RIGA - A top official from the embattled Russian oil giant Yukos has asked for asylum in Latvia. The request drops yet another complicated case in the lap of local politicians, who fear it could become one more stumbling block in relations between Latvia and Russia.
On Nov. 24, the business daily Dienas Bizness ran an article stating that Mikhail Yelfimov, a vice president of Yukos, had officially requested asylum in Latvia.
According to local officials, the process could take more than three months to sort out.
Yelfimov is reportedly one of 13 Yukos officials wanted by Russian authorities in connection with alleged fraud.
Latvian officials have lamented public release of the information. In an interview on Latvian radio, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said it was important to determine how the information was made public.
If a government official gave out details regarding Yelfimov, she said, he or she could face punishment. Shortly afterward, Interior Minister Dzintars Jaundzeikars said an investigation would be opened to determine if the leak came from a government source.
"It is necessary to collect information, so these three months have been given," Vike-Freiberga said during the interview. The time needed to investigate whether Yelfimov meets the standard for asylum could be extended for a year.
Krists Leiskalns, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the Security Police were already involved in a probe to find the source of the leak.
Yelfimov already has a connection with Latvia, the Baltic News Service reported, citing Lursoft data. The former oil executive sits on the board of Latgales Nafta, a local oil company, and owns shares in two other businesses - SIA Mezaragi and SIA Uralcom. At one time Yelfimov had been given a personal code and a visa to live here.
The Russian reportedly worked in Yukos' securities section and oversaw negotiations with Lithuanian oil refinery Mazeikiu Nafta.
A criminal case was opened against Yelfimov in February, and a Moscow court sanctioned his arrest.
Yelfimov's arrival comes on the heels of a government decision to blacklist another Kremlin enemy, Boris Berezovsky, from future travel to the Baltic state, a move many have said pleased Moscow. Some Latvian officials are worried that the Baltic states could become a home for the scattered exiles sent into hiding by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran afoul of the Kremlin after lavishly supporting forces critical of the Vladimir Putin and opposing Kremlin-sponsored legislation. Once the richest man in Russia, Khodorkovsky now sits in a Siberian penal colony. His lawyers say they will turn to the European Court of Human Rights for redress.
Yelfimov is not the first employee tied to Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shrinking empire to ask for political asylum in the Baltic states. Igor Babenko, an official from the Menatap bank, recently requested asylum in neighboring Lithuania. Babenko was granted provisional asylum in Vilnius, a final decision on his status has not been made.