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Fugitive vows to keep fighting for Russia - In exile in Israel, ex-Yukos oilman plans to continue opposition to Putin (THE GLOBE AND MAIL) By MARK MACKINNON HERZLIA, ISRAEL 04/29/05 Page A3)Source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20050429/YUKOS29/TPInternational/Africa GLOBE AND MAIL GLOBE AND MAIL Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
HERZLIA, ISRAEL -- Leonid Nevzlin, billionaire former oil executive and fugitive from Russian justice, has decided that the weather in Israel is too hot for a proper Russian banya, or steam house.

He thinks instead that a Japanese onsen bath, with one pool of hot water and one of cold, will be a better match for the climate in Herzlia, a posh suburb of Tel Aviv that has become his home in exile.

That Mr. Nevzlin was thinking about personal spas yesterday afternoon is a sign of how comfortable he has become in his new on-the-lam existence.

At roughly the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin was 90 minutes away in Jerusalem, appealing to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to hand Mr. Nevzlin over for prosecution in Moscow on a murder charge.

Despite the high-level discussions, Mr. Nevzlin insisted he wasn´t worried about his fate. Outside Russia, he says, people believe the charges against him and other Yukos executives are far-fetched and politically motivated -- concocted as punishment for daring to oppose an all-powerful Kremlin.

"Putin has already asked for my extradition," said the 44-year-old father of two, who is accused in Russia of ordering one double murder and conspiring to commit several other killings.

"If he raises this again, it will not add a thing. Whatever fabricated evidence Russia may come up with against me would not stand up in any Western judicial system, including Israel´s. I´m totally calm and sure of the results."

Despite his best efforts, Mr. Nevzlin was clearly anything but relaxed as he sat at a long dining-room table -- bare except for a Passover plate. Throughout our conversation, his body was curled into a ball of pure tension in his chair, his eyes frequently closed as he spoke, a clenched fist pressed against his forehead.

He may be safe from prosecution for now, since Mr. Sharon has publicly promised not to extradite any of the three ex-Yukos executives living in Israel. But his former business partner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, shares a Moscow prison cell with two other inmates, reportedly living on a daily diet of black bread, porridge and fish soup.

A court trying Mr. Khodorkovsky on charges that he carried out massive tax evasion and fraud as chief executive officer of Yukos was scheduled to deliver its verdict this week, but the ruling was postponed at the last minute until mid-May. If found guilty of all charges, he could receive up to 10 years in prison.

Mr. Nevzlin said that despite the delay, he expects no leniency for Mr. Khodorkovsky. He believes the verdict was delayed for political reasons -- primarily so Mr. Putin wouldn´t have to face embarrassing questions while playing host on May 9 to world leaders at Victory Day celebrations in Moscow.

Until Mr. Khodorkovsky´s arrest in 2003, he and Mr. Nevzlin were the golden boys of Russia´s wild business scene.

Yukos was the darling of Western investors and Mr. Khodorkovsky was considered Russia´s richest man, with a personal fortune estimated at $8-billion (U.S.). Mr. Nevzlin was his right-hand man, listed at No. 11 on Forbes magazine´s list of Russia´s richest people, with $1.1- billion to his name. He was a member of the Federation Council, Russia´s equivalent of the Senate.

Then came the legal assault on Mr. Khodorkovsky and his company. While Mr. Khodorkovsky chose to fight the accusations against him, saying he would remain in Russia on principle, Mr. Nevzlin fled the country. He became an Israeli through the "law of return," which grants citizenship to any Jew who arrives in the country and asks for it.

Mr. Nevzlin repeated his contention that neither he nor Mr. Khodorkovsky broke Russian laws, and that the charges they face were invented to punish them for their political opposition to Mr. Putin. Before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky had donated money to opposition political parties and had taken to openly criticizing the Russian President.

Mr. Nevzlin says he decided to speak out about the case after keeping silent for more than a year after former Yukos security chief Alexei Pichugin was sentenced to 20 years in prison for two murders Mr. Nevzlin is alleged to have ordered.

"I can´t be silent any more, even though some people in Russia think that my speaking out can hurt those who are in jail," he said, speaking softly in Russian.

Mr. Nevzlin said he plans to wage political war against Mr. Putin, who, he says, has taken Russia back to the Soviet era by destroying independent media and crushing political dissent.

"I will fight against dictatorship in the Kremlin. Unlike Putin, I don´t see anything good in the Soviet Union," he said.

The ex-oilman could provide valuable funding to the beleaguered opposition. Despite the breakup of Yukos, Forbes estimated Mr. Nevzlin´s personal fortune at $2-billion last year.

He said he is in contact with Committee 2008, a loose group of Russian liberals headed by chess master Garry Kasparov that is fighting to avoid a victory by Mr. Putin or one of his protégés in the next presidential election.

Mr. Nevzlin also suggested he could ruin the reputations and careers of some of those in power in Moscow by speaking out about corruption in Russia. But he said he would not name names for fear of reprisals. His wife still lives in Russia.

"Naturally enough, like anyone else, I think about the consequences. A system which is ruled by the KGB, the FSB, I know what the system would be ready to do to their opponents." (© 2005 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. 04/29/05)

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