MOSCOW — A lot has been happening to former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia since he left that country. The 52-year-old opposition leader, who now lives in exile in Europe, is once again wanted by the Russian courts—and this time Khodorkovsky is accused of murder.
The once-powerful owner of the Yukos oil company has already spent over 10 years in Russian prisons for alleged fraud, and clearly has no intention of going back to be locked up again. But days before Christmas the Russian Investigative Committee issued an international warrant for his arrest and the court in Moscow endorsed it.
The alleged crime involves the murder of a mayor in Siberia back in 1998, and given how long Khodorkovsky was in prison without these charges being brought against him, one might assume the real crime, in the view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was rather more recent.
A few days before the decision, Khodorkovsky spoke at a press conference in London: “A revolution in Russia is inevitable,” the former oil tycoon said.
Many in Moscow were, shall we say, irritated? And not only Putin’s partisans. Even if people would like less of a heavy hand from the Kremlin and more freedom to express themselves, they’re hoping for modernity and stability, not upheaval.
In the wake of Khodorkovsky’s remarks, pressure on his supporters increased both in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Several dozen policemen searched for criminal evidence around apartments, offices and even a private vehicle that belonged to employees of Open Russia, a community of activists supported and financed by Khodorkovsky. The movement’s website, openrussia.org, has posted investigative reports and opinion pieces exposing human-rights violations and large-scale corruption among top officials in Russia.
Why did the Kremlin go after Khodorkovsky more than two years after Putin pardoned him? It’s not just the press conference, certainly.
To hear Khodorkovsky tell the story, Putin’s afraid of him. “Putin sees me as a threat, economically, because of the possible seizure of Russian assets abroad,” Khodorkovsky told the press. The Kremlin denied that Putin had anything to do with the new arrest warrant.
A Duma deputy, Dmitry Gudkov, suggested just how big the monetary question might be: “Authorities do not want to pay over $50 billion compensation to Yukos.”
In 2014, a tribunal in the Hague ruled the Russian state had forced bankruptcy on Yukos, the biggest private oil company in the country, in order to appropriate its assets and prevent Khodorkovsky from entering politics.
The court imposed $50 billion in damages, which was roughly 2.5 percent of Russia’s GDP at a time it was already in recession.
Since then, the Duma has been working to change legislation to help avoid international court decisions, but by putting Khodorkovsky on trial for murder, even in his absentia, authorities shift the focus from them to him.
“They are preparing the world for Russia’s decision not to pay the money,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.
For Khodorkovsky, the exile’s life in France, the U.K., or in Switzerland was never the same as in Moscow, where he had a team of young activists working for him. His former partner, and head of the Yukos-Moscow management company, Aleksei Kondaurov, told The Daily Beast that this third trial against Khodorkovsky is Moscow’s revenge for several big Yukos victories in international courts, including the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights as well as The Hague.
“This is also a revenge for Khodorkovsky and his Open Russia supporting opposition candidates at elections,” Kondaurov said. Last week, Khodorkovsky told BBC that he was thinking about asking the U.K. for asylum.
Meanwhile in Moscow, the old patterns from Soviet dissident days decades ago are coming back. Friends in the Open Russia community called each other on the phone with a question: “Did they come to you?”
Zoya Svetova, a journalist and human-rights defender at Open Russia, remembered the arrests of her dissident parents in the 1980s: “When the KGB came to arrest my father, my husband helped to burn some family papers; now, my colleagues delete documents from their computers. We exchange a memo, an instruction for what to do, when they come: do not open the door, immediately call your lawyer,” Svetova told The Daily Beast.
Many Russians look on Khodorkovsky favorably—at least 33 percent of the population approved of his release from prison in 2013. But seeing what pressure the opposition movement has suffered, not many have been willing to join.
Last year only 2 percent of Russians said they would vote for Khodorkovsky in the next presidential elections.
“The idea is to discredit him with the murder trial, so Russian politicians would not take his money, people would be afraid of working with him,” Kondaurov told The Daily Beast.
Of course, such pressure is nothing new for the former tycoon. Vera Chelysheva, the author of Prisoner #1, a book about Khodorkovsky, has been covering his trials for many years. “I cannot see how the unbreakable Khodorkovsky I know could be stopped by more falsified accusations, by more pressure, after what he has suffered through,” said Chelysheva. “He is a free spirit, he will not stop his struggle.”