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IN THE NEWS - November 8, 2003: Russia's Yukos Oil Arrest - 2003-11-07

This is Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS, from VOA Special English.

Many investors are concerned about the possible effects on the Russian economy from the arrest of the top official of Yukos Oil. That is Russia's largest oil company. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed last month on charges of failing to pay taxes and other economic crimes. This week, he resigned as chief executive. Mister Khodorkovsky denies any wrongdoing. His lawyers say the charges are political.

Yukos Oil has lost market value. The Russian government has threatened to take away the rights of the company to develop important oil fields. Yukos could also lose its rights to operate some of the Siberian oilfields it depends on.

Yukos Oil became a private company after the end of the Soviet Union twelve years ago. It has grown into the fourth largest energy supplier in the world.

Russia’s economic growth in recent years has been largely based on oil sales. Russia has the world’s largest oil reserves. It is the second biggest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia. Foreign companies have invested a lot of money in Russian oil projects.

Critics say the government organized the arrest of Mister Khodorkovsky to punish him for his political activities. He has criticized the government of President Vladimir Putin. He has given money to opposition parties. And he has had wide influence in the Russian parliament.

President Putin had made an agreement with Russia’s business leaders. These leaders became rich under former President Boris Yelstin. They bought state-owned businesses at low prices in the early nineteen-nineties. Many of these agreements, however, were considered illegal.

At a meeting in early two-thousand, Mister Putin told the business leaders to stay out of politics or risk losing their companies. Two of them used their television stations to attack the president. They were later forced into exile.

Mister Putin has been widely criticized in the West for appearing to unfairly target a political opponent. His closest aide resigned in protest over the arrest of Mister Khodorkovsky. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov also has publicly opposed the president.

Russian businessmen say they fear that the investigation of Yukos Oil will spread. One aide to Mister Khodorkovsky requested Israeli citizenship. Two others fled to London.

Mister Putin says his government supports business and a market economy. On Thursday, the president said the arrest would not lead to any changes in economic or political policy. He said high-level officials in the Interior Ministry were arrested too. He said the actions are guided by the desire to establish law and order and fight economic crime in Russia.

Yukos Oil has named a Russian-born American to take Mister Khodorkovsky’s place.

IN THE NEWS, from VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.