"I have been in the land of the Decembrists, political prisoners subjected to hard labor and uranium mines," declared Russia's best-known prisoner, drawing a parallel between himself and famous Russian dissidents of the past. In full-page advertisements in major Western newspapers on Nov. 2, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now serving an eight-year sentence at the remote Krasnokamensk Penal Colony in Siberia, sketched a vision for "Russia's development for the 21st century," including "a new political elite" willing to "say 'no' to the repressive machinery of a criminal bureaucracy."
A political manifesto? Or a desperate bid for survival? Possibly both. Three of Khodorkovsky's former business associates, who underwrote the advertisements, say concern for his safety is the main motive for the publicity. "There is a conspiracy not only to isolate him but also to kill him," claimed Leonid Nevzlin, a former partner at a recent press conference in Tel Aviv, where he fled after a Russian warrant was issued for his arrest in 2004. Conditions in Russian prisons can be dangerous, and Khodorkovsky's backers fear a nearby uranium mine may have released radiation, though the authorities deny it.
Principles Over Profit
Whether or not the former chairman of oil giant Yukos is genuinely fearful for his life, his lawyers vow to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They will argue that he is a political prisoner and didn't get a fair trial. At the same time it looks as if Khodorkovsky, who was convicted of tax evasion and fraud after financing opposition political parties two years ago, still has political ambitions. Long-standing Moscow rumor has it that Khodorkovsky could have avoided prison and stayed in business had he been willing to cut a deal and flee the country. He even has a business to run. Group Menatep, the holding company he and his partners created, has assets abroad -- including GTS Central Europe, which owns telecom service providers in the region, and a 26% stake in Modgal Industries Ltd., which controls a leading Israeli petrochemicals producer. But last January, Khodorkovsky handed his 60% stake in Menatep to Nevzlin. "Prison will rescue Khodorkovsky from his oligarchic image and turn him into a politician of the new generation," says Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst linked to the left-wing opposition.
Behind bars, Khodorkovsky has been active politically. In September he ran for parliament but was disqualified after a court upheld his conviction. Supporters say he's working on a political program to be published soon. "His voice will ring like a bell in the political desert created by the present authorities," says Ivan Starikov, a leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces who managed Khodorkovsky's parliamentary campaign.
Yet if he is serious about a political career, he must overcome the hostility of the Russian public. In his statements, he has been leaning to the left, denouncing poverty and social injustice as well as authoritarianism. He has called for "a broad social-democratic coalition" including Communists and right-wing pro-market groups. But so far, few ordinary Russians seem impressed. An October opinion poll by Moscow's independent Levada Center found that only 18% of Russians sympathize with Khodorkovsky -- and 67% don't. "As a so-called oligarch, such a figure is disliked by most of the population," says Levada analyst Boris Dubin. Perhaps sympathy for Khodorkovsky will grow the longer he languishes in Siberia. His sentence ends in 2011. But while he's eligible for parole in 2007, his team isn't optimistic. "I fear that as long as Putin and the people around him are in the Kremlin, there's no chance of Khodorkovsky being released," says his lawyer, Yuri Schmidt.
Even after 2008, when President Vladimir V. Putin is due to retire, most analysts believe Putin will remain a key political figure, with close allies still controlling the Kremlin. "The Kremlin wants to decide who the political leaders will be, and this restricts the democratic process," says Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now an Israeli politician. That doesn't augur well for Khodorkovsky's political aspirations. Still, his supporters hope that public opinion will one day turn against the Kremlin, either because of economic problems or because voters become fed up with authoritarian methods of rule. The former tycoon can't run for office from prison, but he's only 42 years old, and Russian politics are always unpredictable. Three years ago few would have guessed that the country's richest man would now be sewing mailbags in a Siberian jail cell.
By Jason Bush in Moscow, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem
Edited by Rose Brady