Le Monde: Khodorkovsky, Russia’s Most Famous Prisoner, Speaks Out

November 27, 2009

Le Monde, November 27, 2009
Front Page

Exclusive: Khodorkovsky, Russia’s Most Famous Prisoner, Speaks Out

Exclusive Commentary: From his prison cell, Russia’s most celebrated inmate, the former head of oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, responded in writing to Le Monde’s questions. He calls for political reform in Moscow. The implementation of a basic state of law is the condition for development of a country which remains merely an exporter of hydrocarbons and minerals.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “I am fighting for my freedom”

The former head of Russian oil giant Yukos, sentenced to 8 years in prison and being tried once again, talks to “Le Monde” from his prison.

INTERVIEW
Moscow
Correspondant

In prison for the past six years for theft and tax fraud, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Russian oil company Yukos, has appeared since March 3 in Khamovnitchesky court in Moscow in the context of a new trial for misappropriation and illegal resale of oil. Formerly the biggest of the Russian oil companies, Yukos has since been dismantled and its assets taken by public Russian companies (Gazprom and Rosneft).

The Yukos Affair has become symbolic of the strategy of the current power in place, based on taking over the hydrocarbon fuels sector and marginalizing opposition political
forces–the liberal Yabloko party and the Communist Party–which Mikhail Khodorkovsky personally financed.

After his being sentenced to eight years in prison in 2005, the former oligarch was sent to serve his punishment in Chita, near the Chinese border, at 7,000 kilometers from Moscow. His ex-associate, Platon Lebedev, sentenced to the same penalty in 2005, was incarcerated in Siberia. On February 24, 2009, the two men were transferred to Moscow for the new trial. They risk twenty-two years in prison. At its heart, the matter is absurd: they are accused of having misappropriated more oil than Yukos had produced.

Mikhail Khodorkovskly agreed to respond in writing to questions sent by Le Monde to his attorneys. The process took more than two months. In prison, Mikhail Khodorkovsky does not have access to a computer and his papers are regularly searched.

–You are currently in Moscow in the context of a second trial, with your associate Platon Lebedev, both of you charged with the theft of the entire oil production of Yukos. Why this second trial and who has an interest in having it take place?

As I see it, this second trial has as its objective to hide the abuses of the first trial, to mask the personal profits that accompanied the illegal destruction of Yukos. Who needs this trial? The second or even third-level bureaucrats. Their interests are pitiful. The dismantlement of Yukos was accompanied by numerous acts of corruption. To cite only one, no one is able to explain what happened to the five million dollars which the government administration took in 2004. In the context of my second trial, I am accused of having stolen 350 million tons of oil, which is totally impossible, physically as well as technically. That simply can be taken seriously.

‘This trial is a critical test for the emergence in Russia of an independent judicial system’

–You have denounced your accusers as unrelenting. You seem to have no illusions about the outcome of the second trial….

I don’t have illusions on the motivations of the people who started the second trial. Everything will be done to keep me in prison as long as possible. But I do not believe that everything is decided in advance. I am fighting for my freedom and for my rights. The people attending the trial will be able to confirm that. And if the court, in spite of pressures from the government administration, renders a decision that corresponds to the law, I will be acquitted.

–Looking back, do you think that you were naïve in 2003, in remaining in Russia while everything pointed to your probable arrest?

–It’s possible. But if I would have to choose a second time, I would remain in Russia. I knew that I could have been arrested and I made my decision knowing that. My naivete consisted rather in not believing that a court could render a guilty verdict not only in the absence of evidence of my guilt, but even in the absence of establishing the nature of any crime. Yes, I overestimated the degree of democracy of society and of the independence of our judiciary system. However, I could not act otherwise. I could not abandon Platon Lebedev as well as my friends and colleagues, I couldn’t leave my country.

–Do you intend to become a political figure in the future?

–No, becoming a political figure is not part of my plans. But as my example demonstrates, in Russia, any public activity is considered as political.

–Some analysts compare president Dmitry Medvedev to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbatchev at the beginning of “perestroika”. What do you think?

–There are perhaps some similarities in the situations. Dmitry Medvedev is constrained, as was Gorbatchev at the time, in putting reforms in place. The country cannot continue to live without change. These past ten years, nothing was done to reduce the dependence of the economy on the price of oil, gas and metals. Today, the potential of “growth by raw materials” is exhausted. Without a major modernization of economic and political life for the benefit of civil society, all external development is impossible.

–Do you believe that uprisings can occur in the Russian Federation regions that are most impacted by the crisis?

–I do not see uprisings happening. Uprisings in Russia are rarely constructive, they only bring violence and destruction. The most important thing is to strengthen civil society, to put in place and develop the institutions of a democratic State, notably an independent judiciary and Parliament. I spoke of these priority objectives for the country, such as I see them, in my article : “Modernisatioon: Generation M”,published October 21 in Vedomosti. Before anything else, we must create conditions necessary to wake up the creative potential in the population. It’s impossible to do that without political reform. Russia is not China.

–What do you expect from the international community and from Europe?

–First, I am very appreciative of the politicians, the experts, and the journalists who come to attend my trial. My principal objective is to demonstrate publicly my innocence. At the same time, this trial is a critical test for the emergence in Russia of an independent judiciary. The more people attend the court sessions, the more it will be possible to reach this objective.

It appears to me very important that the Western community understand that what happens in Russia is a problem that concerns us all. Russia is a part of Europe. That is why the human rights situation and respect for law in this country must not be perceived as external problems.

I am not the only one concerned by this. There are also journalists, lawyers, defenders of human rights who risk their lives each day in defense of their ideals and who fight for the truth. It is essential for us to feel that we are not living in a vacuum. It is crucial that business people and that public opinion take into account what is really happening in Russia today.

Comments made to Marie Jego.

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