We Must Cut the Head off this Corrupt System

July 10, 2017

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks to Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung

Reinhard Veser (FAZ): It’s not long ago since protests took place across scores of Russian cities and Alexey Navalny’s election campaign is getting going right across the country.  Can we consider this the beginning of a new movement which could lead to a change of government in Russia by way of elections? 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Of course, it is a new peak for the protest movement, but I don’t think that in today’s Russia the government can be changed through elections, because during his time in power, Putin has radically altered the legislature, and so he will not allow any of his opponents victory through elections alone.  Putin can remove, or prevent from running any candidate he wishes.  He can also have the votes counted in any way he likes, and no one can control it.

FAZ: In what way is it possible to instigate a change of government in Russia? Is revolution the only way?

MBK: The first option — for which we’ve all got our fingers crossed — is that Vladimir Putin, who during his time in office has already altered the constitution, will not attempt to change it a second time and will view 2024 as the ultimate end of his presidency.  This would be a good option, but I am not completely committed to the belief that things will go this way.  The second option is a more severe one because it exceeds the limits of today’s legislature.  It will be, if we can call it so, a change of power under pressure.  I do not believe that this will happen as a result of today’s protests, at the moment they are still relatively local and consist of mostly young people between the ages of 16 and 20.  Protests need to encompass the whole of society.  However, in around 2021 the situation will change as a new wave of protests rises up, and the chance that the rest of society will join in is very high.

FAZ: Do you think that the regime will make concessions during the run up to the 2018 presidential elections in order to gain legitimacy, or will they simply resort to repression?

MBK: It would be incredibly strange if the Kremlin allowed a genuine opponent to run in the elections.  The problem isn’t necessarily the popularity of the opponent, the problem is that people are completely fed up with the government itself.  This sentiment could lead into any number of different situations: people may decide not to vote at all, or they may be motivated to turn up and vote for someone else.  Why would the Kremlin create such problems for itself if it could avoid them altogether by not allowing that person to run?

I do not believe that at the current moment the authorities will choose to drastically increase the level of repression in order to solve their problems.  Young people are protesting, but we are not Egypt, where the average age is 23-25.  In Russia the average age is 40 years old, but that’s a different story.  For now the protest movement has not picked up the older generations, the potential for it to grow into something genuinely threatening is extremely low.

FAZ: At what point do you think the Kremlin will be prepared to exercise force, for example, to open fire on protesters? 

MBK: We are aware that the Kremlin has a division which is trained to act not for crowd control purposes, but as an attack force.  I sincerely hope that Putin is not prepared to escalate the situation to such a level.  I think that regardless of this fact, there are a number of barriers.

FAZ: What will we do with all these officials, judges and policemen who currently serve as mouthpieces for the Putin regime and provide support for it.  For example those people who put you in prison? 

MBK: I am a fierce opponent of any kind of sweeping solution to this problem.  Each person’s guilt should be established on an individual level.  I am categorically against indiscriminate lustration, but a situation has already arisen in which it is not possible to tell people ‘okay, we’ll forgive all of you’.  We have to get to grips with the situation on a very detailed level: who did what and why.  It’s clear that we need to get started with this today.

FAZ: What do you mean when you say we need to get started today?

MBK: We need to begin looking at who is doing what exactly, in order to collect evidence and information.  We need to tell these people plainly that what they have done is a crime.  Their relatives and close ones should know that this is a person who has committed a crime for which they will answer when the country returns to a normal state of law and order.  People should understand that they will answer for their crimes individually, rather than some Putin or Zolotov who will take responsibility for everyone else’s crimes.  You cannot get off the hook by saying you were just following orders, these people were conscious of what they were doing.  

FAZ: You have said repeatedly that under the Putin regime all state institutions have been destroyed.  Who is able to revive such institutions, if not the officials who are currently serving them? 

MBK: Let’s look at the most painful example: the courts.  In Russia each year somewhere in the region of two million criminal cases are are reviewed.  Around two percent of these are political cases which concern seizing of property, prosecution of political opponents and other such things.  In each court there are one or two judges who are responsible for dealing with politicised cases.  The other judges are not assigned to such cases as conflict will arise.  And so, two systems exist in parallel: one more or less normal, the other politically motivated.

