| MOSCOW, July 3 — In a political wrangle of a kind
not seen in Russia since the early days of Vladimir V. Putin's presidency,
the authorities have arrested a top executive at the financial group that
owns Russia's largest oil company.
The executive, Platon Lebedev, chairman of Menatep, the company that
owns 61 percent of the Yukos Oil Company, was arrested on Wednesday. The
general prosecutor's office suspects him of embezzling from a state company
in 1994, a charge he denies. Mr. Lebedev was convalescing in a hospital
when arrested and was led out in handcuffs, a Yukos executive said.
The arrest was the first of a major tycoon since Vladimir A. Gusinsky,
an embattled media mogul, was detained in 2000. At that time Mr. Putin,
recently elected president, had begun to push powerful tycoons like Mr.
Gusinsky and Boris A. Berezovsky — who faces fraud charges for which
Russia is trying to extradite him from Britain — out of the Kremlin,
where they had been influencing policy under Boris N. Yeltsin.
Now there is another challenge to Mr. Putin's power, this one from a
man who, like the two tycoons before him, is more statesman than chief
Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, 40, is the chief executive and a major owner
of Yukos. He has been riding high for several years, forging ties with
the West and building his company to compete internationally. He meets
with American senators. He is described here as a self-styled spokesman
for a market-oriented Russia.
With parliamentary elections approaching in December, Mr. Khodorkovsky
began to donate money to pro-market opposition parties. His supporters
began talking about giving more power to Parliament, implying a power
shift away from the presidency. He even said he would leave business,
possibly for politics, in several years' time.
That, according to Mr. Khodorkovsky's supporters, made him dangerous.
The arrest of Mr. Lebedev, his close associate, was a blunt message from
above to keep Mr. Khodorkovsky out of politics, said Grigory
A. Yavlinsky, the head of Yabloko, one of the opposition parties.
Moscow today was abuzz with conspiracy theories. Few believed that the
prosecutor's office was acting on its own. Most of those interviewed said
they thought a powerful enemy had bribed officers to investigate Mr. Lebedev,
a common tactic in corporate battles here.
Mr. Putin's role in the arrest is unclear. A spokeswoman for the Kremlin
refused to comment.
"It's a clash between the people who own Russia and the people
who run Russia," said Yuliya Latynina, a columnist and novelist.
Mr. Khodorkovsky kept quiet today. A news conference was postponed and
then canceled. Later this evening the prosecutor's office said he had
been summoned for questioning on Friday.
Mr. Lebedev is being held in Lefortovo prison. Russian news agencies
reported that his case was being handled by the same officer who led the
investigation of Mr. Gusinsky. The prosecutor's office refused to comment
on those reports.
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