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By John Helmer, Moscow

So far everything about the metamorphosis of Mikhail Khodorkovsky has gone like the cartoon – surprise launch into the air; flight without turbulence; soft landing among a flock of wellwishers; much cooing.

Just how well those wishers intend towards Khodorkovsky, and he towards them, is now to be tested. That’s a game even more Olympian than the one to be inaugurated in Sochi on February 7; or the one which those who hate President Vladimir Putin have yet to appreciate he’s playing.

First of all, there is the question which Khodorkovsky will soon be discussing with Leonid Nevzlin, his former partner and trustee, now resident of Israel; Bruce Misamore, the chief financial officer at Yukos, who lives in Texas; plus an army of lawyers, PR agents, financial advisors, and miscellaneous invoicers who have been on Khodorkovsky’s payroll all these years, and who are naturally keen to stay that way. The stakes run into several billions of dollars, according to Khodorkovsky’s count and as he will shortly instruct new accountants to verify. New lawyers will also be required to make sure the trustee agreements Khodorkovsky thinks he left behind won’t go the way Oleg Deripaska did to Mikhail Chernoy, or Roman Abramovich to Boris Berezovsky.

Misamore (right) is claiming in the Financial Times that before Khodorkovsky recovers his balance-sheets, he ought to be up for as much litigation as Misamore would like him to pay for. One of Misamore’s money-spinners aims “to settle with the 55,000 or so shareholders of Yukos who have been waiting for 10 years for compensation and justice for the billions of dollars in assets that were stolen by the Russian Federation. Their claims are being played out in courtrooms from New York to Amsterdam, Strasbourg to London.” For the story of Misamore’s pursuit of more than a billion dollars’ worth of booty in Amsterdam, read this. What if Khodorkovsky insists he will not be paying for this any longer, as he has already said since his release?

Then there is the question which Khodorkovsky will want to consider – if not exactly discuss – with Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov, Gary Kasparov, Sergei Udaltsov, Ilya Ponomarev, Evgenia Chirikova, and Olga Romanova. These are the names who comprise the current Russian opposition; theirs are feathers easily ruffled. Within weeks the VTsIOM and Levada polling organizations will be able to measure just how little name recognition in Khodorkovsky’s case will produce in voter support; and how much divisiveness Khodorkovsky’s undiminished self-regard will sow among the domestic regime changers.

Across town in the Kremlin, among those in the Putin circle strategizing for a stable succession, the more trouble Khodorkovsky stirs among the opposition, the stronger the case will be for removing candidate successors as weak as Dmitry Medvedev, and for building up much stronger candidates. The first among those is Igor Sechin.

putin_sechinHis remark on the release of Khodorkovsky on Friday morning, following Sechin’s session with Putin that afternoon, was: “I am ready to consider the question of employment of the former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, [who was] pardoned today by the President. However, all places in the top management of the company are taken. We are ready to consider any offers, but we have precise standards: [his] qualification has to be confirmed. The structure of the company is known — the places of top managers are occupied now. But if there is any interesting offer, we will consider it.”

This wasn’t light irony, nor heavy vengeance. It was the declaration of one of the men running the country that unless Khodorkovsky accepts his subordination, he has no future in Russia. Sechin’s meaning stung Khodorkovsky swiftly into replying from Berlin. He said that before judging his qualifications Sechin should have to “work where I worked.” That’s a veiled threat that Sechin should try a spell in prison. Sechin has thus drawn Khodorkovsky out, exposing once more, as the Kremlin sees it, the over-weaning vanity which has made Khodorkovsky a predictable foil for Putin since 2003.

rahrFinally, there is already among Germany’s self-appointed liberationists like academic Alexander Rahr (right), the problem of what they have gotten Chancellor Angela Merkel, her ministers, secret services, and business supporters into. Rahr, who is more believed outside Germany than inside, claims the scheme for Khodorkovsky’s application for release, and the terms agreed to by Putin, were the work of former foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher “with the Chancellor’s office, with Mrs. [Angela] Merkel, with minister of foreign affairs [Guido] Westerwelle, with the German embassy in Moscow” – and Rahr himself. “Without Genscher playing this role, Khodorkovsky might not have been released… He’s very close to Angela Merkel.”

If there has been a secret undertaking between Merkel and Putin, and if in retrospect that appears to neutralize Khodorkovsky’s future as an asset to Russia’s enemies, this is likely to cause recriminations among the German political elite. In time, Khodorkovsky is also likely to feel uncomfortable in Germany whose closeness to Russia the Germans will not encourage him to entertain. If Khodorkovsky opts next for New York or London, he will liquidate his significance more swiftly and surely than Berezovsky was able to do in his decade in exile.

An American welcome for Khodorkovsky would bury him as deeply as Vermont did for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But would Prime Minister David Cameron, Mayor Boris Johnson, or the Labour Party be as hospitable to Khodorkovsky’s application for residence in London as they have been for the likes of Bank of Moscow fraudster, Andrei Borodin? The Kremlin’s calculation of British intentions is that agree or disagree, that’s a win-win for Putin.

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