On January 7 Mikhail Khodorkovsky talked to Echo of Moscow editor in chief Alexey Venediktov. They discussed changes in Russian political landscape in 2020 and perspectives for 2021 Duma elections and beyond.
Watch the interview in full (in Russian only) here. Below we present fragments of the interview translated into English.
Venediktov: You must have watched last night as a mob of people who think the election had been stolen from them, that they had been cheated, stormed the Capitol. Is this the sign of 2021: the street and the Kremlin?
Khodorkovsky: To be frank, I didn’t watch it last night, but of course I watched it all this morning. I think what’s happening in America is a sign of what populism can lead to. As a matter of fact, you and I knew that about Trump long before. But every time, with each step he takes, it’s like he’s pushing the boundaries of what we consider normal.
Which is where I think the problem lies. Whatever we may say or think about America, American president still sets the standard of what is normal, determines its centre, and when that centre shifts, of course, you can expect all sorts of bizzare things to start happening on the boundaries of that Gaussian line.
AV: Mr Borisovich, I’m not talking about America. I mean Russia.
MBK: I understand. I’m actually talking about Russia. I am saying that all sorts of bizzare things will be happening at the boundaries of that normal. And yes, of course, if things like this happen in America, in a situation where people have the opportunity to express their point of view in other ways, normal ways, then of course in Russia, when there are no other ways to do it, this must also become the norm. (…)
AV: Andrei is asking: “So did the US government do the right thing to those who entered the Capitol?” We proceed from the premise that they sincerely believed that the election had been stolen from them and that the corrupt elite in Washington had sold them out to Biden. So did the authorities do the right thing by kicking them out, shooting at them? He is asking, Mikhail Borisovich.
MBK: And quite rightly, too. I believe that during a clash between citizens of a country both sides will use all available methods. We must recognize that any use of force will be inevitably met with counter force. And there is no point in deluding ourselves that we take to the streets, proclaim that we are in charge here – and that will be all, very nicely. If there is no possibility to change the existing regime through legal means – and we now understand that there is no such possibility in Russia – then you have to be ready to take to the streets. With a clear understanding that the regime will use force. And one has to be prepared to answer in kind. This is perfectly normal, there is no other way to defend freedom.
AV: Following from this, let’s return to what happened in 2020, moving on to 2021. What do ‘family and school’ teach us: what does Khabarovsk teach us, and certainly as a street protest? What has Khabarovsk taught you, what has Belarus taught you?
MBK: I will reiterate what I have just said, and I what have written repeatedly in my articles. Guys, if you’re hoping to take to the streets and declare that you are now in charge and the regime would get upset, ashamed of itself and leave – that’s not going to happen. If you want to tackle something, to take to the streets – be ready for an escalation. If you’re not ready, don’t bother.
AV: Today’s guest – Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This is the Aces Programme. In this regard, Mikhail Borisovich, look, 2020 is the year of four big processes, in my opinion: the resetting [of the presidential term], the pandemic, Belarus and the poisoning of Navalny – everything around us. So can we say that 2020 was the year when something broke, that we’re going to have a different 2019 in 2021. In other words, that 2020 was a kind of process; that we will never go back to 2019. Politically, of course, I’m interested in your point of view as a public figure, as you call yourself quite slyly. You are right to chuckle, I am chuckling too. Still, these four events – the pandemic, the reset, the pandemic and the poisoning – what’s new?
MBK: First of all, I would definitely name the fifth event – changing the Constitution.
AV: Well, I have mentioned the reset. Altogether – changing the Constitution
MBK: Of course, we are dealing with a completely new political reality. What we are dealing with today is the legitimization of a dictatorship in our country. We see how ‘we’ have tested the waters, tried it out – in this case by ‘we’ I mean our government – with just that type of a situation in Belarus. They have witnessed people’s reactions and seen how they can manage them. By the way, it should be noted that Khabarovsk was a similar test, albeit it smaller.
In such a situation Covid is one of the mechanisms to block people. We see it clearly. I don’t mean to say that Covid doesn’t exist, but the technologies that have been used because of Covid can be successfully applied outside of Covid as well. From this perspective, there will be a radically different situation in 2021. You will face a confrontation with quite a mature dictatorship, and that situation will have its own characteristics. (…)
AV: You’ve mentioned dictatorship – I am using your own words – whose dictatorship? Somebody’s dictatorship, whose dictatorship?
