Reading the Western press accounts of the Khodorkovsky arrest has at times been as unpleasant as one of my famous giardia attacks. I'm not sure which version is more ridiculous: the mainstream line which portrays the YUKOS oligarch as some kind of billionaire Aung San Suu Kyi, a martyr to corporate good governance and liberal politics...or the simplistic flip-flop, which argues that Khodorkovsky was once a brutal thief, and therefore he's getting his just desserts.
This same good/evil frame has polluted the coverage of the resignation/dismissal of Putin's former administration chief, Alexander Voloshin: the mainstream says that he's one of the Good Guys defending free market capitalism and some kind of last-stand semi-democracy, while the other side scowls at the very thought of Voloshin being portrayed as anything better than a vampire. After all, Voloshin was once one of the main architects of Putin's brand of authoritarianism.
I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but, uh, what the hell does good or evil have to do with ANY of this? What are we, in Sunday school? As Chevy Chase says in Caddyshack, "What are we, Christians? Huh?"
The Yukos crackdown is too damn important to frame it in purely Christian moral terms, especially when everyone knows that one of the great things about Russians is their noble lack of nauseating moral hypocrisy. One of the consequences of framing the debate in these terms is that people are diverted onto one irrelevant cul-de-sac after another. So you hear wild theories such as YUKOS being attacked because it was going to sell a strategic stake to a multinational, or that Khodorkovsky was being punished for funding SPS, or that Putin was simply cracking down on a corrupt oligarch, or the siloviki simply wanted to steal other stolen goods.
Maybe there's truth in each of these, but we will never know for certain. What I find strange is how little attention has been given to what we do already know, what's out on the public record.
A Russian friend of mine once advised me, when I started getting too deeply into bearded Russian conspiracy theories during the Yeltsin years, "Vsyo gorazdo prosche." It's always much more simple than the analysts portray it.
In this article I'm going to focus on two things: what led to the crackdown, and what it means for Russia. Using the "vsyo gorazdo prosche" theory, I decided to let the surface -- a highly underrated phenomenon in politics -- speak for itself when it comes to describing what led to the crackdown. I went back and did a Moscow Times/google search on articles relating to YUKOS and Putin. What emerges is a surprisingly clear, almost linear drama that doesn't quite correspond to the narrow frame created post-crackdown. If you read through this chronology, you pretty much have the picture of what was at stake, what strategies were employed, and how the game was won. I start with articles in the Moscow Times in January of 2003, including the date, headline and relevant quotes, and end with Platon Lebedev's arrest.
Jan. 10: "Oil Majors Say Government Impeding Exports"
Top oil executives have lashed out at the government for hindering their ability to cash in on skyrocketing crude prices and endangering production growth by failing to unclog export routes, Interfax reported Thursday. [...] A government commission decided last month not to send any crude through Ventspils in the first quarter of 2003, a move analysts said was aimed at forcing Riga to sell for a song the cash-starved port, once the largest export route for Soviet crude.
Jan. 28, 2003. "Kremlin, Big Oil on Collision Course"
Russia's powerful oil barons are locking horns with the government in a high-stakes battle over new export routes that threatens to alter the economic and political landscape of the country. [...] Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky reacted with impatience to Kasyanov's statement last week, slamming the government for moving toward what he called "a Saudi Arabian-style government" of overblown bureaucratic control.