The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, today sought to minimise the political significance of the recent arrest, at gunpoint, of one of the country’s top businessmen. Mr Putin, who was travelling to Rome for a Russia-EU summit, argued that the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Russian oil giant Yukos, was equivalent to the crackdown on criminal behaviour in US boardrooms.

“In the United States, too, in the last two years, a score of company bosses have been called before the courts,” Mr Putin told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

“But nothing extraordinary happened, and no one questioned the existence of the rule of law. For us, too, it is nothing exceptional. It is that, previously, those who had money did not end up in front of a court.”

The arrest two weeks ago of Mr Khodorkosky, Russia’s richest man, unnerved foreign investors, raising the spectre of political instability just as international companies such as BP were returning to Russia.

Russian prosecutors’ subsequent decision to freeze Mr Khodorkovsky’s controlling stake in Yukos further undermined business confidence.

In a bid to allay foreign fears, Mr Putin said that the Kremlin was merely seeking to enforce the law.

He insisted that his government would oppose any moves to draw back from the privatisation of Russia’s state assets following the collapse of communism, adding that it would “continue along the lines of reforms and the market economy”.

Simon Kukes, the Russian-born US citizen who is the new head of Yukos, also sought to reassure investors that, despite his predecessor’s arrest, it will be business as usual.

“We don’t plan any changes in company behaviour, because the company is behaving normally. Everything stays intact and we have a strong team,” Mr Kukes told reporters.

Mr Kukes, who emigrated to the US in 1977, has been involved in the oil business for 25 years. His appointment as Mr Khodorkovsky’s successor appeared to have reassured investors that the oil company would be run effectively.

Mr Khodorkovky was arrested on charges of tax evasion and fraud, and is still in prison. Yesterday, he announced his resignation from Yukos, saying that he wanted to spare the company any further problems.

He has denied the charges against him, maintaining that they are a politically-motivated effort to intimidate him. His arrest followed his growing political activity ahead of parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote, which is set for March.

He said that he plans to focus on his Open Russia foundation, which “aims to build an open and truly democratic society in Russia”.

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