MBK: In this case we have a totally unambiguous personalistic dictatorship, which, in my view, will undoubtedly collapse after the dictator leaves, one way or another. It is Putin’s dictatorship. And although he has a support team, that support team is not, as is the case in other types of dictatorships, part of political decision-making. They can advise, they can suggest options. I mean, this is a support clientele, but they are not part of those who hold power. This is a personalistic dictatorship. It has certain advantages because of that, but also disadvantages: it is extremely sensitive to the replacement of Number One. Those assumptions of wonderful people from Putin’s entourage that they will be able to keep everything after Putin’s departure, in my opinion, are beyond ridiculous. This is naive. (…)
AV: Mikhail Borisovich, let’s not skip this one. Why do you think 30-40%, 30-40 million people, a little more, a little less maybe , vote for Putin, even though it seems obvious to you that he is a dictator?
MBK: There is a whole range of motivations associated with this. One of them is historical. It is clear enough: people in our country fear the authorities. This stems from years of living under a dictatorship. Other countries had no such experience in the second half of the XX century.
Secondly, we have a very large number of public sector workers. These are the public sector workers who not only feel their dependence from the authorities, but also regularly receive confirmation of that dependence.
Thirdly, our propaganda, and here I have to say that yes, it is quite an achievement, our propaganda machine – I mean state propaganda – has been working very successfully since 2008. And even though we may mock some propaganda personalities, nevertheless, the machine in its entirety works very well. This is one chunk of Putin’s support. (…)
AV: I understand about this part of Putin’s electorate, of his support. What about the other half?
MBK: And the other part is, of course, the siloviki, the security apparatus. And this is a very serious matter. Because what Putin has given the siloviki is the amount of money, the amount of power, the amount of opportunities to make money come what may, which is quite unprecedented. Even in Stalin’s time, the NKVD [Stalin’s secret police] did not personally have such opportunities. That is, they were under much tighter control. Because there was party control there, and there was still a lot of revolutionary romanticism, in other words, the control was much greater. Today, there is much less control.
And it is clear that no other government can afford to put so many resources at the disposal of the security apparatus, well, no one can afford the situation when Head of the Municipal Department of Internal Affairs comes to work in the latest BMW model. That’s just not feasible. They’re well aware of that. And from that point of view they are undoubtedly Putin’s corrupt support constituency.
There are many such corrupt support constituencies, but they are less influential, while this group is really influential, because as we have already discussed it, the moment the issue of regime change arises, and with all the laws that have been adopted it cannot arise legally, because the laws do not allow for a lawful transfer of power. So, as soon as the power transfer issue arises, and it will, undoubtedly arise, this support constituency – the siloviki – will play a significant role. The real issue is about what will win: greed or fear? (…)
AV: We are talking about the opposition, about opponents, let’s say, about protests. We shall be talking about Putin’s opponents later, his political opponents, first of all. I would like now to go back to power transfer. What happened that called for a reset, a change in legislation? What the hell happened? Everything had been sort of muddling along…
MBK: I totally agree with you in this respect, that in many ways they got scared of their own shadow. But I rather understand why Putin needed it. Because he’s really afraid of turning into a “lame duck”, and when he talks about it, he’s hardly being disingenious. I perfectly understand his desire to enter 2024 not as a “lame duck” but as a dictator capable of holding on to power until his death and being able to make decisions in that capacity. Yet I certainly can’t agree with the methods he uses in doing so. Because these methods increasingly make people understand that they cannot legally change this regime under the laws it has proposed. And if it cannot be changed, when half the population wants to change it, as we know from the Levada polls, this means that sooner or later these people will come to the conclusion that it must be changed by unlawful methods.
AV: Well, we shall talk about that half later. Mikhail Borisovich, what happened exactly? You’ve always treated Putin… carefully. You have repeatedly said that, and in your last interview with Dmitry Gordon, that I spent 3.5 hours of my life on – and for a good reason, you said that, yes, he is so-and-so, but now he is this and that. You are being rather hard on him just now.
MBK: I am saying even now that he is no monster. I’ve always said so. I’ve always said that he has a certain set of principles/values, gangster principles, but principles nevertheless. It is important.
AV- It is important why?
MBK: It is important for the people because this means that the game has certain rules. These are gangster rules, but at least these are rules. Nevertheless, a man who visibly, openly says, “Guys, you won’t be able to replace me within the framework that I am adopting,” – such a man becomes a dictator. What can one say to that?
MBK: In that case you will be replaced by unlawful means, the means outside your laws. You’re propelling the country towards a revolution. Should he drive a country like Russia, with our traditions of riot, ruthless and often senseless, towards a revolution? I think it’s a mistake.
Trump has done the same thing in America, albeit at a much lower level…
AV: But it’s not over yet. Let’s wait another couple of weeks.
