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Old style kgb tactics

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Putin's Old-Style K.G.B. Tactics

After laboring to project the image of a rational, law-abiding statesman, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has reverted to the vengeful violence of his old employer, the K.G.B. No longer willing to pursue Russia's most prominent tycoon through the courts, Mr. Putin sent masked agents to seize the business magnate, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, aboard his airplane and threw him into the notorious Matrosskaya Tishina jail, where he will stay at least through the end of the year.

The arrest was a serious mistake, and Mr. Putin's claim that it was the act of an independent judiciary convinced no one, least of all the markets, which plunged on the fear that the Kremlin was showing its true authoritarian colors. They recovered somewhat yesterday, but the economic damage is already large. The longer-term damage to Russia's image and Mr. Putin's credibility may be even greater.

Russian prosecutors have been harassing Mr. Khodorkovsky, the chairman of the Yukos Oil Company, since July, when his partner, Platon Lebedev, was thrown into the same seedy jail. Reactions from Russians and Westerners were tempered then by the sense that the oligarchs who had been handed obscene fortunes by the Kremlin in the mid-1990's should refrain from manipulating politics.

While Mr. Putin had seemed prepared to leave the oligarchs alone as long as they left politics alone, Mr. Khodorkovsky, who is 40, lavishly financed opposition parties in advance of the Dec. 7 parliamentary election and did not entirely keep secret his ambitions to the presidency. And after building Yukos into the world's fourth-largest oil company, Mr. Khodorkovsky was negotiating to sell a significant share to ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco.

It is not clear which of these actions provoked Mr. Putin more. But if he is counting on the outcry fading, which it may, Mr. Putin is being dangerously shortsighted. Whatever success Mr. Putin has had has come through showing Russia to be increasingly stable. The central strategy of his foreign policy has been to turn Russia into an alternative to the Middle East as a source of oil for the West. To that end, he has been actively wooing foreign investment, and Mr. Khodorkovsky has been the most active of the oligarchs in metamorphosing from robber baron to corporate leader and philanthropist.

Perhaps Mr. Khodorkovsky should stay out of politics. Certainly, the excessive economic clout of the oligarch and the excessive political clout of the presidency are a calamitous mix. But there are better ways to battle an oligarch's political ambitions. Mr. Putin's wisest course would be to release Mr. Khodorkovsky and confront him in open court, in Parliament or, if necessary, at the ballot box.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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