Russia's richest man is thrown into prison. Georgian-owned casinos in Moscow are shut down. An international oil conglomerate is accused of massive environmental violations that could lead to billions of dollars in fines.
All found themselves on the wrong side of Russia's often murky rules and laws, but to critics of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's government, they are linked by something more: the politically motivated "selective enforcement" of those laws.
Authorities always deny the practice, but it is so common here that it can be considered one of the basic features of how this country's system works. And as Russia heads into a new political cycle, with parliamentary elections next year and a presidential election in 2008, advocates of greater democracy and human rights fear that selective enforcement will be a tool for the Kremlin elite to knock down any challenges to its grip.
"When Putin came to power, he faced two options for ruling the country: first, to build a dictatorship, or second, to develop a democracy here," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights movement. "Putin chose a third variant: to rule by imposing so-called selective enforcement under the guise of democracy."
'Tailored to their needs'
Ponomaryov cited the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former head of Yukos Oil Co., as the premier example of this.
Khodorkovsky, a tycoon who wasn't alone in making his money during the often-corrupt privatization of state assets in the 1990s, is behind bars in Siberia after being convicted on tax evasion and fraud charges. Most of his company's assets were taken away to pay a newly imposed bill for back taxes -- after he started funding Putin's political enemies.
"Khodorkovsky was a powerful political opponent," Ponomaryov said. "In a democratic country, you can't put him in prison and take away his business because of his political activities. But you can put him in prison and take away his business applying selective enforcement, finding fault with his business activities, taxes and bookkeeping.
"Technically, you can find fault this way with any big or small business in Russia. None of them is perfect."
Russian businesses aren't the only ones affected. An international consortium led by Royal Dutch Shell that is developing an oil and natural gas project on Sakhalin Island was accused of massive environmental violations, which carried a threat of revoking of its license or billions of dollars in fines.
The government's action came after high oil and gas prices made a decade-old contract look unattractive to the Russian side. Meanwhile, Gazprom, the state gas monopoly, angled for a piece of the Sakhalin action, seeking a revised deal. On Thursday, it took a majority stake in the Sakhalin-2 project for $7.4 billion.
Among those now feeling most at threat from the practice of selective enforcement are nongovernmental organizations, both foreign and domestic. Under new legislation, they face a wide range of bureaucratic rules that activists fear can be used on a case-by-case basis to shut down groups that anger authorities, even as others with the same shortcomings could be allowed to continue functioning.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were among several prominent groups that had to briefly suspend activities in Russia after failing to complete a re-registration process by an Oct. 18 deadline imposed under the new law. Both organizations have now been re-registered, as have other groups that drew attention for having their activities suspended. But they worry about what comes next.
"The Kremlin plan is very cynical and very simple," Ponomaryov said. "You can't challenge them in court because they created the kind of regulations that you can't help but violate, and then they attack you on a technicality. Formally, they are acting within the law -- the law they have tailored to their needs."
Tensions with Georgia
In the case of the Georgian-run businesses, several Moscow restaurants and casinos were shut down for violations, including cheating on taxes, after Russia's ties with its southern neighbor hit a new low.
When Putin appeared in October on a televised question-and-answer session, one of the questions noted that a high-profile crackdown on Georgian criminal suspects and illegal immigrants began only after diplomatic ties tanked. "With what other countries should our relations go sour in order for the law enforcement bodies to start doing their jobs?" Putin was asked.
Relations between Russia and Georgia have grown increasingly tense since the election in 2004 of pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after a nonviolent people's revolt. Among his top aims has been to recover control of pro-Russia breakaway regions and to bring Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Relations hit rock bottom after Georgia arrested four alleged Russian spies in September, even though it released them a few days later in a bid to limit the diplomatic damage.
"I cannot approve of selective actions on ethnic grounds," Putin said. "On the contrary, I am calling on all the law enforcement bodies and the administrative bodies to refrain from such actions, and indeed I consider such actions to be inadmissible."
To Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a Russian human rights group, it is obvious that authorities have cracked down on Georgians in Russia as punishment for their government's policies.
"Didn't they know beforehand that Georgians owned some casinos in Moscow?" he said. "They owned them for years. Why did they find out they don't pay taxes just when the whole storm began?"
Simonov said that Russia wouldn't be Russia if authorities said clearly that such actions were retaliation for policies they didn't like.
The idea that violations may not be what actually triggers enforcement action also applies to the oil and natural gas project known as Sakhalin-2. Most observers assume that such a huge project may well have caused some environmental damage. But many analysts say that the crackdown by environmental regulators was triggered by the desire of Gazprom to join the project. Gazprom has denied any such linkage.
Under this line of analysis, the Shell-led consortium's agreement to a deal with Gazprom will sharply reduce or eliminate the risk of punishment for environmental violations.
Asked about the Sakhalin-2 environmental accusations, Arkady Dvorkovich, a top economics specialist in the Putin administration, said at a news conference that supervisory bodies were simply enforcing Russian laws.
Laws can be murky
For those who see selective enforcement at work, the catch, of course, is in the line "if they observe the requirements of Russian legislation." Not only can laws and regulations be murky, but in the case of major oil and gas construction projects in Russia, few people believe that all environmental requirements are always fully met.
Roman Yushkov, an environmental protection professor at Perm State University, about 700 miles east of Moscow, said he sees a hidden agenda in the uproar over environmental problems at Sakhalin-2. He cited the example of the village of Pavlovo, 75 miles south of Perm, where he said oil pumping operations by Lukoil, which is on good terms with the Kremlin, have caused great environmental damage and health problems.
"I have little doubt that the ecological situation in Sakhalin may be pretty deplorable too," Yushkov said. "But the amount of publicity it gets and the volume of government support local ecologists are getting makes me think that it is politically motivated."
It is "very clear" that the high-profile complaints about environmental problems with Sakhalin-2 resulted from Russian officials' dissatisfaction with terms of the original contract, said Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party.
"The environment is being polluted by almost every company in our country," he said. "Some houses and other structures are being built near Moscow at the expense of nature reserves, and no ecologists can do anything about it."
Environmentalists were allowed "to scream bloody murder" in Sakhalin, he said, because that fit the authorities' game.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.