“The Kremlin feels threatened by any kind of self-organisation”

December 24, 2016

The Open Russia founder talks about the movement and its objectives

Photo by Kaupo Kikkas

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Three years have passed since the day of my sudden release, after more than a decade in prison.

My release was unconditional, but all the same it was clear I was being expelled from the country. People, myself included, will continue to speculate for a long time as to the real reasons why I was released. But one thing is clear: misappropriation coupled with jail sentences has become standard procedure for the Putin elite.

Back in 2003 it was Igor Sechin’s “innovation.” He exploited the conflict between me and Putin over my facts-based proposals to eradicate corruption in the corridors of power.

It didn’t work out for me. Sechin and corruption, under the banner of Putin, continued to march triumphantly over people’s lives and the country’s future. Since then, tens if not hundreds of thousands of talented people have lost their businesses or emigrated, and corruption has become an all-devouring monster.

In 2003 I estimated the cost of corruption to be around 30 billion dollars a year. Today, that figure seems very modest.

Three years on, after a decade behind bars, so much has changed! When I was released the country was looking forward to the Sochi Olympics and believed that the growth of the early 2000s was set to continue. No one in their darkest nightmare imagined that thousands would die fighting in Ukraine.

Who now remembers the two-trillion rouble Olympics (except perhaps for the doping scandal)? Where is the economic growth? Who today has not heard of the Pskov paratroopers and the Battle of Ilovaisk?

After my release, I, like many of my fellow citizens, had no plans to get involved in politics. But if we are ever to return home, it seems we have no choice. And what sort of home will it be when year after year the ruling group has consistently dismantled the state institutions? The courts are no longer courts, parliament is no longer a parliament, local government no longer governs, and the Constitution is but a pale shadow of its former self.

The Kremlin feels threatened by any kind of self-organisation, self-dependence or individuality. In their mind’s eye, the glue that holds the crumbling system together is the president. And that guarantees his permanence. But what about society?

Think about it. The president will one day depart, just like the “eternal” Brezhnev. When he does, he will leave the country in the same position as it was in the late 1980s, with plundered reserves, no system of management, bickering elites, no new generation of independent politicians, a torpid civil society incapable of self-governance, and surrounded by startled neighbours unwilling to deal with us.

The task I have set myself and my movement Open Russia is to derail this train of events.

Above all, we have to restore the intra-societal links that are being systematically severed by the authorities. We have to help society retain its ability to govern itself and give young independent politicians a chance to gain experience and present themselves as an alternative to society.

What’s more, we must have a clear reform plan and good working relations with international partners (not the current regime’s ties with individual corrupt politicians and fringe groups).

Open Russia is working to achieve all of this.

We are discussing our reform plan with experts, starting with political reform, because without that everything else is futile. Political power should change hands regularly, elections should be honest, the courts and media independent, local government financially self-sufficient, and the Constitution should hold sway from the Kuril Islands to the North Caucasus.

In the economic sphere, we favour demonopolisation and the distribution of resource rents to people’s individual pension accounts. As the Putin years have shown once again, state officials are incapable of effectively managing the economy. In their hands, resource rents is a source of corruption and a tool to pressure society.

In international relations I advocate a values-based approach as an alternative to the false notion of “pragmatics.” I oppose anti-Russian sanctions that draw no distinction between the country and the regime, but approve of those against individuals and entities that violate human rights and international treaties – sanctions that curb the regime’s aggressiveness. I am sure that some major changes are in the offing next year.

We are busy developing the Open University education project, and host regular discussions on a range of social issues and cultural events at the Open Russia Club. The New Year will see the start of similar activities in the regions.

We regularly take part in what in Russia is called “elections.” We give young politicians and activists an opportunity to get political experience, and society to see an alternative. That is why in the State Duma “elections” we support fresh, promising candidates, not ones that are part of the furniture. I believe that the new guys would claim victory in a free and fair contest.

In the New Year we plan to launch a large-scale political training programme for activists and help democratic candidates in elections at various levels.

We offer help to those trapped in the grinder of Russia’s legal system, to defend their rights. As of next year, we will provide legal and informational assistance to community groups defending their rights against government officials and monopolies.

We attach great significance to society having access to honest information and different points of view on important issues. This is the goal of Open Russia and the Open Media project to support media startups.

A key change this past year, in my view, has been the gradual recovery of social and political activity in Russia. No one could have imagined that in just one month, hundreds of people would state their desire to join us, and that more than a thousand people would apply for Open Russia support within the framework of the State Duma election campaign and the “After Putin” project.

There is no doubt that we shall take part in the upcoming presidential “elections.” Our principle is that all genuine election candidates should be able to stand, and we support those who share our core beliefs.

If, as expected, the Kremlin puts on a show instead of an election, effectively depriving our allies of their voting rights, we have an alternative scenario.

Three years have passed. Hundreds of meetings, articles and speeches. Despite the pressure from the authorities, the organisational structure is in place and engaged in regular social and political work. Our voices are being heard across both Russia and the international community. In the New Year we intend to expand our socio-political movement and bring in thousands of new supporters.

I would like to say thank you once again to all those who lobbied for my release and gave me a chance to be with my mother during her final days, and be reunited with my family after 10 years of separation. Some of you are friends, others less so, but thank you all the same!

Let us not forget Alexei Pichugin, who is still in prison, unjustly sentenced for crimes he did not commit and for refusing to give false testimony. For 13 years he has been serving life imprisonment in the most horrendous conditions, refusing to wrongfully accuse himself and others, despite our pleas for him to do everything he can to secure release.

This year Vasily Aleksanyan would have turned 45. He was offered treatment in exchange for false testimony. He refused and paid for it with his life, because honour was more important to him.

We know whose handiwork it is. We know the names of those who enjoy wrecking people’s lives. I for one will never forget.

The most important aspect of the forthcoming reforms for me personally is to rebuild the rule of law and establish a truly independent judiciary and developed civil society, so that people in the new Russia will never again be treated with such contempt.