Mikhail Khodorkovksy, the former oil tycoon imprisoned for a decade under President Vladimir Putin, has returned to Russia’s political scene with renewed vigor. But he’s doing it without returning to Russia itself.
Over the past couple of weeks, in a series of meetings and interviews in New York and Washington, Khodorkovsky has promoted a revival of Open Russia, the name of his foundation that was shut down by Russian authorities in 2006. The revived Open Russia, operating from exile, promises a platform to connect disparate, pro-European Russians into a politically-engaged community.
Under Putin’s rule, Russia has “successfully broken these people apart in small pieces not connected to one another,” said Khodorkovsky in a meeting this morning with members of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Open Russia aims to link the far-flung fragments of the intellectual opposition, via conversation on the online platform and offline events both within and outside of Russia.
“People need to feel that they have common political goals,” he said. “I would like these people to feel that there are very many of them” and that they have mechanisms to work together.
Khodorkovsky, now 51, became a face of the opposition movement in Russia when he was imprisoned after being convicted for tax evasion, money-laundering and embezzlement in what were widely seen as political charges. Two trials and 10 years in prison later. Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky last December, shortly before Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The former tycoon moved to Switzerland and initially said he would stay away from politics.
Open Russia, re-launched last month, was originally founded in 2001 by shareholders of Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s former Russian oil and gas company, but was shut down when the Russian government froze Yukos’ bank accounts. Khodorkovsky said today that the revamped version of Open Russia aims specifically to engage oppositionists outside of Moscow and St Petersburg.
“When people see that their social activism improves their own life and surroundings, their appetite for social engagement increases,” said Khodorkovsky. He said that a recent conference with Russian citizens involved in Open Russia gave him hope that “people are ready to take risks and act,” even after some participants were called in by security officials for “prophylactic meetings.”
A live question and answer session with Khodorkovsky on the Open Russia website last week revealed that many Russians sympathetic to his views nonetheless remain skeptical of the ultimate effectiveness of the organization, given President Putin’s efforts to clamp down further on the independent press and Internet freedom in Russia.
Khodorkovsky told the Council on Foreign Relations audience that a short-term goal for Open Russia would be to help independent local candidates in legislative elections in 2016. Longer term, he said, Russia needs to rewrite its constitution, to rebalance and separate powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
“Putin is merely a symbol of the problem,” he said. The real obstacle to progress is the “lack of a law-based state,” said Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky said that he would be ready to participate in those reforms and then “leave the stage for good,” when “the situation has further changed and become normal.” In other settings recently, he’s said that he would be ready to take on the role of temporary President in a time of crisis, including in an interview for French newspaper Le Monde on September, 20th 2014.
As he has in other interviews, Khodorkovsky criticized Western sanctions on Russia for its involvement in Ukraine. He said U.S. sanctions lack moral weight in the eyes of ordinary Russians, who believe that the West has tolerated massive corruption, including the removal of large sums of money from Russia to western investments.
“You knew about it and were fine with the fact that Russian people were being plundered” by the state, he said.
Khodorkovsky’s criticism of Russia’s incestuous political and financial regime rings hollow to some, given that he, too, benefitted from the corrupt privatization of state enterprises in the early 90s, quickly becoming the country’s richest oligarch. He acknowledged “mistakes” while noting he was “one the few who has paid” for those mistakes.
“If we can’t be totally moral, we should not use this to justify the fact that we’re totally immoral,” he recalled telling Putin prior to his imprisonment in 2003.
Asked about how Putin might eventually leave the political stage, Khodorkovsky said a “soft departure” is unlikely, despite the seemingly peaceful, democratic transition promoted by Open Russia. For that kind of transition, “if nothing extraordinary happens, we are talking about ten years, maybe more,” he said. The solution “is not going to sound very pleasant: time.”