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Khodorkovsky a Cloud Putin Can't Scare Away

Even as the Air Force prepares to prevent the clouds from raining on the Victory Day parade, there is one cloud that is likely to hang conspicuously over the head of President Vladimir Putin.

While the president plays host to world leaders on Monday, his country's most high-profile prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, will be awaiting a verdict a week later in a case seen as a turning point toward greater Kremlin dominance over political and economic life.

Prosecutors have called for a maximum, 10-year sentence for Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev, and their lawyers have said they expected no leniency on May 16. Some observers, however, have said they would not be surprised by a reduced sentence of five years.

The U.S. government has been particularly vocal about the Kremlin's handling of the fraud and tax evasion case, seen as arbitrary state retribution against a businessman who posed a growing challenge to Kremlin power. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a trip to Moscow last month that the verdict would be a test of the independence of Russia's judicial system. When the scheduled reading of the verdict was abruptly postponed just a week later, many saw the delay as an attempt by the Kremlin to avoid awkward questions during the May 9 celebrations.

Some insiders have seized on the postponement as a sign there may be some room left for deal-making, saying the Kremlin could try to seek assurances from the United States that it would not interfere in the political situation in Russia in return for a light sentence for Khodorkovsky.

U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to raise his administration's concerns about the Kremlin's rollbacks of democracy during a private meeting with Putin, The Washington Post reported, citing Bush aides. It is not clear whether he will raise the issue of Khodorkovsky directly.

"If you consider that the fate of Khodorkovsky is going to be decided by the Kremlin, then there is a possibility for such a deal, especially considering the close personal relations between Putin and Bush," said Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general who later headed Yukos' analytical department. He added that Washington had been openly lobbying for Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister who has hinted he might run for the presidency in 2008.

"It's no secret that the U.S. is constantly interfering in our political life for its own benefit," he said.

Others said the United States was unlikely to go for any such deal. "I completely rule out any such trade-off. There is no way the U.S. would trade on this and back down from its principles and doctrine of protecting democracy," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center who studies the Putin presidency. "The position of the political leadership in relation to Khodorkovsky will depend not on external factors like pressure from the U.S. but on to what extent the verdict will weaken or strengthen Putin's position at home.

"If they acquitted him, it would be a huge blow to Putin among the political class. They would see him as a lame duck and a weakling," she said. "I have no impression the Kremlin has changed its decision under pressure. It raised this tide of nationalism and statism itself, and to go back now and show weakness is just not realistic."

Some, including Shevtsova and Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank, said Khodorkovsky could get a sentence of five years.

"The main thing is there's no way the Kremlin is going to let Khodorkovsky out before 2008. It would be political suicide," Weafer said. "They can't afford to have him become a focus point."

Plus, he said, for the United States, Khodorkovsky is no longer an important issue. "Once Yukos started being taken over by the state, there was a real shift in the level of debate between Russia and the U.S.," he said. "Before, they were saying that Khodorkovsky should be freed from jail, but then it became clear that from then on the Russian government was calling all the shots, especially on energy policy. There was a huge decline in support for Yukos and Khodorkovsky as they realized that it was not going to help them in securing energy supplies." Khodorkovsky had been the chief proponent of forging closer energy ties with the United States.

Khodorkovsky himself appeared to be attempting to tone down the political rhetoric ahead of the holiday. In statements released via lawyer Anton Drel on Wednesday, he expressed surprise about an offer from Leonid Nevzlin, a former business partner, to sell Menatep's remaining holdings in Yukos cheaply in return for Khodorkovsky's freedom. Khodorkovsky called on his friends and enemies at home and abroad "not to turn me into a political project, the contents of which I do not agree with."

A leading member of the team of foreign lawyers Khodorkovsky has hired to press his case internationally said the postponement of the verdict made any chance of leniency look slim, whatever the potential attempts at a deal.

"If there was going to be a light sentence, there would have been no need to postpone the verdict," said Robert Amsterdam. "I don't see anything positive coming from the postponement at all. In fact, I see quite the opposite."

(The Moscow Times 06.v.05)

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