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Putin's fight against oligarchs

By CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

Khodorkovsky is one of the richest men in Russia.
Khodorkovsky is one of the richest men in Russia.

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Oligarchs did not exist in the former Soviet Union, but as the regime collapsed, they made their move into the money -- and some say, politics.

Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. They were not always oligarchs. Back in the old Soviet Union, nobody was.

But, as the USSR disintegrated the men who would become modern Russia's tycoons made their move.

Berezovsky -- mathematician turned car dealer. By the end of the 1980s his millions had turned to billions. He became a political kingmaker, engineering the presidential elections of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin.

But with his wheeling and dealing, he was too big a threat. Berezovsky's now in exile in London, an avowed enemy of President Putin.

Berezovsky said: "Every totalitarian system -- and Putin created in Russia a totalitarian system -- fight against independent people. And for sure, people who have a lot of money are more independent." (Full Interview)

Gusinsky -- at the top of his powers, he controlled television, radio and print media, using them to oppose Putin.

Accused of money laundering and fraud, he fled Russia three years ago.

Now, it is Khodorkovsky's turn to face the threat of Putin.

The head of Yukos oil company, this oligarch's wealth -- an estimated $8 billion -- and political power are unprecedented.

Leading him to openly defy Putin. He's now in jail facing charges of fraud and tax evasion totaling more than a billion dollars.

But some financial experts point to another factor -- political ambition.

William Browder, of the Hermitage Capital Management, said: "All of a sudden we're in an election year and we see that one oligarch group is sponsoring all sorts of political parties, including communists, and apparently that truce was broken and so we end up seeing Putin doing the same thing to Khodorkovsky as he did to Gusinsky and Berezovsky."

The message, Kremlin watchers say, is unmistakable.

Political analyst Lilia Shevtsova said: "It will be a lesson to all Russian tycoons -- if you have political ambitions, if you want to change the rules of the game, you are vulnerable."

But where other tycoons fled -- or were exiled abroad -- Khodorkovsky vows he is staying in Russia. Setting the stage for the biggest clash yet between the president and the oligarchs.

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