Former Yukos CEO And Political Prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky On Vladimir Putin And Russia's Post-Putin Future

Khodorkovsky shared his thoughts on Russia’s future in a speech to the Oxford Union on April 27, 2016.

On May 17, 2016, the Moscow Times reported that the Russian authorities had forwarded new case files and incriminating documents to Interpol to bolster the case for an arrest warrant against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. These legal proceedings caused tremendous international controversy. Kremlin critics allege that the new charges laid against Khodorkovsky are politically motivated and a direct consequence of Khodorkovsky’s scathing criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Khodorkovsky, the former CEO of Yukos oil and gas company was the richest oligarch in Russia prior to his arrest on charges of fraud and tax evasion in 2003. After his conviction, he remained in prison until 2013. Throughout his time in prison and following his release, Khodorkvosky has been an impassioned advocate of liberal political reform in Russia. Over the past decade, he has spoken extensively about his vision for a post-Putin Russia. To promote these views to a domestic and international audience, Khodorkovsky established the Open Russia Foundation, which was re-launched in September 2014.

Khodorkovsky shared his thoughts on Russia’s future in a speech to the Oxford Union on April 27, 2016. After his speech, I had an opportunity to interview him for some more in-depth insights into his past involvement in politics and his views on the Russian opposition. His perspectives will be outlined in depth below.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky on His Involvement in the Russian Political System

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s political role in Russia has been a subject of extensive controversy since his emergence as a Kremlin critic in the early 2000s. Khodorkovsky’s supporters regard him as a liberal democratic crusader against Putin’s authoritarian ambitions and a genuine prisoner of conscience. Khodorkovsky’s critics deride him as an opportunist who accumulated tremendous personal wealth from the lawlessness and disorder of the 1990s. In the eyes of his detractors, Khodorkovsky opposed Kremlin corruption only when Putin’s centralization of state power and crackdowns on oligarchs jeopardized his economic interests and political clout.

In light of this polarizing debate, I asked Khodorkovsky during my interview why he waited until 2003 to release his report on corruption and criminality perpetrated by the Kremlin. He responded by rejecting the widely held notion that his anti-corruption campaign began in 2003. To provide evidence for his point, he detailed his support for NTV, a television station that was scathingly critical of the Second Chechen War in 1999.

Khodorkovsky’s exact words were as follows: “In fact, my opposition to Putin began before 2003. I wrote my report on corruption to Putin hoping that he would choose another course. Basically, when you talk about the fortunes and fate of NTV and Vladimir Gusinsky at the time when a lot of pressure was being put on him, I was the person who provided him with a loan. In fact, that loan I provided to Gusinsky formed part of the criminal case against me later on. The loan was $200 million.”

These actions convinced many Western observers that Khodorkovsky was planning to run for president against Putin in 2004. These alleged political aspirations have been cited as a rationale for Putin’s decision to seize Yukos’s assets and imprison Khodorkovsky, who was then worth $16 billion.

To provide some more clarity on his intentions, I probed Khodorkovsky on whether he had political aspirations in the early 2000s. His response was a categorical denial: “At the time, I assumed Putin had not definitively chosen the course he subsequently pursued, and that the choice he would make would be a more open Russia. And no, I was not running for president because I am a sensible man. And now even after ten years in prison, I am not popular enough in Russia to stand for president.”

Despite steadfast denials of his past and present presidential ambitions, Khodorkovsky, during our interview, refused to rule out a more indirect role in the political transition process that would inevitably follow Putin’s fall. But the prospect of Khodorkovsky playing any meaningful role in a post-Putin Russia has been met with skepticism by many noted academics and commentators.

Hudson Institute Senior Fellow David Satter, the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War, a long-time Kremlin critic and noted expert on criminality in Russia, expressed these doubts in a recent email correspondence with me as follows: “I don’t think there is widespread sympathy for Khodorkovsky among ordinary Russians. The period of the 1990s was too costly for average citizens and those who became rich are not viewed with sympathy.”

In response to criticisms of his 1990s activities, Khodorkovsky, in his Oxford Union speech insisted that he, unlike Putin, has drastically changed his outlook on life since the pinnacle of his business career. He also emphasized that his political influence during the transition period was significantly less than that of fellow billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who was often described as “the power behind the throne” during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Khodorkovsky also highlighted his active opposition to the potential restoration of Communist rule in 1996. He feared a Communist electoral victory would have led to a revival of the most destructive attributes of the Soviet system.

These counter-arguments have not resonated strongly amongst the Russian public. The limited threat posed by Khodorkovsky to regime stability in Russia could also explain Putin’s decision to release the oligarch in late 2013, even though he had many years remaining on his prison sentence.

David Satter expounded on the timing of Putin’s decision as follows: “I think Khodorkovsky was released from prison in part to improve the atmosphere for the Sochi Olympics. The anti-criminal revolt in Ukraine, however, scared the Putin regime and led to renewed repression.” In light of Putin’s authoritarian consolidation, the Kremlin’s latest wave of legal attacks on Khodorkovsky are likely the product of his symbolic role as a face of Russian liberalism in the West, rather than the product of any political threat he may pose to Putin’s stranglehold on power.

Khodorkovsky on the Role of the Russian Opposition in Politics

Since his imprisonment, Khodorkovsky has emerged as a leading supporter of the fractured, much repressed political opposition in Russia. His solidarity with anti-Putin forces was unequivocally stated in his January 2010 op-ed for the New York Times. In that article, Khodorkovsky urged Russia to transform politically, warning that if it continued on its current path, it would “simply cease to exist.”

In our interview, Khodorkovsky reaffirmed the need to engage in political dialogue with opposition forces and with Russian civil society. In his exact words: “I think you have to speak to everyone in the Russian opposition as unfortunately, it is a very narrow circle. I think it is important to talk to me because I am part of society. It is important to talk to Alexei Navalny, because he is part of society. I think it is also important to talk to Mikhail Kasyanov and even to Grigory Yavlinsky.”

By emphasizing discourse with political leaders operating outside the Kremlin, he categorically rejected the notion that any designated successor emerging within Putin’s inner circle could be a Gorbachev-style liberal. Yet bridging the divides between opposition factions is an uphill battle. Opposition movements disagree deeply on Russia’s foreign policy towards the West. Liberal nationalists have also expressed support for belligerent actions like the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Khodorkovsky has been less emphatically supportive of returning Crimea to Ukraine than his fellow liberal, the late Boris Nemtsov. In his October 2014 Council of Foreign Relations speech, he also acknowledged that the Russian public has been less inclined over the past few decades to view the West as a moral exemplar.

Despite these reservations, the Open Russia Foundation has emphasized the need to place Russia on a European-style development trajectory. In Khodorkovsky’s view, this common set of values will unite disparate opposition movements around dislodging Putin and moving Russia towards a more democratic future.

Khodorkovsky’s role in Russian politics remains illusory, as he combats the latest wave of legal assaults from the Kremlin and resolutely continues his crusade for a more democratic, post-Putin future. Regardless of whether he can be personally involved in this transition process, Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be a hero for Western supporters of Russian liberalism and a thorn in the side of the Kremlin for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, Diplomat magazine, and Kyiv Post amongst others. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2. 

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