MBK: Let’s hope for a much lower level. Yet in Russia these things are even more dangerous. If you do that, you care about anything else but your country. Vladimir Vladimirovich, it is wrong.
AV: So who is propelling the country towards a revolution? Putin or Khodorkovsky, or both?
MBK: I am sorry but I am not the one who has adopted laws that make it impossible to legally change the regime. If both of us – Vladimir Putin and I – understand that the regime will change anyway, that is life, and if at the same time we adopt laws that make it impossible to change it by legal means, well, then, guys, we are driving the country towards revolution, that is, beyond legal boundaries. (…)
AV: Let’s talk about the political spectrum of protest. It ranges from the extreme left, the radical left, to, probably, the radical right. We see, on the one hand, both the Left Front and more radical groups. On the other hand, we see people from the extreme right, the Russian Orthodox. With plenty of the disaffected in the middle. What has 2020 changed for these disaffected people in Russia? (…)
MBK: My position is that last year people realised that it would be not just difficult but practically impossible for them to express their point of view legally, to elect the political representatives they want. This will encourage people to express their protest in other ways. I am quite curious as to how the half of the population that would like to see Putin hand over power to someone else in 2024, no matter who, will be represented in the 2021 State Duma.
AV: To Zyuganov?
MBK: Doesn’t matter. To Zyuganov, to the nearly-dead Zhirinovsky..
MBK: To Dyumin, to Navalny – it doesn’t matter. Hand it over to someone. These people all think differently, but they constitute half the population. Here’s me wondering to what extent this half of the population will be represented in the 2021 State Duma. I personally believe that the most important criterion for supporting or not supporting the deputies should be this very criterion: “Am I for Putin staying in power after 2024, or am I against?” Because the only point to have this rubber stamping machine that we call the State Duma, is that it is a transition Duma.
AV: An interesting criterion.
MBK: And if half of the country’s population thinks that Putin should give his place up to someone else..
AV: No matter who.
MBK: I repeat, these people have different ideas: some think it should be Zyuganov, others think – Navalny, yet others – that it should be Dyumin. But they think that Putin should make way for someone else. I wonder what proportion of the deputies will represent the point of view of this half of the electorate.
An important criterion for me and, I believe, an important criterion for the opposition today is that Putin is, without a doubt, a representative of the extreme right-wing and conservative views. In a social-democrat country. And there is no doubt that regime change in our country will result in the country going down the social-democrat path.
AV: What exactly does it mean? From the current situation to a social-democrat state – what does it imply: scrapping the flat tax scale, becoming a parliamentary republic?
MBK: Becoming a parliamentary republic, although I am its apologist.
AV: Yes, I know.
MBK: This is about something else. What I’m saying, is about a move towards a social democracy, I think the key issue here is a more balanced real wealth. Not, say… shares or owned businesses, but the real wealth of society. A fairer distribution. Putin, as we can see, is not ready to do that. (…)
AV: Mikhail Borisovich, you have yourself talked about the State Duma, about the 2021 elections, about the attitude to the deputies. I’m basing it on your words, these are not my ideas.
MBK: But this is not a regime change.
AV: These are still only markers, I understand.
MBK: These are some kind of markers, nothing more. So, getting back to the topic of political position, Navalny’s political position on social democracy is not totally clear, although what he said in his last conversation with Guriev was a significant change.
AV: I shall ask him.
MBK: I can speak for myself. I firmly believe that Russia can change this regime either as part of an elites coup, and then the direction doesn’t matter because the 3% who will seize power, guns in hand, could be any 3% that simply have guns. But if we are talking about a more or less violent, yet more or less democratic change, when it is crucial to know who the mass of people support – that transition can only to a social democratic regime, that is when differences in social wealth are leveled out. (…)
AV: I see. In this regard, still, what should the tactics of, let’s call it, the united opposition be in 2021, from your point of view? Action tactics. Look, Navalny is abroad, you are abroad. And we don’t know if he can come back or not, given that he’s certainly the leader of the protest, and you’re the best known person who actively takes the same position in your capacity of a public figure. What are the tactics, given all this?
MBK: As of today, we do not see any alternative tactics to the consolidated voting or “Smart Voting” that has been proposed. The only significant thing for me..
AV: You saw me reaching for my pen, right?
MBK: The only significant detail or emphasis that I have already talked about during the Moscow City Duma elections is that it should be a vote of conscience. Here’s the difference – for me conscience means one thing, as I’ve already said – you either vote for Putin or against him. I am ready to urge people to vote for any candidate for this State Duma, as long as he/she firmly states that Putin continuing to hold power after 2024 is not possible… (…)
AV: Mikhail Borisovich, you said earlier in this interview that the processes the regime launched in 2020 – constitutional changes, resetting of the presidential term, new laws – have practically passed the point of not return, when it was still possible to go back to a civilized transition. Why then take part in the elections to the State Duma, creating an illusion that they decide something? Perhaps, better not to take part at all? There will be similar debates re boycotting or smart voting, dumb voting, useful voting, harmful voting. How about boycotting them right away, not participating at all?