Imagine an excellent surgeon working in a hospital, a man so great that 98 out of 100 operations are carried out perfectly, but during the other two operations he cuts the patient’s throat on the orders of the head doctor.  Is this a normal system?  Would we go to such a surgeon for surgery?  No, we would have to change this.  But does that mean that we have to demolish the hospital?  No, we’d have to get rid of the head doctor and the crazy surgeon.  The other doctors we can keep.

FAZ: But it seems that the problem of corruption in state institutions, for example, the police, is substantially more widespread.  Do you have an idea of how to tackle this problem? 

MBK: Corruption is of course a very frustrating element.  We have to remember that today corruption has two political sources.  The first is the most unpleasant and difficult source with which it is hardest to fight: it is the tradition of corruption which has its roots in the Soviet system.  The second source is the key to the problem:

Putin consciously uses corruption as a system of operating state apparatus.  Therefore, if you do not accept bribes you cannot rise to the ranks of the state apparatus as you will be considered unreliable.  You must also get dirty yourself so that they can use you.  We have to cut the head off this corrupt system; the system below will adapt to the new norms quickly enough.

FAZ:  How should the Russian opposition conduct itself?  Should it be represented by a singular front, or should each force operate independently? 

MBK: This is a fundamental problem which we are currently discussing.

FAZ:  Right now it seems that Alexey Navalny has a complete monopoly on the opposition. 

MBK:  If you’re talking about street protests, then yes, without a doubt that is true.  My position regarding this question is transparent and relatively well-known, I have explained it to Alexey myself, as well as to other colleagues.  I believe that the idea of a ‘good Tsar’ is unfeasible.  Any Tsar in Russia is a bad Tsar.  It would be wrong to oppose the monopoly of authoritarian government with a similarly authoritarian opposition.  The opposition should have a coalition structure from the outset.  Navalny’s supporters tell me – and I agree with them – that for the Russian mentality it is most effective to present a singular leader figure.  However, unfortunately this is a strategic path towards another branch of authoritarianism.  Regardless of this, I am not saying that we should seek to weaken Navalny.  On the contrary, we must help him.  But at the same time we must help other areas of Russian society, putting forward their representatives who are prepared to work in a coalition.  In the event of a transition of power, people must work together to conduct political reforms, and then later it will be possible to disperse and compete independently in honest elections.

FAZ: What role have you set aside for yourself in the future democratic Russia?

MBK: I am not planning that far ahead, because the design will obviously change.  The only thing in which I am practically certain is that I will not take part in elections, nor will I run for president or any similar post.  However, without a doubt, I am prepared to take part in government during the transitional period.

FAZ: What kind of relations should the West build with the Russian opposition?

MBK: The west views the pro-European part of Russian society as a natural ally.  For us it is extremely important what kind of moral position our European allies occupy.  For example, the “strictly business” position, in which it is seen as beneficial to plunder Russia together with Putin, helping him to hide his money in the West, is hardly a good enough moral position to set an example to Russian society.

The harshness of the regime’s behaviour is seriously restrained by its international commitments.  The regime reacts when it sees that its cruel actions at home weaken its international standing.  This is extremely important as it can save people’s lives.

One more very important aspect is the need for communication.  Western countries are patient.  When changes take place in Russia, society will give around two years to political reforms.  During that time we will have to revive relations with the West and begin to cooperate.  If mutual understanding is not achieved by that time, then these two years will be wasted in vain.

FAZ: Even in the event of a transition of power in Russia there will remain a number of sensitive international questions, for example the Ukrainian conflict: Crimea and the Donbas.  How can these problems be resolves on your opinion? 

MBK: This is a problem that I constantly explain to our Ukrainian colleagues.  Politics is the art of the possible.  Of course, you can demand that Crimea be returned and compensation issued, then wait until Russian society comes around to this decision by itself.  But if we do not want to solve this problem right now, then we’ll have to find a compromise which both Russian and Ukrainian society can agree to.  It’s obvious that you cannot demand this of Russian society during the transitional period.  During this time the country will be dealing with internal political issues.  Another issue is that armed conflict in the region should cease immediately.  I hope that this will come to pass in the near future as it is extremely detrimental to Putin.  I hope that it will not be put off until the moment that the country finally sees a transition of power.

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