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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 17:39 GMT
Russia's dramatic power shift
By Steven Eke
BBC Russian affairs analyst

It has been a tumultuous week in Russia, with the arrest of a top businessman and the replacement of a key Kremlin official.

Oligarchs are the only independent alternative centre of power
The absence of hard facts about what is happening has led to speculation about a possible redistribution of wealth and property.

There has been lots of talk of a "battle for influence" between various political and economic clans.

The story of the Yukos investigations and arrests is a murky one indeed.

At its most basic, it is about a dramatic shift in the balance of political forces in Russia. One ultimately in favour of Vladimir Putin's associates from the Russian security services and his days in the St Petersburg city administration.

Some Russian analysts say the timing is not coincidental, pointing to December's parliamentary elections. They say that one of Mr Putin's priorities is curtailing the political ambitions of the so-called oligarchs.

In Russia, only the oligarchs - not the media, not political parties - have remained a truly independent, alternative centre of power. This is especially the case with Mr Khodorkovsky, in view of his immense wealth.

Putin's paradox

This is key to understanding the Yukos saga. After all, more than three years into Vladimir Putin's first term in office, the media is largely subservient or cowed. The State Duma (parliament) and political parties hardly put up opposition as such.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been hit hard - but other Russian businessmen have become involved in politics and escaped unscathed.

Putin reportedly faced a "palace coup" from hardliners
What made Mr Khodorkovsky different was his intention to fund those political parties that have the potential to become a genuine opposition force.

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Mr Khodorkovsky's predicament is not a "precedent".

Yet Mr Putin has stopped short of joining the Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, in expressing fears over the impact on investment.

Indeed, Mr Putin stood by this week, while two large investment projects involving Western companies appeared to collapse.

Vladimir Putin has consciously surrounded himself with people who are known to have anti-liberal, anti-Western and anti-business views.

Yet he still espouses - publicly at least - a vision of market-based democracy and free enterprise.

'Strong men'

It is difficult to find an explanation for this paradox. Yet a credible explanation may have come from Gleb Pavlovsky, an adviser to the former head of the presidential administration, Aleksandr Voloshin, this summer.

Mr Pavlovsky published an analytical note on the Internet, in which he claimed that Vladimir Putin was facing a "palace coup" from hardliners in his own administration.

Mr Putin now appears to have taken a step back from complete consolidation of their authority.

The appointment of a lawyer - Dmitry Medvedev - rather than a security official, as the replacement head of the Presidential Administration, suggests Mr Putin believes there has to be a limit to the influence of the so-called "siloviki" (literally, "strong men").

There are, of course, cultural as well as political factors.

At an everyday level, the oligarchs have been viewed with great jealousy. The origins of their wealth are unclear, not of the highest probity. But there is also a deeply ingrained sense that making money and doing business is somehow wrong or "un-Russian".

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