- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin reached out to Russian business leaders yesterday in an effort to ease tension over the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, promising there will be no return to Soviet-style authoritarianism and pledging closer cooperation between the state and the private sector.

The businessmen applauded Mr. Putin several times during his unusually lengthy appearance at the gathering, held in an ornate building near the Kremlin.

“In our circumstances … any criminal case involving business prompts concern and alarm, because the question always arises: will there be a return to the past? There will not. It is impossible,” Mr. Putin told the country’s biggest business lobby, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

He said that while the state must prosecute criminals, “it must also protect everybody, including and not last of all business, because that means protecting the economy of the state.”

At the same time, Mr. Putin again defended Mr. Khodorkovsky’s arrest without mentioning the former Yukos oil company chief by name, and repeated his warning that all Russians must abide by the law. “As for discussions about concrete criminal cases, it’s necessary to get used to a certain culture of law,” he said.

Mr. Khodorkovsky is one of several so-called oligarchs who made fast fortunes in a wave of highly controversial state sell-offs in the 1990s. Some say his Oct. 25 arrest on fraud and tax-evasion charges was motivated by Mr. Putin’s desire to remove a potential rival. Mr. Khodorkovsky had recently turned his attention to politics, challenging Kremlin policy and funding opposition parties.

The address appeared to be a carefully planned effort to calm jitters after the arrest of Mr. Khodorkovsky, who was denied bail on Monday.

The response was largely positive: The Mr. Putin won a pledge of cooperation from the organization’s chairman, Arkady Volsky.

“Only the authorities and business, uniting their efforts and ambitions, can create stable development in Russia,” Mr. Volsky said. He stressed that the group is not a “union of oligarchs.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov warned Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry not to pursue its campaign against Yukos, the Interfax news agency reported.

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