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Khodorkovsky ruling confirms Putin's dominance

The tough sentence handed to former Russian tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky has confirmed Vladimir Putin's dominance over Russia even as it seeks to modernise, analysts said.

world Updated: Dec 31, 2010 08:58 IST

The tough sentence handed to former Russian tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky has confirmed Vladimir Putin's dominance over Russia even as it seeks to modernise, analysts said.

The country's most famous inmate was ordered on Thursday to spend another six years in prison after being convicted on fraud charges that Western governments have called "selective" and rights groups simply absurd.

Putin's arch-nemesis was found guilty of stealing all the oil produced by his Yukos firm over a five year period -- in essence one-fifth of all of Russia's crude -- and then laundering the 23.5 billion dollars in proceeds.

The charges left even Khodorkovsky smiling and shaking his head in court.

The presiding judge threw out the testimony of a former prime minister and central bank chairman who testified for the defence and then interpreted Khodorkovsky's own words at the trial as further confirmation of his guilt.

All this followed an unexpected delay in the process that allowed the court to hear a national television appearance by Putin in which Russia's de-facto leader noted with passion that a "thief must be in prison".

Kremlin critics said those words effectively buried Khodorkovsky's last hope.

"This confirms that Putin continues to rule Russia and that the liberal words of (President Dmitry) Medvedev do not mean a thing," said Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Another respected analyst said the trial proved Putin to be a "very vengeful and vindictive man".

"This sentence is motivated by nothing but politics," said Institute of Strategic Assessments President Alexander Konovalov.

Medvedev took over from Putin in 2008 and immediately embarked on an ambitious project of modernisation to intensify Russia's economic relationship with the West and cut down on corruption.

But it remains uncertain if Medvedev will stand to continue his project in 2012 presidential polls or if Putin will seek to return to the Kremlin.

Putin's personal spokesman notably issued only a brief "no comment" when asked about Russia's most famous trial since the Soviet era.

Khodorkovsky's troubles began the day he showed up to a 2003 Kremlin meeting chaired by then president Putin to complain about government corruption.

The Yukos oil chief was in the process of becoming Russia's richest man and selling a chunk of his company to a US major -- a deal that would have raised his profile to international proportions.

Putin quietly listened his political rival's message and then made a simple comment that raised few eyebrows at the time: businessmen should pay their taxes before criticising the state.

What then followed was Khodorkovsky's quick arrest on tax evasion charges and a two year trial that left Russia's ex-richest man sitting in prison and his highly-praised oil company parcelled off for pennies to the state.

But Khodorkovsky made a nuisance of himself for Putin even from prison.

He penned frequent articles for both the Russian and US papers pillorying Putin for overseeing "crony capitalism" under which state assets were divided between security officials who knew the president-turned-premier since his days as a spy.

Some were surprised to see the new charges brought under Medvedev -- a lawyer by training who has no personal history with Khodorkovsky and who has instead vowed to diversify the economy and clean up the state.

The fate of Khodorkovsky has always been seen as a measure of the balance of power between Russia's ruling "tandem".

Medvedev even recently berated officials for "expressing their positions" about the case -- comments that seemed aimed directly at Putin himself.

But analysts said any battle between Putin and Medvedev could only produce one winner: the man who has really been running Russia since New Year's Day 2000.

"Putin has shown that all the talk about court independence is nothing but noise and that Medvedev is just a piece of furniture that can always be stuck in a corner," said independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

First Published: Dec 31, 2010 08:55 IST