Rossiiskiye Vesti newspaper reported a claim by unnamed intelligence sources that Nevzlin had tried to organize a contract hit on Putin before the recent Cabinet reshuffle in an attempt to replace him with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

A spokesman for Nevzlin declined to comment on that article Monday, dismissing it as "rubbish." He said Nevzlin had no comment on Khodorkovsky's article.

In his Vedomosti commentary, Khodorkovsky underlined the divide between himself and Nevzlin by criticizing former presidential candidate and former co-leader of the Union of Right Forces Irina Khakamada, whom Nevzlin has said he is financing.

"We need to stop lying to ourselves and to society," he wrote. "I respect and highly value Irina Khakamada. But as opposed to my partner, Leonid Nevzlin, I refused to finance her presidential campaign because I saw in this worrying signs of lies. For example, whatever you might think about Putin, it is impossible -- because it is not fair -- to blame him for the Nord Ost tragedy."

Khakamada, as part of her presidential campaign, had criticized Putin for his handling of the October 2002 hostage crisis.

In the more than 2,000-word article, which is mainly a treatise on the demise and the rout of liberal parties in last December's parliamentary elections, Khodorkovsky calls for the liberals to repent their sins of the last decade, when many of their leaders took positions of power and enriched themselves while espousing pro-market reforms.

"Those whom fate and history entrusted with guarding liberal values in our country did not manage their task," he wrote. "We should admit this now with all openness. The time of craftiness is over, and from the cells of detention wing No. 4, where I am now, this could be clearer than from other more comfortable accommodations."

He said liberal leaders had forgotten the social needs of most of the people, as they became ever more distant from the population.

"Liberal leaders called ... their government a kamikaze cabinet," he wrote. "In the beginning, this is what they were. But by the mid-'90s they had gotten too used to accumulating Mercedes, dachas, villas, nightclubs and gold credit cards. The tough fighter for liberalism, ready to die for an idea, had been exchanged for a weak bohemian, who did not even try to hide his indifference to the Russian people. ... This bohemian example, filled with demonstrative cynicism, did a lot to discredit liberalism in Russia."

Khodorkovsky accused the liberal leaders of deceiving the people during the Yeltsin-era voucher privatizations, but stopped short of examining his own role in rigged deals that helped him earn a fortune of $15 billion, according to Forbes magazine's latest estimate.

Instead he lashed out at big business for its "willingness" and "submissiveness" to bureaucrats on the take.

"For an entrepreneur it is much easier to reach agreement with the cupped hand of a bureaucrat, than to agree his actions with a network of social institutions able to act," he wrote.

"For me Russia is my homeland. I want to live, work and die here," he wrote. "I want my descendants to be proud of Russia. ... Perhaps I understood this too late. I only began charity work and to invest in the infrastructure of civil society in 2000. But it's better late than never. ... I left business."

He called for big business to pay more taxes and agree to "other steps that might not be pleasant for owners of big business."

"We need to legitimize privatization," he said. In order to ensure this, he said, "We need to force big business to share with the people."

"This is not a repentance in the classic sense," said Igor Yurgens, executive vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. "There is not a lot of looking into his own past. Instead, he calls for future taxation hikes and massive investments into the Russian economy."

"Khodorkovsky is stretching out his hand. The question is whether Putin will take it," he said.

Some analysts thought that Khodorkovsky's peace offering may have come as too little, too late.

"His pragmatism is back. He is trying to feel the political wind," said James Fenkner, head of research at Troika Dialog. "But it may be too late for that. Last year he and his partners thought they could walk on water."

Vedomosti editor Tatyana Lysova said the article landed at the paper at the end of last week without any prior negotiation.

Khodorkovsky's lawyer Anton Drel said his client had been working on it for three months.