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Russia's New Anti-Oligarch War

Moscow's sleepy political summer has been stirred by a Kremlin attack, initiated by President Vladimir Putin's closest aides, on Russia's leading oligarch and the country's richest man--Michael Khodorkovsky, the principal shareholder of the oil company Yukos. Of course, there is nothing new in such battles. Elements within Russia's political power structure have periodically waged war on the country's business elite--either to rein in the political ambitions of the oligarchs or to grab a bit of wealth for themselves--ever since the Soviet collapse.

What is different now is that this war--a defining feature of the Yeltsin era--was supposedly settled by President Putin early on in his administration, when he offered the oligarchs a deal: keep your wealth, we won't investigate how you got it, but stay out of politics. Why has that deal apparently collapsed? Equally unclear is why Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who has gone the farthest in making his business modern and transparent, the target of attack?

During Putin's first term, the Kremlin ``power structures'' (now dominated by former KGB cronies of Putin from Saint Petersburg) failed to gain control over the country's key financial and economic institutions. None of the real wealth of Russia has come their way. But this does not explain why they attacked Khodorkovsky rather than some other businessman with a shady past.

One clue as to why they attacked Russia's richest man is the fact that Khodorkovsky is the first oligarch to help the country's liberal parties as opposed to the ruling party of power, to support independent mass media, and to provide money to lawyers and legal assistants. Moreover, they also feared that Khodorkovsky was preparing to enter politics. He was beginning to support the idea of Russia becoming a parliamentary, not a presidential, republic and was gaining influence ahead of this year's Duma elections.