In his harshest criticism of the Kremlin to date, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the businessman who founded Russia’s largest oil producer, Yukos, accused the government of stealing his oil empire and warned in a letter published Tuesday that a continuing crackdown on post-Soviet freedoms would ruin the country.
Writing from prison, where he has been held since October 2003 on charges of tax evasion and fraud in a separate privatization deal, Mr. Khodorkovsky said the sale of Yukos’s main production unit into state hands this month “was the most senseless and destructive event in the economic sphere since President Vladimir V. Putin has taken helm.”
“Using selective justice, introducing new legal norms and applying them retroactively,” he continued, the state has undermined trust in the legal system. “Such methods,” he added, “damage the nation’s reputation and hurt the economy, but those who initiated that don’t care.”
Mr. Putin has cast the 18-month crackdown on Mr. Khodorkovsky and Yukos as an effort to fight corruption and shady bookkeeping. But most analysts and commentators see it as a vendetta for Mr. Khodorkovsky’s perceived political ambitions, including his financing of opposition parties.
The culmination of the legal assault came on Dec. 19, when a Yukos unit, Yuganskneftegas, which produced 60 percent of Yukos’s output, was sold at government auction to a shell company. The sale price was half of what Yukos and foreign auditors say it was worth. Then a company controlled by the government, Rosneft, bought the shell company. Both Rosneft and Yuganskneftegas are being folded into Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly.
Mr. Putin defended the auction as an effort by the state to defend its interests, but his top economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, criticized the move on Tuesday, calling it the “fraud of the year.”
In his letter, Mr. Khodorkovsky warned that Mr. Putin’s bid to strengthen government controls would set off the nation’s collapse. Mr. Putin has replaced the popular election of governors in Russia’s 89 regions with Kremlin appointees.