MOSCOW — This week’s indictment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is triggering claims of antisemitism and fueling the rising tide of Russian antisemitism. But communal leaders are insisting that Khodorkovsky doesn’t consider himself Jewish and say the case has more to do with power politics in Moscow than with ethnic hostilities.
On Tuesday, a Moscow court sentenced Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, to nine years in prison after finding him guilty of six out of seven charges, including tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. Khodorkovsky, 41, the father of four children, has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.
Before his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky had mentioned privately to Jewish leaders on several occasions that he did not consider himself Jewish. Though he was a prominent philanthropist interested in education and in civil rights, he never contributed to Jewish causes.
Some Russian Jewish communal leaders are rejecting claims that Khodorkovsky was targeted because of his Jewish origin — but many believe that the trial did lead to a rise in antisemitic sentiment in Russia.
“Regardless of what Khodorkovsky himself felt about his Jewishness, any antisemite would readily list him as a Jew,” said Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for Russia’s largest Jewish organization the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, agreed: “This case has already led to a rise of antisemitic moods in some circles of society.”
Some Jews, especially former top Yukos shareholders now living in Israel, exploited Jews’ insecurities by describing the case as antisemitic, Gorin said.
Three of Yukos’s top shareholders fled to Israel shortly after Khodorkovsky’s arrest. One of them, Leonid Nevzlin, former president of the Russian Jewish Congress and the best-known member of the Yukos team after Khodorkovsky, has said that the Kremlin went after Yukos in part because of antisemitism among prominent members of the Putin administration.
Many Russian Jews took special interest in the case because of Khodorkovsky’s ethnic roots, but many non-Jewish Russians saw the sentence as a comment on the regime’s lack of respect for democratic freedoms and the rule of law.
“I certainly feel an extra sympathy for Khodorkovsky because of his Jewish background,” said Irina Miller, a Jewish legal assistant at a Moscow law firm. “But I know a lot more non-Jews who likewise feel this is a grand injustice being done before our eyes.”
Tankred Golenpolsky, founder of the International Jewish Gazette, Russia’s oldest Jewish weekly, said that the case had more to do with election dates than with ethnic heritage. Just minutes after the sentence was made public, he suggested that Khodorkovsky was being jailed to short-circuit any chance of his running in the next presidential election.
“It was clear from the very beginning that Khodorkovsky won’t be free before 2008,” Golenpolsky said. “Once he is free, he will be the only and the strongest alternative” to President Vladimir Putin.
“This sentence has put this case in a line of other high-profile, politically tinged criminal cases in the history of Russia,” said Chlenov. Chlenov also said that the Kremlin saw the case as putting an end to an early era of Russian capitalism associated with former president Boris Yeltsin, during which many Jewish business tycoons got rich when formerly state-owned businesses were privatized.
Khodorkovsky’s sentencing sends a clear message to influential Russian business leaders, some of whom may have wanted to compete for power with Putin, Golenpolsky said.
Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, also was jailed for nine years on the same charges. A third defendant, Andrei Krainov, was given a suspended sentence of five-and-a-half years. Lebedev and Krainov are not Jewish.
The prosecutors demanded that Khodorkovsky receive 10 years. Khodorkovsky’s defense attorneys said the verdict in large part repeated prosecutors’ conclusion in the case, almost word-for-word.
Khodorkovsky has been in prison since October 2003. He has 10 days to appeal the sentence, and plans to do so.
The Prosecutor General’s Office said Tuesday that it would file new charges against Khodorkovsky and his partners.