WASHINGTON—Former Russian oil tycoon and prominent critic of the Kremlin Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks forward to the day when Vladimir Putin and the political elite that is empowered with him are gone. He advises in the meantime that the United States and the West in general not make the same mistakes it made in the 1990s in their halfhearted efforts to transition Russia into a democratic, economically modernized state.
Khodorkovsky spoke at the Atlantic Council on June 17, on Russia’s Strategic Interest with the West, to an audience that appeared to be mostly Russian.
“Sooner or later, the current system will collapse, and this is something we have to prepare for now. The West needs to establish the closest possible cooperation with Europe-oriented Russians, and to set up mechanisms for our country’s rapid reintegration into the global system after the regime changes. We are not going to have a big window of opportunity,” he said, speaking in his native Russian.
Khodorkovsky believes that in 2011–2012, the Russian people were on the cusp of evolving into a democracy, and had had enough of “authoritarian, retrograde leadership.” He based this observation on the growing discontent of the middle class and mass protests. The political leadership retained its power by massive propaganda, “pandering to the dark instincts of the crowds crackdowns on demonstrations, and political persecutions,” he said.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its interference in Eastern Ukraine should be understood in this context.
“The current confrontation with the West is absolutely artificial, and has been orchestrated by Russian elites eager to cling to power. These elites desperately require an image of an enemy that would serve to distract the populace from the regime’s corrupt and inefficient nature,” he said.
Don’t expect any quick resolution with the current standoff in the Ukraine and elsewhere as long as Putin is in power, he said. Even if an agreement were reached, he could suddenly change his mind under the current system where he is unrestrained by law or institutions.
Khodorkovsky said Putin is the kind of person who only responds to force. “If he sees force on the other side, he is willing to talk. If what he sees on the other side are empty threats … all you will get from him is laughter.”
Khodorkovsky rose to prominence in the 1990s as the head of Yukos, which became one of Russia’s largest oil producers, and made him a billionaire, the richest man in Russia, and one of the wealthiest persons in the world.
Khodorkovsky has his share of critics in the way he made his fortunes. He began as a banker, set up his own private bank, Menatep, where the cash allegedly came from trading on the rapid disintegration of the ruble. In the 1990s, Khodorkovsky was one of a few “oligarchs” who were known for their opportunism and ruthlessness, during the privatization in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (The term “oligarch” is a misnomer because these men were acquiring wealth, not political power, but the name stuck). He acquired his oil company, what became Yukos, through a rigged auction for a fraction of what it was worth (about $8 billion two years later). And he engaged in other questionable business practices.
However, like the American oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Khodorkovsky is also a philanthropist. In 2001, Khodorkovsky launched the nonprofit Open Russia Foundation to promote Russia’s connections with the Western world, civil society, democracy, and the rule of law in Russia. He made “high-profile charitable donations,” wrote Anders Aslund, in “Russia’s Capitalist Revolution.”
His involvement with opposition political parties ultimately led to his demise. He antagonized Russian authorities, publicly charging them with widespread corruption. He was arrested in 2003, and convicted of fraud and tax evasion in what many regarded as a politically motivated trial.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience in 2011 along with his business partner Platon Lebedev. He was imprisoned 10 years until Putin’s pardon of him in December 2013, prior to the Sochi Olympics. Currently, he lives with his family in exile in Zurich.
The Open Russia Foundation was shut down in 2006 by the government during Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment. On Sept. 20, 2014, Khodorkovsky officially relaunched it, with a live videoconference broadcast from Paris.
Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, wrote, “The Open Russia Movement … aims to support and give voice to the millions of pro-democracy, pro-European Russians who have been marginalized by the Putin regime.”
“The notion that ‘Russia is not Europe’ is a lie imposed on society by those who want to stay in power forever,” Khodorkovsky said at the event, according to Kara-Murza who was a participant.
The Russian regime apparently interfered with the broadcast in Russia. The Guardian reported that the spokeswoman for Khodorkovsky said the project’s website became the target of distributed denial of service attacks, and activists from some cities in central Russia, attempting to participate in the ceremony, encountered problems.
Khodorkovsky sees the best future for Russia lies in integrating with Europe, eventually including accession into NATO and the EU. He views such integration as a challenge, but one that is in the interest of the West as well as Russia. The self-imposed isolation of Putin’s policies are leading Russia in the wrong direction, he said.
“We who see Russia differently are seeking allies to help Russia finally cement its place in Europe,” he said. The way for Russia to have security, economic advancement, and confidence in the future is by economic transformation. Only with integration into the Western world is such a transformation possible. Khodorkovsky cites successful economic transformations in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and China that all began with incorporating Western ideas and coming to some relationship with the West.
West Lacking Will
Khodorkovsky berated the West for not recognizing the high stakes for integrating Ukraine in the European Union.
“I do not think that the West is demonstrating enough will in the question of integrating Ukraine.” And later he said, “From my point of view, the West does not understand at all the risks of not sufficient integration.”
Khodorkovsky advised the West not to become too preoccupied with the risks and miss the opportunity, or else “we will lose again.” He said thinking about the resulting loss to the whole world scares him.
In this context, Khodorkovsky spoke of “global war,” which is what is possible given the inability in the West to appreciate the underlying forces at play. He asked rhetorically, “Do people understand what global war is?” He said that it’s been 70 years since World War II, people have forgotten. What is going on now is not some kind of computer game, he said.