Khodorkovsky at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute – Q&As

March 18, 2014

Last week Mikhail Khodorkovsky addressed the audience at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. An English transcript of the Q&As session can be read below:

Question: What is your personal opinion of the Ukrainian opposition forces?

Khodorkovsky: During my brief stay in Kiev I have had a chance to meet the leaders of certain political forces who decided they were interested in meeting me. It seemed to me that those people, at least the ones I met, are normal, well-adjusted individuals. Of course, they have their views on various issues. That is not the problem. In the absence of public oversight, any political force, whether it is in opposition today or in power tomorrow, will still descend into pursuing its own agenda. That is a global reality, and there is nothing one can do about it; if someone [here] believes that you can again hand the power over to a John Doe and leisurely wait for him to serve you a dish of well-being on a silver platter, those are futile expectations. If the civil society fails to control the authority, you are doomed to relive anti-corruption Maidans regardless of how wonderful the leaders of a particular political force are as individuals.

Question: Why is every Russian coming to Ukraine unable to win trust [inaudible], they always say “the Russian elder brother”.

Khodorkovsky: Frankly speaking, I thought you would criticize me, wondering why I am here, addressing a Ukrainian audience that has gathered specifically to listen to a representative of the Russian society – and you knew I represent the Russian society  and nobody forced you to come here. So, I thought you would criticize me for addressing you but speaking about Russia – and, mind you, I did mostly speak about Russia, about the projection of the Ukrainian revolution, how the Ukrainian developments project onto Russia. I will be honest with you: this is exactly what I am mostly concerned about, even though I do love Ukraine. So, if you heard the phrase “fascist extremists” in the remarks you listened to, then you must have listened to someone else’s remarks as I spoke. I said there were radical elements on both sides. The first thing I did upon arriving in Ukraine, on that very night, was go to the Maidan, I visited the Maidan, and I visited the sleeping quarters.  If those who welcomed me so warmly there are listening now, I would like to say “thank you”. I am very grateful. Since it was night time and things were relatively calm, those folks told me a lot and in great detail. I understand perfectly well, and that is what I said at the meeting on the Maidan, that I did not see any more fascists and Nazis on the Maidan than I saw in the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg. That is exactly how I put it. If you heard something else from me, my apologies, I must have not been very articulate. Thank you.

Question: You said that you 70% supported Putin’s policies. On the other hand you said you were prepared to fight for Chechnya because it was part of Russia. Are you as a Russian ready to fight for Ukraine? Everybody knows that Ukraine is to some extent part of Russia, and Russian blood has been shed here as well. Are you ready to defend the Crimea on behalf of Russia?

Khodorkovsky: I thought I answered this question at the very beginning of my remarks. First, let us not blow out of proportion n my recognition of Vladimir Putin’s achievements. We share goals in 70% of cases. He claims that he seeks prosperity and well-being for the Russian people. I, too, seek prosperity and well-being for the Russian people. But there is a major difference between us when it comes to methods. Going back to the Crimea, I said that the entire planet Earth had by now been conquered by somebody, some day, somewhere. There is not a single piece of land, except probably in the Antarctic, that nobody has ever fought or shed blood for. A certain situation has obtained, certain borders have emerged. Within these borders, we should not be talking about how we came into possession of a particular land. This is our land. It’s our land in the North Caucasus. If somebody wants to take it from us, we will fight. If we admit that we are entitled to that, we must recognize that the Ukrainian people have the same right as well. That is my position.

Question: Do you believe that a free, European, whole Ukraine is possible while the present regime exists in Russia? Thank you.

Khodorkovsky: Nobody told you it would be easy. But if you want it – you’ll get there.

Question: Mikhail, I think you will agree with me: “in a criminal state”, as Lenin said, “everything is criminal”… Now you have a chance to honor the memory, this glove belonged to a fighter from the institute, touch it…

Khodorkovsky: Dear colleagues, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that, as you said correctly at the beginning, I am a representative of the Russian society. And you are now talking about Ukrainian domestic problems, so do not contradict yourselves.  Please believe me that, as a human being, I am deeply sorry for those who died in the Maidan. I was truly, deeply shocked by the nightmare that happened there.  Yesterday, I visited hospitals where I talked to the wounded, but don’t force me to give assessments and participate in issues that fall within the authority of the Ukrainian people.

Question: What can you say about Open Russia’s project called New Civilization?

