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Russians support Putin over Yukos

Nearly two-thirds of Moscovites still support Putin despite a controversial attack on the oligarchs
Nearly two-thirds of Moscovites still support Putin despite a controversial attack on the oligarchs

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MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- A state assault on Russian oil giant YUKOS has left President Vladimir Putin's huge popularity intact, opinion polls showed on Saturday, even as Western governments worried over its implications for business and democracy.

Berlin and Washington said they were worried charges of huge fraud and tax evasion against YUKOS boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, may be politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint a week ago. Since then prosecutors have frozen a major stake in YUKOS, the company's shares (YUKO.RTS) have lost more than 20 percent, and Putin has faced the biggest political and economic crisis of his career.

Nearly two-thirds of Muscovites polled by the respected VTsIOM-A agency were skeptical about Kremlin assertions the YUKOS affair was purely a criminal matter and saw Khodorkovsky's arrest as political. That, however, did not appear to seriously erode support for Putin.

The VTsIOM-A poll said Putin had 73 percent approval among 1,600 Russians polled this week.

This was nearly his lowest score this year but well above his rating after he came to power in 2000 promising to enforce the law and end the chaos of the 1990s, when a handful of businessmen, like Khodorkovsky, gained vast wealth.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Russian authorities should act to dispel fears. "There's always the issue in a case like this as to whether it's a single event or whether it has some sweeping implication for the rule of law."

Germany said foreign investors needed certainty to operate.

Siloviki's power struggle

Analysts said charges against Khodorkovsky and allies were prompted by his attempts to move into politics and reflected a desire by Kremlin hardliners to regain control over business.

The crisis's first political scalp came late on Thursday when the president's chief-of-staff quit, apparently protesting the assault on YUKOS -- but his replacement would not please the Kremlin hawks, known as siloviki or men of power, papers said.

"The men of power have not got more powerful," said the respected daily Kommersant, in its front-page headline, although Izvestia thought his replacement with lawyer Dmitry Medvedev would provoke changes both in government personnel and policy.

"In the coming days and weeks, a new round of sackings and appointments will follow," the daily said. "We can already talk about a new presidential term starting ahead of schedule."

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December, and presidential elections will follow in the spring. Many commentators say Putin will then change his government, which has been largely unaltered since his election.

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, one of the few major government figure left from the 1990s, said he was concerned about the assault on YUKOS on Friday -- the most senior official to do so, and in contradiction to Putin's line.

"There can be only one explanation for this: Kasyanov is being prepared for his removal or already knows about it," said the popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The opinion polls will give him little comfort. VTsIOM-A gave him a mere 39 percent approval rating, his lowest since 2000, while 50 percent of Russians disapproved of him.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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