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Open season on Russia's tycoons

As the Kremlin confronts big business, experts warn of the dangers in revisiting shady 1990s privatizations.

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A Kremlin-ordered legal assault on Russia's largest business empire has upset the country's fragile political stability, and some experts warn that the confrontation could spiral into a major crisis.

At the heart of the expanding police investigation into Yukos, an oil-and-banking conglomerate, are questions about the unsavory manner by which its owners - chiefly Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky - acquired their vast holdings through smoke-and-mirrors privatizations in the 1990s. The criminal probe broke a three-year truce in which President Vladimir Putin promised to forgive the past sins of Russia's powerful business kingpins, provided they quit meddling in politics.

Over the past week, the political attack on Yukos has drifted toward a much wider confrontation.

"If we start now to revisit privatization, it will not be easy to stop this process, and it is not inconceivable that it will lead to civil war," the Kremlin's outspoken economic counsel, Andrei Illaryonov, told Ekho Moskvi radio station Monday.

"This [Yukos affair] can easily snowball into a general campaign against the oligarchs, to redistribute or renationalize their property," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the independent Politika think tank. "There are plenty of forces who favor this, including the Communists, public opinion, and the special [security] services," he adds. "The last experiment in nationalization of property, in 1917, resulted in civil war that killed 15 million people. People have a tendency to defend their property.... Russian history teaches that Russia never learns from history."

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