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Confessions of a Closet Conspiracy Theorist

Pat Davis Szymczak

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Before coming to Russia, I believed that Oswald had shot Kennedy. I believed that Elvis was dead. I believed alien abductees were nuts. And I believed that, even if a 'Trilateral Commission' existed, it did not run the world from behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz.

But the more time I spend in Russia, the more I doubt things that I had previously accepted at face value as 'truth.' I am becoming a conspiracy theorist. I'm sure that the truth 'is out there' but where is there, I'm not sure anymore. Let's just say of the truth - it 'ain't' here. A poignant case to be appreciated by the 'Russaholics' among us (I'm one, so don't be offended, and if you're reading this, you must be one as well) is the Khodorkovsky affair.

It would not have taken a clairvoyant to predict that the Western press would knee jerk react to the Russian State's attack on the man who built YUKOS with yet another mudslide of ill informed, irresponsible reportage. You know, the usual, 'Kremlin attack... blah, blah, blah... makes foreign investors skittish about Russia... blah, blah, blah.'

Remember the Amoco! Errr... the Alamo!

P-leez! For one thing, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not a foreign investor. He is a Russian oligarch, and he is the same Russian oligarch who in the mid-1990s, was the bad guy banker who tore up the agreement between YUKOS and Amoco and chased Amoco out of Russia. This happened, of course, after Amoco had invested lots of money in the Priobsky oilfield, a greenfield PSA project requiring mega bucks of technology transfer from the West. An Amoco executive close to the Priobsky project told me at the time that the U.S. company's biggest mistake was to have entrusted the job of lobbying Russian authorities in the hands of its Russian partner. YUKOS lobbied Amoco right out of the country.

Moreover, whether they meant to or not, the authorities which are now hounding Khodorkovsky and his associates, are in fact, doing foreign investors a favor. They're making it cheaper for one of the Supermajors (ExxonMobil perhaps?) to buy a stake in YUKOSSibneft (YUKOS merged recently with Sibneft which is owned by another Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.) Trust me. I read it today at the Starlight Diner in the pages of the English language weekly, the Moscow Tribune, (and my waiter really did seem to resemble Elvis.)

Tribune columnist Stanislav Menshikov makes sense when he writes 'YUKOS shares have appreciated by 68 percent since last December. Selling the company today would yield a capital gain of between $12 and $18 bln for Khodorkovsky and partners depending on whether Exxon buys 25 or 40 percent. It would be a handsome profit, but the YUKOS crowd might want to wait until their shares rise to new peaks. In that event, Exxon would lose billions. And so, the hypothesis goes, the attack by the Prosecutor General's Office on YUKOS actually serves the U.S. interest because it causes the Russian company's shares to stop rising and potentially saves Exxon a lot of money.' (Who do you think killed Kennedy?)

Are You Ready? Here... Comes the KO

'This might be why the U.S. side has dropped its initial concerns about the attacks on YUKOS and has lately treated the matter philosophically,' Menshikov continued. 'It also explains why this attack, which normally would have tended to spoil the investment climate in Russia, has in fact permitted Moody's to raise its grading of Russian securities. And, interestingly, while Russian capital, scared by the YUKOS raids, has been fleeing the country in the last quarter at a record rate, foreign capital has in fact been moving in. Unlike Khodorkovsky or Abramovich, U.S. or British investors have nothing to fear politically in Russia. After all, it is not they who profited in the shady privatizations of the 1990s. Unlike their Russian counterparts they, as a rule, know how to pay their taxes.'

Wow! But the biggest bomb thrown by Menshikov is this one: 'Putin allegedly wants YUKOSSibneft to be sold fast, at the lowest possible price and has been asked by prominent people in the U.S. to lend a hand. Market capitalization of Russian oil companies, while rising strikingly in recent months, is still grossly undervalued in terms of price per barrel of reserves by western standards. Adding to Exxon's stagnant reserves at low cost is extremely profitable.' (Oh no, the aliens are about to beam me to the Mother Ship... not again!)

Menshikov does have a point, if you ask me. But, I'm not sure if I'd agree that the forces dogging Khodorkovsky are trying to help a foreign investor intentionally. Never analyze Russian politics in linear terms. Never forget that the words, 'Russia', 'politics' and 'Byzantine' are all synonyms. And besides, aren't politics 'local' everywhere? And isn't Putin standing for reelection? As several Russian analysts - I include here a taxi driver (who bore a striking resemblance to Elvis) and a 'think tank' Ph.D (who looked a lot like Lee Harvey Oswald) - explained it to me, Khodorkovsky defied the Kremlin and must be punished. One of his biggest sins perhaps was to imply publicly that - upon retirement in five years - Khodorkovsky might want to run for Putin's job.

'Moscow Cubs' Play Ball at the Kremlin

I don't find anything strange about a rich private businessman wanting to invest his fortune in campaigning to become president of his country. I can't think of any U.S. president in my lifetime who wasn't a rich businessman of some sort (I include lawyers here.) But the power structures of post-Soviet Russia aren't quite ready yet to shake a Communist legacy that found business, or 'speculation' as the Soviets called it, repugnant. For such impertinence, Khodorkovsky must be squashed like a bug, the 'powers that be' seem to be saying. He should have laid low like other Russian oligarchs who have discovered quieter pastimes. Abramovich bought Britain's Chelsea football club. And now there's a rumor flying around Moscow that another Russian oligarch, mining tycoon Vladimir Potanin, might have his eye on yet another English football powerhouse, Arsenal.

This gives me an idea. On a flight to Moscow from London in October, I was amused to find page three of the London Times dominated by a full page story - with colored pictures no less - of how the Chicago Cubs baseball team had lost yet another chance to play in the World Series because they were cursed in 1945 by a Greek tavern owner and his pet goat. (I'm serious. In the late 1980s I enjoyed many a beer at 'The Billy Goat Tavern' which is situated opposite the loading docks of my old employer, The Chicago Tribune, current owner of the Chicago Cubs. The tale told in the pages of The Times is a well-known Chicago legend, but I hardly thought that Europe could care - let alone understand.)

Nonetheless, the economy is global. And if two UK football clubs can benefit from a little 'foreign investment' from Russia; why not a baseball club in the United States? You too, Mr. Khodorkovsky, can be a sports magnate - only with this purchase, you can have your revenge as well! Buy the Chicago Cubs and relocate them to Moscow! Even the ghost of Amoco (since absorbed by BP, but whose former headquarters office tower still graces the Chicago skyline) will finally get its rest! (Now, what was that you wanted to say about the Trilateral Commission?).

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