MOSCOW — In the beginning, the widely publicized move to open a criminal investigation into Russian energy giant Yukos Oil played out as a high-stakes political drama between the Kremlin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the brash young oligarch who turned a middling state oil enterprise into a $20-billion energy conglomerate.
But as the Yukos saga unfolds, it is becoming increasingly clear that far more than a single company is at stake. For the first time since the collapse of communism, critics are calling for the overturn of the mass privatization deals of the 1990s that shot businessmen such as Khodorkovsky into the economic jet stream -- leaving a good part of the Russian public behind in relative poverty.
In recent weeks, much of the public debate in Moscow has not been about whether some of Khodorkovsky's business associates should go to jail for suspected crimes ranging from tax evasion to murder. It has been about whether prosecutors will wind up reexamining the circumstances that allowed Khodorkovsky to acquire the company in 1995 for a mere $300 million -- and whether Yukos could be forced to redistribute some of its assets to settle the case.
The very possibility raises fundamental uncertainties about property rights in the new Russia and underlines the public's deep misgivings over how vast national wealth accrued over more than seven decades of Soviet control disappeared almost overnight into private hands.
Few believe that President Vladimir V. Putin, struggling to energize the economy and encourage foreign investment, will allow any move to jeopardize private property holdings. Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov has said emphatically that the privatization files of the 1990s will not be reopened.
Yet that has not stopped commentators and economists from arguing on an almost daily basis that lingering questions over the fairness of Russia's privatization program cannot be put to rest until the process is examined anew and, finally, fixed.
"I think people are motivated not by a sense that they missed out on privatization, or that they feel envious," said Oleg Bogomolov, a prominent Russian economist who has been critical of the privatization deals. "I think people are mostly motivated by a feeling that fairness was trampled upon."
Equally alarming to business and investor groups, the Yukos investigation could signal that anti-free-market forces in the Kremlin are still strong enough to launch a power play whose goal is not necessarily to ditch economic reforms -- they aren't powerful enough for that -- but possibly to restructure the company and grab a share of the Yukos cash cow for themselves.
"The scandal over Yukos does not entail a systemic threat to property rights, but nevertheless there is a perception in the market that the security of property rights is not what it ought to be, and that has consequences," said Christopher Granville, chief strategist at United Financial Group, which specializes in Russian investments. A redistribution of Yukos assets is unlikely, he said, but if it happened, "it would be a total disaster."
The roots of the problem can be traced to the early 1990s, when former President Boris N. Yeltsin was struggling to propel the former Soviet Union into the free-market era.
A host of economic advisors, many of them from the U.S., warned that the gradual privatization process launched in the rest of Eastern Europe might be too slow. To hold off the Communists, they argued, it was necessary to create a huge new class of private property owners, almost overnight, who would form an automatic constituency for free-market reforms.
"Privatization on the largest scale of any in the history of humankind was established in five years, basically. Now, 80% of assets are in private hands. If you look at it now, we have more private property than France," said Pavel Teplukhin, head of Troika Dialog investment managers, who was on the team of economists who helped devise the strategy.
"Inevitably," he said, "[in] trying to realize one goal, it was done at the expense of doing it properly.... And as a result of that, we are left with plenty of questions."
Although the transfers of small and mid-size enterprises have generated many uncertainties that already are making their way through the courts, the sale of the old Soviet industrial giants, such as Yukos, has generated lingering distaste.
Some concerns were transferred in a controversial "loans-for-shares" program, under which Russian businessmen were able to acquire state-owned companies for a fraction of their value or through auction procedures that were open to manipulation and fraud.
The result was that 17 men, who were scarcely known before, became billionaires at the helms of companies that once belonged to the public at large. Khodorkovsky was one of them.