Al-Jazeera: Khodorkovsky discusses Putin’s return

May 21, 2012

The following interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky was published on Al-Jazeera English by Sue Turton.

In the run-up to Vladimir Putin’s inauguration I wrote to Mikhail Khodorkovsky to ask what he thought of the return to the Kremlin of his nemesis.

The former oil magnate, who was Russia’s richest man before being sent down on charges of embezzlement and tax evasion, has been locked up for nine years. But as the protest movement has grown so has Khodorkovsky’s influence on the political stage.

His image appears on protest placards. His continued imprisonment is, according to the opposition and human rights’ groups across the globe, an example of the judiciary being controlled by the state.

Ilia Ponomarev, a Duma deputy for the Fair Russia party, describes him as a symbol of the opposition akin to that of Nelson Mandela whose decades of incarceration provoked worldwide condemnation.

Khodorkovsky doesn’t inspire quite the same passion but he is still proving to be a thorn in the president’s side.

Khodorkovsky, who lost an appeal against a second sentence that won’t see him released until 2017, lost an appeal last week. The day before that failed appeal, he replied to my letter.

Al Jazeera: How has the Russia of 1999, when Putin first became president, changed?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: By 1999 Russia had finished the most difficult stage of reforms.

Economic ties had been re-established after the collapse of the USSR and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and a post-crisis economic revival took place resulting in consolidation of state and public institutions.

The population, exhausted by years of reforms, looked for stability and economic wealth.

Cut away from the Russian internal market: Chechnya was hastily looking for the way out from the situation.

It has been 12 years since then, during which time the market price on the leading Russian product – oil – surged ten-fold.

The nominal income of the population increased proportionally. However, the internal prices and tariffs grew 4-5 times.

The scale of corruption also increased ten-fold (from $30bn to $300bn annually).

Reconstruction of industry faltered due to an obsolete model – raw materials, assembly plants, outdated technologies. The share of income from raw materials increased.

True development of state institutions was replaced by the creation of simulacra (“puppet institutions”) a dependable court and parliament, regulated by the executive powers replaced by rigged elections, directly appointed regional authorities and a limitation of the freedom of mass media.

Meanwhile, Kremlin’s henchman in Chechnya built a showcase for success on the federal budget, hiding the cleric-totalitarian regime.

Al Jazeera: Will his next term be any different from the previous ones?

Khodorkovsky: The apathy of the public is dwindling. The urban middle class is gaining the feeling of political importance and identity and public activity is spreading from the capitals to the provinces.

People want to define their destiny. Putin’s first and second terms were funded by a constantly growing [30 per cent per year] oil income and an influx of capital into the country.

The population, tired by changes and reforms of the 1990s, remained in political apathy. Putin’s redistribution of this sudden wealth and crude asphalting of the political space therefore met the expectations of a significant part of the population.

Today the situation is different. The oil price cannot continue to rise at the same rate.

Inside the country there is now a demand for change: for modern state institutions and for political competition. The ability of the authorities to respond to this demand is doubtful, if it sticks with this archaic regime.

Al Jazeera: Is Putin capable of changes?

Khodorkovsky: In my opinion – no. And that means that tensions will increase with each year.

Al Jazeera: Has the international community let you down by continuing to do business with Russia?

Khodorkovsky: By the moment of my arrest in 2003, I had been working in business for over 15 years and I knew well the principles of the game.

It would be naive to expect that someone would give up their profits in the name of humanitarian values. However, the revaluation of risks by the market has been made.

The premium fee has increased. The Russian economy had to pay and it is paying now.

Meanwhile, the civil society of Western countries has demonstrated that for them a commitment to human rights is not a hollow one, and I’m grateful to a great many people for their support; for acknowledging myself and my friend are prisoners of conscience.

This support has perhaps helped us stay alive and healthy during these long prison years.