Russian Fugitives Mar Putin Visit

The presence in Israel of some of Russia's most-wanted fugitives is threatening to cloud the historic visit this week by President Vladimir Putin.

Three billionaire oil executives, a publishing tycoon and a former Putin ally have all taken up residence in Israel in recent years as Russia sought their arrests, rankling officials in Moscow.

On the eve of Putin's arrival Wednesday as the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit Israel, both governments played down any disagreement over the businessmen. Israeli officials conceded Putin might raise the matter, but noted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) insists he won't turn over the wanted men.

"They are Israeli citizens and that's it," said Asaf Shariv, a Sharon spokesman.

Israel and Russia have had close relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both are involved in battles against Islamic militants, and they are linked by the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants now living in Israel.

But ties have become strained over Russia's planned sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, an enemy of Israel. Israeli officials dismissed speculation they might bargain to extradite the fugitives in exchange for Russia scrapping the arms deal.

The Putin visit also coincides with Wednesday's scheduled verdict in the Russian tax evasion and fraud trial of wealthy Jewish businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky (search), former head of the Yukos (search) oil giant.

While Putin casts the case as a straightforward anti-corruption effort, some people see anti-Semitic undertones in his campaign against Khodorkovsky and other Jewish tycoons.

"The Yukos scandal had a political and maybe Jewish roots," said Roman Bronfman, an Israeli lawmaker who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1980.

The three oil executives living in Israel — Leonid Nevzlin (search), Mikhail Brudno (search) and Vladimir Dubov (search) — are former partners of Khodorkovsky and all are wanted by Russia on fraud charges. The men, all of whom appeared on the Forbes list of the world's billionaires in 2004, are now directors of Group Menatep (search), a holding company that owns 60 percent of what remains of the dismantled Yukos empire.

Menatep officials declined comment on Putin's visit, and a spokeswoman for Nevzlin, who also is wanted by Russia in an alleged murder plot, said he would have no comment until after the verdict in Khodorkovsky's case.

Also with homes in Israel are Vladimir Gusinsky (search), a media magnate who fled Russia after being charged with financial misdeeds in a probe widely seen as punishment for his TV station's critical coverage of Putin, and Boris Berezovsky (search), a one-time Kremlin insider who was charged with fraud after a falling out with Putin. Both men spend most of their time abroad.

The five wanted businessmen immigrated under Israel's "Law of Return," which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew.

The issue of extraditing Jews has always been sensitive in Israel, which was created after the Nazi Holocaust as a haven for Jews. Turning someone over to Russia would be especially hard for Sharon, because the Soviet Union refused for decades to let its Jewish citizens leave the country.

"I do not intend to turn anyone over," Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily. "Since the days of my youth, I have been opposed to turning over Jews. I am saying this in the clearest manner possible."

Berezovsky, who said he no longer holds Israeli citizenship but spends significant time in the country, said he found Sharon's comments reassuring.

"I'm not afraid of Putin at all," he said from Britain, where he lives in exile.

Putin, who has pledged to combat anti-Semitism in Russia, will not seek extradition of the fugitives, said an official in his press service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israeli lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that during his trip to Russia last week, top Russian officials never mentioned the fugitives.

"There were plenty of opportunities to do it, and nobody raised it," he said. "It seems to me that nobody really considers this a real obstacle."

Alexander Shumilin, a Mideast analyst at Moscow's USA and Canada Institute, said Putin is likely to talk about the businessmen, known in Russia as "the oligarchs." But he added that the Kremlin understands extradition is out of the question.

Putin's real intent is to send a warning to the fugitives to stay out of Russian affairs, Shumilin said. Nevzlin, for instance, has talked about financing opposition groups in Russia.

"Strengthening contacts on an official level will be taken into account by the oligarchs themselves," Shumilin said. "The goal would be to limit the damage the oligarchs can do."