Khodorkovsky: Thank you for this question. The problem of the Russian society – and I don’t know whether it is a problem of the Ukrainian society as well – is that in my country the people, my fellow countrymen, always ask: who, if not Putin? There is an understanding of how a leader-based system of government is built and a misunderstanding of how a normal democratic state is built. This didn’t come about under Vladimir Putin; it’s an old tradition. I’ve always said that the question should be phrased differently. Not who but what, if not Vladimir Putin? And the answer is: democratic institutions. To explain to the populace how a country should be governed, not with the help from a single leader, but with the assistance of democratic institutions, in the context of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, mandatory turnover of power, and subject to societal oversight of the authorities. In general, everything that Ukraine is now in the throes of giving birth to is what the goal of New Civilization was. What you are doing now is in fact a spectacular historical example of, in business parlance, a case to be taught in the New Civilization School.

Question: Why are you forcing your opinion on us that Ukraine should accept a compromise solution? If you were on our side I don’t think that you would spend a long time seeking compromise. This is the first part of the questionThe conflict started with the Crimea; Russia’s Black Sea Navy apparently is located there, we’ll accept a compromise solution subject to [inaudible] withdrawal of the Black Sea Fleet – do you agree? The conflict in the Crimea will inflict much more damage on Russia than on Ukraine. [What is] your opinion about how much the Crimean conflict will impact Russia’s economy?

Khodorkovsky: In my remarks I called everything that is going on a giant historical mistake. One thing you will most definitely not hear from me do is support for the acts of the Russian authorities. That conduct is designed to solve not the specific problems faced by Russia’s regions but a completely different set of issues. However, as you weigh your position and decide on how to act and behave, you should take into account that all this talk about the impact of the Crimean conflict on the Russian economy is a matter of distant future. As of now Russia has not yet suffered any significant losses, and I mean losses. The $60-70 billion that you have mentioned refers to the stock market crash, which is virtual money. The actual costs are much more modest so far. In expert estimates, they will run into roughly $5 billion a year. It is a lot but I emphasize yet again that, in the short term, it is not that big of a problem for Russia. You see, one must take into account public sentiment, not just finance per se. Public sentiment is heavy and, to an extent, is somewhat based on history. You may disagree with that and so can I but failing to take it into account would be a grave mistake. When you sit down to negotiate without meaning to reach agreement, what does that mean? War? I don’t think anyone seeks that here and now.

Question: Why did the West offer such a soft response to what was de facto Russia’s annexation of Ukraine?

Khodorkovsky: I am not a Western leader but I do view the subject from a practical point of view. There, everybody thinks that way: as a matter of fact, why would we? To what extent does it affect us? What can we do? Fight for Ukraine? Why? I think this is how the thinking goes. Whether it’s right or not is a different matter. But the thinking goes like this. Sure, show some displeasure. What else can they do? I mean, practically speaking? So, you are waiting – and that is very interesting – for the West to work miracles. Don’t waste your time.

Question: My apologies, it is very important, a note from me – as you spoke about the Crimea, you touched upon the interests of Russia and Ukraine, which doesn’t make any sense to me: not a single word about Crimean Tatars! Its an international scandal!

Khodorkovsky: I represent here the views of part of the Russian society, and I speak to the interests expressed by that part of the Russian society. If the Ukrainian audience cares to hear the opinions of a spokesperson for the Crimean Tatars, which, I think, is necessary, then please do invite a person who is competent to speak on the matter of the interests of the Crimean Tatars. I am not that person.

Question: Russian reporter Oleg Kashin has written that there are no more grounds to consider the Crimea part of Ukraine than to consider Chechnya part of Russia. Going back to your comment re Northern Caucasus, do you consider the Crimea part of Russia? Are you not prepared to fight for the Crimea simply because it is located within the boundaries of Ukraine and yet you are willing to fight for Chechnya? I would like to understand your position on this matter. And another questionFormer Putin advisor Andrei Illarionov has opined on the future of the conflict (Illarionov’s comments were rendered for http://gordonua.com/ on March 6, 2014 when he stated that Russia was preparing a military invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin needed victims from among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens – Ed.). Do you think that this future is a possibility?

Khodorkovsky: I have answered the first question twice, so I will not repeat myself. As far as the second question, my opinion as to what matters most today if we are to prevent ugly scenarios from unfolding, is to establish and restore mutual trust between the Ukrainian and Russian societies, between the Ukrainian society’s Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking communities. This is my point of view. There is another point of view which I have heard on many occasions, namely that there are no conflicts inside the Ukrainian society, there’s only external expansion. I have made a point of familiarizing myself with social studies that, unfortunately, support what I have said. If you have a different point of view you are entitled to it.

Question: I have asked if you consider a military invasion a possibility. Putin did say that this was how he protected [Russian] citizens…

Khodorkovsky: You are asking an obviously hypothetical question to which you can provide a clearly hypothetical answer without my help.

Question: What steps on the part of Ukraine would Russia respond do?

