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Russia – One Apple Short of a Fruit-Bowl

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Today’s EU-Russia summit could bring Russia closer to the European Economic Area, but the Yukos affair has poisoned the apple. Putin must take measures to restore his country’s spliced credibility as a free-market democracy.

Russia has taken another big bite out of its oligarchic structure by arresting wealthy Yukos oil magnate Mihail Khodorkovsky. The subsequent protest resignation of Alexander Voloshin, the Russian presidential chief of staff, merely continued the steady outflow of Yeltsin-era apparatchiks for loyal St. Petersburg cadres like new chief of staff Dimitri Medvedev.

Even if some western partners do believe, as Lord Robertson has claimed, that ‘Russia has changed’ – recent events show many are right to doubt it. When he meets Putin today in Rome, Chris Patten is sure to mention the Yukos affair: as the European Commission’s Diego Ojeda has put it, what is happening now in Russia is ‘far from that what EU may see as acceptable’. And that may hamper deeper EU-Russia co-operation. After all, can a state with questionable commitment to democracy and economic liberty be any reliable partner to the EU?

Choking on apples

But what is really happening in Russia? There is much speculation, but little concrete information. Khodorkovsky, arrested on October 25, claims to be hunted by the Kremlin for political reasons, but few doubt that he is guilty of tax evasion and fraud. In the meanwhile Putin hopes the Yukos ‘hysteria’ will quietly blow over, but that is unlikely to happen. As the ‘Economist’ notes, western investors have taken the message that ‘any freedom in Russia, including that of entrepreneurship, is a myth’.

Khodorkovsky’s real crime was to break the unwritten law: that in Putin’s Russia, oligarchs should mind their own business but keep away from politics. Instead, Khodorkovsky financed the liberal ‘Yabloko’ (‘apple’) party, who frequently criticised Putin’s Chechnya policy and his euphemistic concept of ‘managed democracy’. It is perhaps no co-incidence that the arrest - probably initiated by the Kremlin - comes just before the December parliamentary elections where Putin will try to shore up support for a second mandate. Putin was not prepared to let Yabloko be sheltered by a company that ensures about half of Russia’s energy supply and a staggering 7% of her GDP.

In a country where political parties are weak, the media are suppressed and the president enjoys total power, only the oligarchs with their control of strategically important sectors of the economy can mount any threat to the Kremlin machinery. And that is exactly what Vladimir Putin now seeks to eliminate. As the apple turns, this policy may ensure political stability, but as far as Russia’s fledgling democracy is concerned, it will almost certainly not bear fruit. And it is for that reason that in the negotiations today, the EU must not let the issue fall. For as the old saying goes, 'one rotten apple can spoil the whole basket'.