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RUSSIA

Khodorkovsky case divides Russians

Text by: Romain GOGUELIN
3 min

Is Khodorkovsky a martyr of the Putin administration or only a man who made his fortune from the ruins of the Soviet Union? The debate rages in Russia.

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, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Moscow

He was the richest man in Russia but Russians have little sympathy for what happened to Mikhail Khodorkovsky: they do not care about people who made their fortunes from the ruins of the Soviet Union. The former oligarch was the head of Yukos, which until five years ago was the largest oil producer in Russia.

Today the company has been asset-stripped and the only things left of Khodorkovsky's empire are a few reminders at the school he founded when he was still rich and powerful. Most of the children here are orphans.

These children don't share the average Russian's hatred of the former oligarch and don't believe the new charges now being levelled against Khodorkovsky. “I think it's political, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's trial is not a normal trial” says Roman, 15 years old.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's mother runs her son's school. She is worried about his new trial which is already underway and could see him spend another 20 years in prison.

She looks at Vladimir Putin's photograph and says that he is responsible for her son being sentenced to eight years' hard labour. She says the former president was afraid of him. “It was fear of someone who had all the abilities of a leader, someone capable of rallying the people,” says Maria Khodorkovskaya. Five years ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was still powerful enough to stand up to the president and look for his own political powerbase.

For the team surrounding Vladimir Putin, most of the former KGB members, Khodorkovsky became enemy number one. "They know one thing: how to protect the head of the state from his enemies," says the editorialist Ioulia Latynina. "If there are no enemies, they have to be invented. And of course the wealth of these enemies can be taken away and distributed among those who protect the head of the state."

In 2005, Khodorkovsky was found guilty of tax evasion on a massive scale: he wasn't the only oligarch to evade taxes but a message had to be sent out. "Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in prison because some of the oligarchs must be in prison to show to everyone that the new rules of the game are working," explains the pro-Kremlin MP Serguei Markov. According to these rules, businessmen were forbidden from opposing the Kremlin.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the only oligarch to have stood up to the Kremlin without fleeing Russia, and that is something Vladimir Putin may never forgive. “Khodorkovsky has to remain in prison while Putin remains in power, it’s that simple,” says Ioulia Latynina.

Having already spent five years in a Siberian prison, Khodorkovsky is again on trial. This time he's accused of stealing 20 billion dollars and many here say the verdict has already been passed.

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