Russia ponders 'watershed moment' 10 years after Khodorkovsky arrest

Russia on Friday marked a decade since the arrest of billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose detention is seen as a turning point that has defined Vladimir Putin's rule.

Respected Vedomosti daily called the arrest a "watershed moment in history" which "in many ways defined the country's path of development".

Khodorkovsky, now 50, was the richest person in Russia when special forces troops detained him at a Siberian airport refuelling stop in 2003.

He was convicted of tax evasion in 2005, then of embezzlement in a second trial in 2010, and is set to remain in prison until August 2014.

His oil company Yukos has been dismantled, its assets now mostly part of the state giant Rosneft. His supporters say his prosecution was Putin's punishment for daring to finance political opposition in Russia.

Now serving out his term in a penal colony in the northwestern Karelia region, Khodorkovsky has written scores of articles on Russia's political and economic frailties and has won comparisons from some in the local media to South Africa's anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

His arrest undermined Russia's justice system, turning it into an "instrument for seeking bribes," which then contributed to Russia's colossal capital flight, Vedomosti said in an editorial.

Former economy minister Yevgeny Yasin told the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia's current economic slowdown "can be traced back to those events which occurred in 2003."

The arrest marked the end of "peaceful coexistence between large Russian business and bureaucracy" and business activity dwindled as a result of the Yukos case, he said.

Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper frequently critical of the Kremlin, called the October 25 arrest of the Yukos owner the single event that "shaped Vladimir Putin's regime".

"As long as Khodorkovsky is a prisoner, the president is in control," it said.

"It was with Khodorkovsky that prison became the universal method of solving unsolvable problems... a method of cutting out competition from politics, business, ideology, and an instrument of monopolisation of power."

The arrest had virtually put a stop to funding by Russian businessmen of non-governmental organisations promoting civil society, and subsequently created a new social class of wealthy security officials, said a statement by Russia's veteran human rights campaigners.

"The number of political prisoners is growing," said the statement, whose signatories include Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Svetlana Gannushkina, and Sergei Kovalyov. "The country is clearly at a dead end."

Amnesty International, which considers the former tycoon a "prisoner of conscience," called for Khodorkovsky to be "released immediately" and said that "Putin has intensified his crackdown on basic freedoms" over the past decade.

In an opinion article for The New York Times on Friday, Khodorkovsky wrote that his prison life is "practically standing still" but that he continues to "live by the events taking place in Russia and the world".

He blasted "state monopolism, corruption and inefficient administration, a consequence of the implacability of power and its excessive centralisation in the hands of a single executive".

Khodorkovsky's release 'depends on Putin'

While many observers have predicted a political future for Khodorkovsky, whose stoic image has been an inspiration for Russia's protest movement, new legislation may make such career development unlikely upon his release.

High-ranking lawmakers in the ruling United Russia party this week submitted a bill to parliament that would make ex-convicts for serious crimes ineligible for any public office for 15 years after they complete their sentence.

The majority of Russians take little interest in Khodorkovsky's case, a poll released this week confirmed.

Only 14 percent said they followed the case, and only nine percent said they had read his articles, according to a poll of Moscow residents conducted by Levada Centre in October.

Yet 32 percent said they believed Khodorkovsky's release would depend on "a personal decision taken by Putin."