It is doubtful whether there are many Jews in the world the value of whose assets reach $5 billion. Certainly, there is no other Jew who can afford to lose a billion dollars and still be the richest man in Russia.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 39, looks in photographs (depending on the angle) like a young Shas politico or like a successful Wall Street investment consultant. According to Fortune magazine, Khodorkovsky controls 16 percent of the shares in the company Yukos and owns more than half of them personally. Yukos is said to be worth $15-20 billion, and with the completion of the deal to acquire the Sibneft, which was signed about three months ago, it will become the third-largest oil company in the world, and the largest in Russia.
The troubles started for Yukos (and Khodorkovsky) at the beginning of July, when the police arrested his aide and chief ally, Platon Lebedev, and accused him of fraud, forgery and tax violations and also interrogated (but did not arrest) Khodorkovsky himself.
About two weeks ago, the General Prosecutor's Office announced that it had also opened an investigation of five murders or attempted murders of officials and businessmen at odds with the company.
In Moscow, it's said, the police are investigating Khodorkovsky's aides but are aiming at him; the authorization for the investigation was given by President Vladimir Putin. The burning question in Moscow is what lies behind the investigation? Maybe the Kremlin is embarking on a new hunt of the "oligarchs," the very wealthy Russians who made their fortunes during the Nineties' privatization. Perhaps the warning is directed at Khodorkovsky in particular, for having violated an unwritten agreement to the effect that Putin will ignore the dubious means by which assets have been acquired if their owner refrains from political activity. Or has Putin returned to his Soviet ways? Or perhaps the Yukos affair reflects an internal struggle in the Kremlin, in which the security service people and Putin's former KGB colleagues are vying for control of Russia's economic policy?
A great many months will no doubt go by before the answer is a clear. But observers in Moscow are guessing that there is a combination of two factors here: anger at the breaking of the agreement not to get involved in politics, and an attempt by the veteran KGB people to gain control of Putin's policy, in advance of parliamentary elections this coming December.
The Jews in Russia are, of course, concerned about whether there are anti-Semitic elements in the affair. Of the dozen or so Russian billionaires who made their fortunes during the past decade, seven were Jewish. Three of them have already been deposed from heading their companies and pushed out of Russia as well - Aleksandr Smolensky, the crash of whose bank in 1998 led to the worst financial crash in the post-Communist era; Boris Berezovsky, "the Kremlin godfather," whose demonstrative conversion to Christianity proved to be of no avail; and Vladimir Gusinsky, who was not helped by his demonstrative Jewishness as chairman of the Jewish Congress in Russia.
Four remain: Khodorkovsky, bankers Pyotr Aven and Mikhai Fridman and the current media star of the oligarchs, Roman Abramovich - among other things, the main owner of Sibneft - who is considered the richest man in Russia after Khodorkovsky.
Spokesmen for Yukos, i.e Khodorkovsky, deny any financial irregularities and allege this is a case of political persecution. Khodorkovsky was the first of the oligarchs to realize that the Wild West era had ended profits in the Russian economy, and had to be made in more legitimate ways. Yukos and other companies he controls are leaders in the adoption of transparency in business and in keeping true books. And according to the prevailing opinion, two figures in the President's Bureau, Viktor Ivanov and Igor Sechin, are behind the Yukos investigation.
Aleksandr Osovtsov, former vice president of the Jewish Congress in Russia says the anti-Semitism in the affair is clear. The same team from the Prosecutor General's Office that in its day forced Gusinsky to leave Russia is active now and by chance or not, Gusinsky was one of the financial supporters of the Jewish Congress and Khodorkovsky is also among its supporters.
Chelsea's new owner
In recent weeks international attention has been accorded to the seventh of the Jewish oligarchs, Roman Abramovich, who purchased the English soccer team Chelsea for about $200 million. Abramovich, the youngest of his colleagues, at only 36 was elected governor of Chukotka, a godforsaken province in the Arctic. (It has been said of him that when he came to the province, he handed out currency notes instead of campaign flyers.) Abramovich's parents died when he was a child and he was raised in the home of his uncle, who was a senior official in a Soviet oil company. Thus doors were opened to him in the oil industry. The patronage of Berezovsky (who at the time still enjoyed the support of the Kremlin) helped him acquire, for the paltry sum of about $100 million, dozens of local oil companies and to build from them the huge Sibneft company. In 2002, the profits of Sibneft came to $1.1 billion.
Abramovich learned an important lesson from Berezovsky: not to engage in politics, which annoys the Kremlin. The surprising thing is that Khodorkovsky did not learn that same lesson. He declared his intention of directing Yukos until 2007 - the year of the next presidential elections - and then "engage in other things." This declaration set a red light flashing in the Kremlin. The suspicions increased when it turned out that Khodorkovsky had made contributions to two political parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, which are not partners in the parliamentary bloc that supports Putin. Both oligarchs and Jews are not particularly loved by the average Russian, and conflict with Khodorkovsky definitely only helps the president. It is therefore difficult to assume that Khodorkovsky believes that he is able to compete with Putin's political machine. It is even more difficult to believe that Khodorkovsky thinks that a Jew can be elected president of Russia.
The Khodorkovsky affair gives rise to a more realistic question: Is there a likelihood that influential Jews in Moscow, oligarchs and politicians, will be able in the foreseeable future to help Israel in the Kremlin? Their relative weight is no less than the weight of Jews in the upper reaches of the American economy. However, the Russian regime is light years away from the lobbying mechanism that exists in the United States.
The influence of ordinary citizens on Russian foreign policy is very small. Until this situation changes, emigration is likely to leave only a few Jews in Russia. If Israel wants to influence the Kremlin through Jewish public opinion, it will have to do this in the future as well through Congress and the White House in Washington, and not through the Jewish voter in Moscow.