Khodorkovsky: I did talk about that in my remarks, I will say it again. I believe that a united Ukrainian nation would not be threatened by any such outside interference. The position, the cause that you – from my, perhaps erroneous point of view – need to accomplish so that the question will not be asked in the meaning you have raised it, is to promptly and efficiently create a single, new Ukrainian nation. You have come far along this road, so finish this business.

Question: How realistic or utopian does the idea of Ukraine and Europe giving up Russian oil and gas seem to you? How realistic is that, generally speaking?

Khodorkovsky: Thank you for the question. I enjoy speaking on a professional subject that I am knowledgeable about. I have to disappoint you – if Europe works very hard, including building terminals to receive LNG from the US and Qatar, if energy consumption is reduced effectively, all of that would simply enable it not to increase consumption of Russian oil and gas. In order to completely wean itself from Russian oil and gas, so that Russia would have to re-target its deliveries to the East, I think it is a complex infrastructure-related challenge, I think that, within two decades, with annual costs comparable to the military budgets of all the European nations, Europe could pull it off. Do not let yourself be persuaded by what is impossible from the perspective of a professional.

Question: I am an analyst and I look at best-case and worst-case scenarios of the dynamics of events that are under way. Worst-case scenario involves the Crimea becoming part of the RF, and the Russian soldiers keep marching farther into Ukraine. It is quite a realistic situation and I will tell you as someone of call-up age that, a hundred per cent, all men present here would pick up submachine guns and fight Russia’s imperialism, not Russian soldiers. Please commentAnother question: what will happen to the Tatars if the Crimea becomes Russian?

Khodorkovsky: I have already answered the first question twice. I have also given an answer to the second question: I am not competent to speak on the subject of Crimean Tatars. I believe that every nation has the right to a cultural autonomy, and that is my point of view. But, on the specific subject of the Crimean Tatars, I am not competent to speak. I am speaking about the relationship between the people of Russia and the people of Ukraine. This is something that I am trying to make sense of although that, too, is a tall order.

Question: Will there remain friction between Russia and Ukraine when Russia’s system has been replaced with a democratic system?

Khodorkovsky: There is the well-known maxim that democratic countries do not fight. I am convinced that there will be trade conflicts and disputes on many issues between a democratic Russia and a democratic Ukraine, just like such disputes exist between the US and Canada, France and Germany. It is routine. Everybody has its own interests and, when such interests clash, those disputes should be addressed. However those will be routine, solvable conflicts subject to honestly reporting the substance of such conflicts to society and to reflecting those societies’ opinions in the process of handling such conflicts. I believe that you and I will be much better off living in that kind of a situation.

Question: It appears to me that everybody is interested in the Crimean situation and the two possible ways out of it. The military option and the democratic oneAs someone who knows Putin, to what extent do you think this situation can be resolved democratically?

Khodorkovsky: Democratically… I don’t even quite understand what you mean as applied to the current situation in Russia. Exiting the situation through negotiations appears to me the only possible way out at this time. Trust me – this will happen and I suggest that you get ready for it, although I do understand that the audience here does not like it, young people want to decide everything quickly. Today, the Crimea has become a long term subject. The Crimean problem will take a long time to deal with.

Question: What do you intend these days to do after a decade in prison?

Khodorkovsky: Those who know me tell me that I have not changed. They hoped that I would be reformed if even a little bit. I plan to spend a little more time coming to my senses. I simply could not look the other way from this situation here because I have a lot of friends and even family in this country. In this context, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is of key importance not only to Ukraine but also to the Russian society. However I intend to continue to engage in public and social work for Russia. My reluctance to run in an election does not mean that I will not engage in public activity.

Question: Can Big Business influence Putin’s opinion? Can you encourage Big Business to try and influence Putin?

Khodorkovsky: Do not overestimate my capabilities. I fairly clearly described them in my remarks. I believe that a certain segment of the Russian business community is listening to me, but I also believe that, at this time, the key oligarchs and the quarters that are the closest to Putin and that have a certain amount of influence on decision-making are made up of entrepreneurs who are close to Putin, his associates. That does not mean that they do not ponder over their future and that of their capital but those individuals are Putin’s associates, not mine.

Question: Khodorkovsky before and after prison. Is there a difference and what is it?

Khodorkovsky: There is a substantive difference. Before prison I was very concerned with business and I thought that business was an end in itself. I know that many of my former colleagues, US entrepreneurs, think that way to this day, and that is normal. Before prison and in prison I realized that business was very important, it is what gives us food, clothes, conditions to live in. But there is something even more important. I am trying to find this “something” in me. I think that people who went to the Maidan and stood there under a rain of bullets had looked for it and found it.

The End

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