Russian Oil Tycoon Khodorkovsky Convicted Again

Imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been convicted on embezzlement and money laundering charges in Russia. Khodorkovsky was once the richest man in Russia, and was nearing the end of an eight-year sentence for tax evasion. For more, NPR's Robert Siegel speaks to David Hoffman, author of the book The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The conviction of one-time Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on embezzlement and money laundering charges, raises many questions.

Khodorkovsky, who was once the richest man in Russia, is now nearing the end of an eight-year sentence for tax evasion. What does this latest conviction say about Russia's criminal courts, about the relationship between the government and private wealth in today's Russia, and about the agenda of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin?

Well, joining us now is journalist David Hoffman who wrote about Khodorkovsky when he covered Moscow for The Washington Post, and then again in his book, "The Oligarchs." Welcome to back to the program.

Mr. DAVID HOFFMAN (Author, "The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And, David Hoffman, what's the significance of this man who by age 47 has gone from being enterprising young official of the Communist Youth League, to founder of a bank, CEO of Yukos Oil, and now convicted tax felon?

Mr. HOFFMAN: The significance is Khodorkovsky has become a symbol of whether Russia can really profoundly change itself. You know, Russian leaders have talked about the need to modernize their country. To - you know, Medvedev the president went to Silicon Valley and talked about building his own Silicon Valley. But modernization requires the rule of law.

And this case and this verdict today suggest they've yet to build a rule of law state.

SIEGEL: You mean this does not strike you as the verdict of a free trial?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, absolutely not. This is an arbitrary verdict. This trial was rigged. The man is accused of stealing all the oil his company ever produced.

SIEGEL: Seems extreme.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It does. It seems like a setup.

SIEGEL: Vladimir Putin said publicly last month that Khodorkovsky is a man with blood on his hands and that a thief belongs in jail. Is this plain and simple a vendetta - Putin versus an independent-minded billionaire?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yes, it's partly that. But, you know, it's also very symbolic because Putin wanted to show everybody he was in charge. So it's more than just about one man. It's about actually a whole class of people who rose up when the Soviet Union fell apart and were absolutely critical, they were like a pillar in creating a free market in Russia, a chaotic free market in those early years.

SIEGEL: Those people are often derided. "Oligarch," for example, the title of your book about a few of them, it's not generally taken as a positive designation.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, these guys were ruthless, manipulative, they did everything they could. In fact, this is what distinguished them from many others in the Soviet and post-Soviet years, 'cause they were very fast on their feet.

But the thing is this - at the time they were building their empires, the laws of the Soviet Union were still on the books in many cases. There was a lawless vacuum. You know, it's very, very hard to stand in judgment, in a legal sense, of a bunch of guys who were moving in a time when Russia hadn't even established nor enforced those laws.

SIEGEL: Over the years, in Soviet days and today, Russian political prisoners have included writers, they've included academics, human rights activists. Does an oil company CEO, who started out, as you say, by very shrewdly playing the decaying Soviet system from the inside, does he merit the designation prisoner of conscience?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think in this case, he's a prisoner of a system that is failing to change itself. Because if Russia is going to rebuild, be modernized, become something more than just a petrol state with a bunch of nuclear missiles, if it's going to get beyond, it needs rule of law.

This case is more than just about Khodorkovsky. It's about the whole country's ability to rise above its past.

SIEGEL: Is the point here that Vladimir Putin cannot abide a system in which independent wealth has its way and need not submit to the government's will at every turn?

Mr. HOFFMAN: That is exactly the point. Putin wanted to show the oligarchs that he was boss. That at the apex of the power triangle will be the czar, will be the leaders. And that the guys with money should serve them and be subservient to them.

SIEGEL: David Hoffman, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. HOFFMAN: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: David Hoffman is the author of "The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia."

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