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Putin washes hands of magnate

Moscow, Oct. 27 (Reuters): Russian President Vladimir Putin told business leaders and politicians today he would not meet them to discuss the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky as it had been ordered by an independent court.

“There will be no meetings and no bargaining over the activities of the law enforcement agencies as long as, of course, these agencies are acting within the framework of Russian law,” Putin told members of the government.

The Kremlin leader effectively distanced himself from the arrest in his first public comment, saying it was a matter for post-Soviet Russia’s judiciary, which he described as imperfect but independent.

“Executive authorities cannot order a man incarcerated even during a preliminary investigation, nor can prosecutors. That can be done only by a court,” he said.

“If, in this instance, this is what has been done, my supposition is that the court had grounds to do so.”

Russia’s laws, he said, applied to everyone, “an ordinary citizen, an average entrepreneur, a big businessman, without reference to how many billions of dollars there may be in his personal or corporate accounts”.

Khodorkovsky, 40, Russia’s richest man and head of oil major Yukos, was snatched at gunpoint from a plane in Siberia on Saturday, whisked to Moscow, charged with fraud and tax evasion and ordered held pending further investigation.

Putin, speaking after Russian markets tumbled this morning, said no generalisations could be made about the future of privatisation in Russia from Khodorkovsky’s arrest.

Business leaders and analysts have said legal action against Yukos could set a precedent for reviewing the outcome of Russia’s chaotic sell-off of state assets in the 1990s.

“It is vital to stress here that in connection with this case, we should make no generalisations, we should not assume that any precedents will be set, particularly with regard to the outcome of privatisation,” he told ministers.

“I would, therefore, ask that all speculation and hysteria be stopped and that the government not become caught up in this discussion.”

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