MBK: I have always opposed boycotts if there is even a tiny chance of stating one’s position. I believe that indicating my position against extending Putin’s term in office beyond 2024 is such an important political stance that it is worth going to the polls just for that. (…)
AV: Going back to 2021. All the same, Mikhail Borisovich, given what happened in 2020 once again: the reset, with all the accompanying laws, the epidemic, Belarus and the poisoning – how much has this changed the landscape for the opposition? Well, except for the part that you’ve already mentioned, that a certain point of no return has been missed, that there’s going to be a hard collision, by the look of it. As for the opposition, did it consolidate them – you, them or was there something else?
MBK: You and I understand very well what the regime is doing. It radicalizes the opposition. And the more balanced, try to move away from it because if they risked spending a day or two or three in a police station before, now they think that they risk being poisoned.
AV: What do you mean by ‘they think’? Some people are being poisoned, for real.
MBK: Still, we understand that poisoning is about leaders.
AV: Yes. But some people get sacked, some people are thrown in jail.
MBK: People understand that the stakes, the risk level for them has got higher. And rightly so. Even if we understand that only the leaders will be poisoned, this also means that everyone else will be treated more harshly than before.
AV: It makes sense.
MBK: That those who remain in opposition are tougher. Which means the opposition is getting radicalized. If we speak about the opposition as political activists, there is no doubt that the opposition will be radicalized because of the regime’s deliberate actions.
AV: Why does the regime need to radicalize the opposition? This does not make sense, Mikhail Borisovich. Those in charge want to survive, to be preserved. Preservation implies stagnation, appeasement. Why radicalize the opposition?
MBK: Everything is very clear here. The regime, of course, wants to reduce support for the opposition. The more radicalized the opposition, the fewer people in society support it.
AV: Right. So from their own point of view the authorities are doing everything right by radicalizing the opposition?
MBK: Without any doubt, these are very transparent and very traditional actions of the authorities that have been tried and tested in many places, inculding Belarus. A different matter is that the regime, in my opinion, does not take into account, does not understand, which does not matter, in fact, even if it did understand this, this would change nothing – that even radical opposition, the most radical, would be able to lead society when society has had ‘enough’, when it has ‘boiled over’. As long as it has not, it doesn’t really matter in a dictatorship how much public support this very opposition enjoys or does not enjoy.
AV: Mikhail Borisovich, what do you mean by ‘boiled over’? Let’s not skip this point. Please explain this. What is ‘boiled over’ in your understanding?
MBK: ‘Boiled over’ is a kind of a critical situation. From the point of view of Karl Marx it’s a war in Europe. ‘Boiled over’ from the point of view of 1986 is Chernobyl. ‘Boiled over’ is Krymsk. (…) Lowering people’s standard of living – won’t ‘boil over’. Lowering people’s standard of living can go on and on. But if, as in 1917, people get the feeling that there is food left for 3 days only, whether it is true or not; if, as similar to 1917, people realize that they have been sitting in trenches for 3 years, they are being killed, and the only way out of these trenches, as was said here, is to shift the rifle from one shoulder to another – this is called ‘boiling over’. And sooner or later, naturally, it will boil over. (…)
AV: Mikhail Borisovich, I’m not going to ask you about the forecast. I would like to understand, what does it look like from where you are sitting, this tightening of the screws, on the one hand, and radicalization of the opposition, on the other? Is it a mutually complementary process, that has already taken shape for 2021, or do we have many ‘wonderous moments’ in both, still to come?
MBK: Preparation work has been done already. What actually happens will become clear when the laws are applied, as you and I know very well.
AV: But this enforcement will be selective, as we both know.
MBK: Well, the laws have been primed. How tough and how indiscriminate their application will be, remains to be seen. (…)
AV: Last question: was the latest Bellingcat investigation of the poisoning quite unexpected for you? Were you surprised?
MBK: You know, it wasn’t the investigation that I found surprising. It was an excellent investigation, although I don’t agree with accusing people of murder without evidence. I mean, it’s been proven in relation to some individuals. But you can’t extend that to more people than those whose particular involvement has been proven. But what really struck me was, of course, the regime’s stupidity. Guys, it is simply mind-boggling! It’s not even the case of Brezhnev in his final years, it’s something else altogether. (…)