In the wake of U.S. financier George Soros' public defense of jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Moscow offices of the Soros Foundation were raided early today by dozens of men equipped with camouflage gear and stun guns, who hauled away 15 years worth of documents and computer data.
The operation, which began shortly after midnight, was carried out by private security forces ostensibly hired by a businessman with whom the foundation had been engaged in a legal dispute. But Soros Foundation officials said they could not rule out a connection to the Yukos Oil Co. case, in which offices throughout Moscow have been raided in recent months by authorities seeking evidence against the billionaire oil tycoon.
"I cannot rule out that it is some kind of revenge on the part of some agencies who resort to the use of bandits and thugs for Mr. Soros' position and his attitude toward Mr. Khodorkovsky," said Yekaterina Geniyeva, director of the Open Society Institute-Soros Foundation in Russia.
Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest oligarch, was arrested Oct. 25 on tax evasion, forgery and fraud charges in a case that has erupted into the most serious crisis of President Vladimir V. Putin's administration. Khodorkovsky's supporters claim that the arrest was the punitive action of an anti-democratic faction within the Kremlin seeking to clamp down on the businessman's political influence.
The New York-based Soros Foundation has spent more than $1 billion on charitable projects in Russia during the last 15 years. Khodorkovsky had based his own charitable organization, the Open Russia Foundation, on Soros' Open Society Institute and had close links to the Soros Foundation's work in supporting libraries, Internet education, community development and the promotion of civil society.
This week, Soros spoke out against Khodorkovsky's arrest, saying "the crackdown by Mr. Putin sends an unmistakable message that independence of action will not be tolerated." Soros said that pressure from the West against a trend toward "state capitalism" could result in "Russia being forced out" of the Group of 8 industrialized nations.
Geniyeva, who was in Florence, Italy, when the raid began, said she was convinced that it was related to the foundation's dispute with the building's landlord -- until Soros officials found themselves unable to persuade Russian authorities to intervene.
"What's happening now is the Soros Foundation has physically ceased to exist in Russia," she said. "It's been plundered down to the last thread. And with this in mind, I would very much like to rule out any connection to Khodorkovsky, but unfortunately, I can't. There are just way too many coincidences here."
Outside the foundation offices, Open Society Institute legal director Kuzmin Pavel could only watch helplessly as boxes of material were hauled into a waiting truck. He was prevented from entering the premises by dozens of private guards.
Pavel said the guards appeared to have been hired by the landlord, Kantemir Karamzin, to evict the foundation as a result of a rent dispute, despite the fact that Soros had prevailed in two recent court actions.
Karamzin, who was also standing outside, confirmed that he was evicting the foundation for what he said was nonpayment of rent. But though he acknowledged initiating the raid, he also hinted that the legal dispute could have connections to the Yukos case.
"I'm afraid this whole situation may be linked somehow to the notorious events unfolding in Russia now," he said. "Khodorkovsky's not making a secret of the fact that his charity foundation, Open Russia, will take over some of the responsibilities of the Open Society Institute."
Geniyeva remained optimistic. "I still have hope that with all these things we've set up ... that the new generation that we have educated will manage to cope with all this madness that is happening here," she said. "Although, to be honest with you, you really need to be a great patriot of this country in order not to give way to despair."
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.