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To ease investment jitters, Medvedev allies float Khordorkovsky release

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Another sign Wednesday is a column by Gleb Pavlovsky, a longtime Kremlin adviser, posted on the state-run English-language TV network Russia Today's website that calls the Khodorkovsky verdict "excessively cruel" and openly doubts that the court was acting independently.

"These signs reveal an uneasiness among Russia's top elite about the Khodorkovsky case," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the liberal Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant. "There is a feeling that this case is getting too big, and it's not going to go away unless, maybe, something about it gets changed."

After coming to power a decade ago, Mr. Putin singled out Khodorkovsky for prosecution after he, almost alone among Russia's top business leaders, refused to stop funding political opposition and civil society groups.

Khodorkovsky's oil empire, Yukos, was dismantled and parceled out among state-owned firms, primarily the Kremlin's oil company Rosneft. When his first seven-year sentence was due to expire, Khodorkovsky was brought back to Moscow for a controversial second trial on charges that legal experts say contradict the first set of charges on which he was convicted.

Experts say Putin's personal hostility remains the central reason for Khodorkovsky's ongoing incarceration, a view corroborated by a 2007 US diplomatic cable about the case released last month by WikiLeaks. Some suggest that the signs could mean that Medvedev may be about to break with Putin, perhaps by announcing clemency or a sentence reduction for the former tycoon.

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