Moscow, Nov. 14 (Reuters): President Vladimir Putin, trying today to calm Russia’s business leaders, acknowledged concerns over a case that has put the richest of them all behind bars and pledged not to drag Russia back to the old ways.
But he avoided direct mention of oil giant Yukos and its major shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose arrest last month sent shivers through Russia’s business community. And he ignored a complaint about the tycoon’s harsh treatment.
“In our fragile circumstances... any criminal case gives rise to great caution and alarm,” he said in his first meeting with industrialists since Khodorkovsky was put in jail where prosecutors say he could stay for two years while they investigate charges of fraud and tax evasion.
Addressing concerns among influential business “oligarchs” that he is contemplating a return to Soviet-style state control, the former KGB agent said, to loud applause: “A question arises whether there may be a return to the past. There will not be.”
Few businessmen have dared openly criticise the arrest of Russia’s richest man and analysts say most are too nervous of also falling foul of the Kremlin which is looking especially sensitive in the run-up to parliamentary elections on December 7 and Putin’s almost certain bid for re-election next spring.
Many believe the case is prompted by Kremlin worries that Khodorkovsky was dabbling too successfully in politics.
The case has also sparked fears hardliners in the Kremlin may be trying to muscle their way into the private sector and slow, or reverse, Russia’s transformation into a market economy.
Some analysts warn that the case could hurt Russia’s booming economic growth. But Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, speaking in western Siberia, said he expected growth this year could exceed earlier predictions and rise a little over six per cent, compared to 4.3 per cent last year.
However, he did warn against government officials picking on Yukos, calling a probe which could strip the firm of its oil production licence “intolerable” and saying the ministry concerned had been instructed to ease off.
Putin has insisted the case against the oil magnate is not political but in a nod to a central plank of his own political platform, law and order, he added that anyone guilty of economic crimes should face the full force of the law.
That, say analysts, is a line that goes down well with most of the electorate who view the Russia’s post-communist billionaires as criminals who made off with the state’s wealth.