Russian Fugitives Find Homes in Israel
- Wanted Russian Fugitives Find Homes in Israel,
Threaten to Cloud Putin's Historic Visit
By JOSEF FEDERMAN
The Associated Press
Apr. 27, 2005 - The presence in Israel of some of Russia's most-wanted
fugitives is threatening to cloud the historic visit this week by
President Vladimir Putin.
Three billionaire oil executives, a publishing tycoon and a former
Putin ally have all taken up residence in Israel in recent years as
Russia sought their arrests, rankling officials in Moscow.
On the eve of Putin's arrival Wednesday as the first Russian or Soviet
leader to visit Israel, both governments played down any disagreement
over the businessmen. Israeli officials conceded Putin might raise the
matter, but noted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists he won't turn
over the wanted men.
"They are Israeli citizens and that's it," said Asaf Shariv, a Sharon
Israel and Russia have had close relations since the collapse of the
Soviet Union. Both are involved in battles against Islamic militants,
and they are linked by the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants
now living in Israel.
But ties have become strained over Russia's planned sale of
anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, an enemy of Israel. Israeli officials
dismissed speculation they might bargain to extradite the fugitives in
exchange for Russia scrapping the arms deal.
The Putin visit also coincides with Wednesday's scheduled verdict in
the Russian tax evasion and fraud trial of wealthy Jewish businessman
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil giant.
While Putin casts the case as a straightforward anti-corruption
effort, some people see anti-Semitic undertones in his campaign
against Khodorkovsky and other Jewish tycoons.
"The Yukos scandal had a political and maybe Jewish roots," said Roman
Bronfman, an Israeli lawmaker who immigrated from the Soviet Union in
The three oil executives living in Israel Leonid Nevzlin, Mikhail
Brudno and Vladimir Dubov are former partners of Khodorkovsky and all
are wanted by Russia on fraud charges. The men, all of whom appeared
on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires in 2004, are now
directors of Group Menatep, a holding company that owns 60 percent of
what remains of the dismantled Yukos empire.
Menatep officials declined comment on Putin's visit, and a spokeswoman
for Nevzlin, who also is wanted by Russia in an alleged murder plot,
said he would have no comment until after the verdict in
Also with homes in Israel are Vladimir Gusinsky, a media magnate who
fled Russia after being charged with financial misdeeds in a probe
widely seen as punishment for his TV station's critical coverage of
Putin, and Boris Berezovsky, a one-time Kremlin insider who was
charged with fraud after a falling out with Putin. Both men spend most
of their time abroad.
The five wanted businessmen immigrated under Israel's "Law of Return,"
which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew.
The issue of extraditing Jews has always been sensitive in Israel,
which was created after the Nazi Holocaust as a haven for Jews.
Turning someone over to Russia would be especially hard for Sharon,
because the Soviet Union refused for decades to let its Jewish
citizens leave the country.
"I do not intend to turn anyone over," Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot
daily. "Since the days of my youth, I have been opposed to turning
over Jews. I am saying this in the clearest manner possible."
Berezovsky, who said he no longer holds Israeli citizenship but spends
significant time in the country, said he found Sharon's comments
reassuring. "I'm not afraid of Putin at all," he said from Britain,
where he lives in exile.
Putin, who has pledged to combat anti-Semitism in Russia, will not
seek extradition of the fugitives, said an official in his press
service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israeli lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and
Defense Committee, said that during his trip to Russia last week, top
Russian officials never mentioned the fugitives.
"There were plenty of opportunities to do it, and nobody raised it,"
he said. "It seems to me that nobody really considers this a real
Alexander Shumilin, a Mideast analyst at Moscow's USA and Canada
Institute, said Putin is likely to talk about the businessmen, known
in Russia as "the oligarchs." But he added that the Kremlin
understands extradition is out of the question.
Putin's real intent is to send a warning to the fugitives to stay out
of Russian affairs, Shumilin said. Nevzlin, for instance, has talked
about financing opposition groups in Russia.
"Strengthening contacts on an official level will be taken into
account by the oligarchs themselves," Shumilin said. "The goal would
be to limit the damage the oligarchs can do."
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