Mikhail Khodorkovsky interview with ZDF

March 31, 2017

On the 16th of March 2017, Mikhail Khodorkovsky took part in an interview with Joachim Bartz from the German TV channel ZDF.  The discussion, held in Russian, ranged from political prisoners, Putin-populism in Europe and what needs to be done once the current regime collapses.

ZDF: How do you interpret the Ildar Dadin situation?  What does his case represent in modern-day Russia?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky:  I’m not sure what message the Kremlin is trying to transmit with this, although it certainly does represent a sort of bureaucratic idiocy.  When a person who poses no threat whatsoever to the government is arrested and imprisoned of course the whole country is going to hear about it.  By the way, he ended up in the same prison colony that I was in for a few years, that’s caused a fair bit of public resonance too.  At last, thank god, there was someone sensible enough in the Kremlin to have him released.

ZDF: You were also in that prison colony (IK7) for a period of time, did you witness the beatings and humiliations?

MBK: No, I have not seen it, but I have heard about it.  Such measures aren’t often carried out in front of others.  That’s what happened to Ildar Dadin, who is clearly not a criminal, and who is well-known in the public eye.  I’ll repeat, it’s complete idiocy that there are people who don’t notice the existence of civil society in Russia, and that their hands are not completely tied.  They think they can act like they did 20-30 years ago.  Absolutely not, the situation has changed.

ZDF: The Kremlin tracked down an activist who is peacefully protesting on his own against Vladimir Putin.  Why is the Kremlin doing this?

MBK: This really demonstrates that the power vertical, as people like to call it, where Putin sits on top controlling everyone and everything in the country, simply does not exist.

There are a huge number of officials and bureaucrats who preside over their own little fiefdoms and are busy enriching themselves.

In their minds, in order to preserve their position of enrichment, they must show the Kremlin that they are loyal.  As long as there is no system of government, no legal system, no law-abiding government and no normal operational courts then this sort of idiocy can not be stopped by anybody.  It’s just not possible that one person in the Kremlin is pulling all these strings.  All of this shows that in the 21st century, authoritarianism is not only inhuman, but ineffective.

ZDF: You now live in Britain, do you feel that your life is in danger at all?

MBK: I spent a long enough part of my life in Moscow in the 80s and 90s, including 10 years in a Russian prison, where absolutely anything could have happened to me.  I’ve been stabbed with a knife in the night, my eye was almost knocked out… I’m already used to this.  For me it’s a fairly natural position, and the level of danger is high enough here in the UK too.  If an attempt is made by Putin’s gang, then there’s no way that i’m going to be able to avoid that hit in any case.

ZDF: When do you plan to return to Russia?

MBK: Perhaps you know, as soon as the order was signed for my pardon, I was expelled from Russia.  I did ask the question “can I return?” not long after and the high court was unexpectedly quick in its reply.  They said that if I return to Russia, I will never leave again.  They later decided that this was not enough of a threat, and so they brought another court case against me.  It was done as a signal that if I ever set foot on the territory of the Russian Federation again then I will be arrested.  At least, until the current system ceases to be.

ZDF: What do you dislike about today’s Russia?

MBK: Most of all I dislike the fact that my country is in a state of stagnation and has been for the past 10 years.  I can see that our system of education is slowly falling apart, our academia and science is stuck on the same level and living standards are beginning to decline at an increasingly alarming rate.  We’re stuck behind the rest of the world.  For me, the comparison with China is a powerful one.  We’ve done business with China for years and always the standard of living in China was lower than in Russia, even the level of technology was lower.  Today it’s the complete opposite.  China has caught up with Russia in every sphere.  The reason why this happened is obvious to me:

our government has sacrificed the rule of law and legal institutions in the interest of its own self-preservation.  Today we’re living in a system of government akin to the 19th, possibly even early 20th century.

This is all demonstrated by the effectiveness of the economy and decide in people’s living standards.

ZDF: What does the future Russia look like?

MBK: Over the course of the past 5 centuries, Russia has more or less been on a trajectory of European political and social development.  I think that in this regard nothing has changed.  Sooner or later, in the region of the next 6-8 years, certainly in the next 16, the current regime will be gone.  When that occurs we will need to be ready to get the country back on the right track towards an European-style development.  I believe this will happen, and it’s a shame that so much time has been wasted, and that Russia is forced to lag behind the wider world.  It’s a shame for the people who have lived their lives under such difficult circumstances.

ZDF: In Germany there are many people who are impressed by Putin and the politics of the Kremlin.  What would you say to these people?

MBK: I think you need to ask these people one question: give two thirds of your wages in charitable funds to officials so that they can buy themselves expensive cars.  Move in to a small apartment 100km from Berlin and risk having your heating and water cut off.  Also, if you can, give more money to officials so they can send their children abroad to study in, for instance, France, or maybe buy a yacht.  If they like that, then they’ll have to buy tickets right away and move to Russia.     If they don’t like it, then they’ll have to ask themselves why do they like the person that has created these conditions?

ZDF:  How will the 2018 presidential elections end?

MBK:  I would not give the name “elections” to the political gymnastics that are going to take place in Russia next year.  The word “elections” gives the impression that they are going to be somehow legitimate and normal.  

They won’t be elections, they will be a sort of plebiscite which will confirm that Putin can stay in power for another 6 years.

What percentage of people vote in genuine support of Putin, what percentage vote for a lack of any alternative, and what percentage vote out of fear of being fired is an interesting question.

ZDF: Are you going to run for president in 2018?

MBK: No, of course not.  Firstly, I think that it’s pointless to play with fraudsters at their own game.  Secondly, I believe that when the regime finally falls, the question won’t be “who is going to replace him?”, but rather how can we build a system where the emergence of another Putin is impossible?  I think that to begin with

we have to undertake serious political reforms which would reduce the power of the president, subsequently increasing the ability of parliament to make independent decisions, and, of course, to organise independence of the judiciary.

After this new system is achieved, open elections should be held when Putin is already long gone.

ZDF: The European Council has demanded that Russia abide by the order of the European Court of Human Rights to pay compensation to the former shareholders of the Yukos oil company.  Is Russia going to pay up? What do you think?

MBK: I would be surprised if the Kremlin did decide to pay up, as they know full well that the Yukos shareholders are not particularly fond of Putin and his entourage as a result of their involvement in its liquidation.  As the Panama Papers showed, Putin and his close friends are still hungry for more, regardless of their current wealth.  Their greed will not allow them to deal with the thousands of minor shareholders across the world whose funds were stolen, as well as all Yukos’ former employees.  These people have accumulated unprecedented wealth and they’re not going to let go of it.  Their greed won’t allow it.