- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) - Imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky challenged Russia’s president in an interview published Wednesday to depart from the policies of his powerful predecessor .

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 after angering Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time. Putin is now prime minister.

Khodorkovsky now faces a new trial that could keep him in prison well past the next presidential election in 2012.

The trial is being closely watched for any indication that Putin’s successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, might take a softer approach to Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges after a legal onslaught widely seen as politically motivated. His Yukos oil company was bankrupted and its main assets gobbled up by the state oil company Rosneft as the Kremlin strengthened its grip on Russia’s energy riches.

In a rare interview published Wednesday in the magazine Sobesednik, Khodorkovsky said he respects Medvedev “as the legitimate president of Russia” although he does not fully understand his political views.

“But since he did not steal Yukos, he cannot fear me,” Khodorkovsky is quoted as saying. “The future will reveal the rest.”

As for Putin, Khodorkovsky said he tries to look at him now as a historical figure.

“Russia had such a president and now it doesn’t,” he said. “Whether he governed Russia well or not is for the next generation to say.”

Although Putin remains the more powerful leader, Medvedev’s pledges to strengthen the rule of law in Russia and increase the independence of the courts have given Khodorkovsky’s supporters some reason to hope for a fair trial.

His lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said Tuesday that the defense expects Medvedev to fulfill his constitutional duty as president and allow the judge to make an independent ruling.

Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev are accused of embezzling more than $25 billion from Yukos, a charge their lawyers say is absurd. The trial is scheduled to start March 31.

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