The letter by former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky about the crisis of liberalism in Russia, published in late March, is still being discussed in society and corporate quarters. Moreover, the discussion is livelier now than it was when the famous inmate of the Matrosskaya Tishina prison made his thoughts public. And the tone of discussion is rising.
Initially, Khodorkovsky colleagues in the business community and Russian liberals, to whom the oligarch addressed his high-strung address, made taciturn comments. They said it was not convenient to argue with a man held in custody, as this placed the parties in unequal conditions.
But the liberals gradually shed all inhibitions and are no longer mincing their words. Yegor Gaidar, the father of the Russian market reform, recently contributed an answer to Khodorkovsky's letter, which he denounced as "a set of trite ideas." The notorious Russian anti-communist and democratic ultra-radical Valeria Novodvorskaya found another word for the imprisoned oligarch's letter - "smearing."
It must be said that Khodorkovsky's letter was as a kind of provocation that draw society into a fierce ideological discussion and set the oligarch's "good old acquaintances" against each other - liberals against liberals and businessmen against businessmen. It is not clear yet what it was, a repentance designed to please the Kremlin and regain freedom, or a claim to a future political career in the overhauled united democratic movement that would be created on the ruins of the old right-wing parties.
The political ado over Khodorkovsky's letter overshadows problems that concern the bulk of Russians. Anatoly Chubais, whom the famous inmate attacked in his letter, clearly formulated the paradox of the situation. He said, let Khodorkovsky repent his sins and let me mull over mine.
The former Yukos CEO, who wrote about the mistakes of the liberal governments of the 1990s, did not mention the charges brought against him by the Office of the Prosecutor General. But many people would like him not to philosophise but to give clear-cut answers to questions. Did he use the closed administrative-territorial entities to get tax privileges? Did he buy a false patent of a private operator to reduce his income tax? Did he resell oil at transfer prices to the companies he controlled? Did he buy enterprises slated for privatisation for peanuts, "forgetting" to transfer the money to the state? Was he involved in bond frauds? Did he create stooge firms for privatisation tenders?
Khodorkovsky's commercial partner Vasily Shakhnovsky admitted that he had acquired a false patent of a private operator, paid the $1 billion to the budget, and apparently sleeps well now. The people in Russia loath their newly rich compatriots, one of whom is Khodorkovsky. It is not surprising, therefore, that the idea of collecting the severance tax from the oil companies to the benefit of the people brought victory to the Rodina (Homeland) bloc, which nobody knew before, in the 2003 parliamentary elections.
The public sincerely thinks that the oil magnates must be forced to share their profits because they are hogging the wealth that belongs to the whole of the people. And so the State Duma is discussing raising the severance tax. Why does not Khodorkovsky talk about this with the people? Why is he not trying to prove that the severance tax has nothing to do with his problems, that he had earned his $8 billion by hard, honest labour?
Analysts predict that the trial of Khodorkovsky will be held this summer and that he will be tried not for "helping liberal rulers make mistakes and lie" to the people, as he wrote in his letter, but for crimes punishable under criminal law. In short, his attempt to use political deliberations to "dispel" charges of fraud, embezzlement and other crimes failed.
At one time, the liberal part of society thought that Khodorkovsky, even though imprisoned, can help rally the disunited democrats and become their "banner." The oligarch probably decided that he is fit for the role, as proved by the manifesto he wrote in Matrosskaya Tishina. But his emergence on the political scene produced an opposite result: the democrats have not united but have quarrelled yet again. Mistrust for the oligarch has grown not only among common people but also among liberals. Moreover, nobody has so far recognised the intellectual guidance of the former Yukos head.