(Updates with Putin comments from first paragraph.)
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin raised the prospect of freeing Mikhail Khodorkovsky if he succeeds in returning to the Kremlin, countering billionaire challenger Mikhail Prokhorov’s pledge to grant a presidential pardon to the former Yukos Oil Co. owner.
“I’ll consider a petition if he writes this request, but first it’s necessary to become president,” Putin told reporters in Moscow today after his annual call-in television show, which lasted 4 1/2 hours. “The law is such that a person serving a prison sentence and convicted by a court verdict must write a petition for pardon and effectively admit his guilt, something Khodorkovsky hasn’t yet done.”
Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man when he was arrested at gunpoint on the tarmac of a Siberian airport in October 2003, during Putin’s first presidential term. He was later convicted of tax evasion and oil embezzlement in two trials and sentenced to a total of 13 years in prison as Yukos was dismantled and sold at auction to cover more than $30 billion in back taxes. Khodorkovsky, who denies any guilt, says he was targeted by Putin for financing opposition parties.
Western governments including the U.S. have called the case against Khodorkovsky politically motivated, though Putin has said he played no role in the prosecution.
Khodorkovsky is currently serving time at a penal colony near Finland, after being incarcerated in the Chita region near China. President Dmitry Medvedev’s human rights council in July called for an amnesty for economic crimes that would apply to Khodorkovsky and Medvedev himself said in May that freeing Khodorkovsky wouldn’t be “dangerous” for the country.
“I don’t trust Putin,” said Yuri Schmidt, a lawyer for Khodorkovsky. “He doesn’t say, ‘I will pardon Khodorkovsky if he makes an appeal.’ He says, ‘I will consider it,’” Schmidt said by phone in Moscow.
“The president has a right to issue a pardon irrespective of any admission of guilt and Khodorkovsky has repeatedly said he won’t recognize his guilt,” the lawyer said.
Prokhorov, who announced his intention to challenge Putin for the presidency on Dec. 12, today said his first act as president would be to set Khodorkovsky free.
“It’s important to display humanism and the president should set an example,” Prokhorov told reporters in the Russian capital before Putin, 59, addressed the nation.
Prokhorov, 46, said the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections won by Putin’s dominant United Russia party were “falsified” and encouraged disgruntled opposition leaders to challenge the results in court. He said he may attend an anti-Putin rally planned for central Moscow on Dec. 24.
Tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets since the vote, culminating in a Dec. 10 protest that was the largest held in Moscow since Putin came to power more than a decade ago.
Putin compared the rallies to Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution that brought U.S.-backed opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to power in 2004 over Putin’s favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, who became president last year.
‘I am Useful’
“The opposition will always claim results aren’t fair,” Putin said on national television. Some of the demonstrators were paid to be there, Putin said.
Prokhorov said he’ll ensure his candidacy doesn’t serve Putin’s goal of defusing mass protests.
“Of course I am useful to the Kremlin in the elections,” Prokhorov said in a blog posting yesterday. “They want to play with democracy so that people have ‘some kind of a choice.’ The authorities want to use us for their own understandable goals, but we will use them.”
Putin today said Prokhorov will be a “worthy and strong competitor” in the campaign.
“Mikhail Dmitrievich is a man who sticks to his plan and doesn’t veer,” Putin said, using Prokhorov’s patronymic. “I understand he made the decision to use a new platform to promote ideas that he thinks are right for the country.”
Calling for Khodorkovsky’s release is a clever campaign tactic because it clearly differentiates Prokhorov from Putin, Roland Nash, chief investment strategist at Moscow-based Verno Capital, which manages $175 million, said in an interview today.
His denunciation of electoral fraud is also aimed at attracting middle-class voters, said Nash.
“That’s the electorate that he’s going after, either because he really genuinely wants to be elected president or because he’s absorbing some of the pressure away from the Kremlin,” Nash said.
Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team, about 36 percent of Polyus Gold International Ltd. and 17 percent of aluminum maker United Co. Rusal, is the country’s third-richest man with a fortune Forbes magazine puts at $18 billion.
Sergei Markov, a former United Russia lawmaker who heads the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, is among the analysts who have characterized Prokhorov’s candidacy as a ploy to benefit Putin by legitimizing the March vote through the appearance of genuine competition.
“There are two possibilities here, either it’s something agreed with Putin to bolster the legitimacy of the presidential elections after the recent protests or Prokhorov could be jumping on the bandwagon of the protests,” Markov said Dec. 12. “Prokhorov is a glamorous oligarch and he’s got plenty of money to spend on promoting himself.”
--With assistance from Henry Meyer and Ilya Khrennikov in Moscow. Editor: Brad Cook, Paul Abelsky, Torrey Clark
To contact the reporters on this story: Lyubov Pronina in Moscow at email@example.com; Yuliya Fedorinova in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brad Cook at email@example.com; Balazs Penz at firstname.lastname@example.org