Mikhail Khodorkovsky Lantos Rule of Law Speech

October 13, 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome, I’m glad you could attend.

I have visited America many, many times, but one particular visit always remains particularly etched in my memory. It was in 2003, just before my arrest, when they had allowed me to leave the country in the hope that I wouldn’t come back. I used this opportunity to say goodbye to friends.

One such friend for me here was Tom Lantos. A person who loved Russia, and despised dictators.

It was from his lessons that I began to understand how democracy works, especially the American Congress. Ever since then I have been strongly committed to a parliamentary republic for my country and opposed to unchecked presidential power.

I have seen how good people, under the destructive influence of power, started believing that they were divinely anointed — and thus infallible.

Back then I had to go back to Russia, among other reasons because I wanted to use the platform of the court to explain my views.

Tom attended my trial in Moscow, and he also spoke out in my defense.

Regretfully, by the time I got out of prison after 10 years in 2003, he had sadly passed away.

It is a great honour for me to give the first Tom Lantos Rule of Law Lecture. I would like to thank Annette Lantos, Katrina Lantos, and their whole large family for all their support over these 10 long years.

Today, the outside world is seeing Russia more and more as an aggressive country with an outmoded economy…

Against the background of the latest scandals about interference in elections, military adventurism in Syria and the Donbass, and the seizure of territories in Crimea, my country is more and more often being mentioned in the same breath as places like Iran and North Korea.

Of course, I don’t agree with this, but I cannot help but notice that we are regularly starting out from the position of an aggressor. Of a country that disrupts the world order, an exporter of tension and corruption. And the fact that we are not the only country like this gives me no comfort whatsoever.

I can’t help but notice that my country’s ambition to be a world leader is not supported by the viability of its economic system and the results it produces.
These are becoming ever more dismal as the country has stalled its way into stagnation.

The decade between the economic crisis of 1998 and the crisis of 2008—when for half of the time the country was moving in the direction of democracy and reforms, and the second half it was moving on inertia alone—differs radically in its results from the subsequent decade of stagnation…

In 2008, Russia’s GDP at PPP was around 1.7 trln dollars, or 15 thousand per capita (an increase of 90% from 1999 to 2008), but by 2017 it was only around 1.3 trln, or 9 thsd dollars per capita, and this decline is still continuing.

The volume of export in 2008 was over 450 bln based on the results of 2016 it was less than 300 bln dollars.

Consolidated budget revenues in 2008 were more than 500 bln dollars (an increase by 7.5 times in comparison with 2000) in 2016 8 years later they were less than 300 bln dollars.

While a 5.2% increase in GDP was achieved in 2008, in 2009 it fell by 7.9% at once. In subsequent years, after recovering somewhat after the crisis, the year-on-year rates of growth started falling: GDP growth of 4.5% in 2010, 4.3% in 2011, 3.5% in 2012, 1.3% in 2013, 0.6% in 2014, a decline of 2.8% in 2015, and in 2016 once again a decline of 0.2%.

And only in 2017 might there be a modest positive number. But this will be achieved (that is, if it is achieved) by means of a rise in oil prices and defense orders; the rest of the economy is either stagnant or falling.

According to data from the Higher School of Economics, the proportion of Russian GDP attributable to the extractive industries rose from 7.8% in 2013 to 8.2% in 2016. The proportion attributable to defense production and state administration increased from 5.5% to 5.8%, meaning that the overall weight of the raw-materials and military sectors in the economy had reached its highest level.

As for construction, for example, new floorspace dropped by 12.6% over five months.
The huge gap between the raw-materials and manufacturing economy tells us that the trend toward a recovery is illusory and fragile, and conditional on the economic situation — on energy prices.

If last year, every barrel of Russian oil was selling abroad at 32 dollars, this year it was already 52. As the 2008 crisis showed, such a recovery of the economy is temporary in character and leads to prolonged crises along with a reduction in the time lags of the periods between crises.

This is only one of the results of one person remaining irremovably in power. Putin has now been in the Kremlin longer than Brezhnev! And he has a monopoly on power; he is not constrained by an independent judiciary and a parliament and local self-administration with substance.

He wants to accelerate the rate of economic growth, but he does not want to let go of his monopoly. The monopoly of power has already resulted in a monopolization of the key branches of the economy, from oil and gas to the banking sector. The percentage of companies that are independent of the Kremlin is falling. A monopolistic economy cannot be an efficient economy.

It is precisely their failures in the economic sphere that the authorities are trying to compensate for with international adventurism. It wants to see itself as an influential player that is respected and feared.

But what is even more important for today’s authorities is to create the impression in society that the country is surrounded by enemies, and it is they who are responsible for all of today’s problems, and therefore rallying around the leader is an imperative condition for surviving.

I am ready to talk in more detail about the Kremlin’s attempt to influence the elections in America or about the adventurism in Ukraine and in Syria. But I think you’re tired of hearing about this. I’d prefer to leave these topics for your questions.

I will merely note that the responsibility for these decisions lies not on Russia, not on the Russian people, and even not on the Russian state, but only on a not-large group of criminals entrenched in and around the Kremlin.

It is very important to understand this when planning and carrying out retaliatory measures. It would be a big mistake to equate the Kremlin and Russia, even for merely pragmatic reasons.

In the modern world, even an announcement about plans to “punish” a huge country leads to results opposite from the ones desired.

A society supporting the authorities in standing up to someone they perceive as an “aggressor” is capable of enduring a great deal and will approve of actions which the USA is not going to find acceptable. By the way, it is precisely for his description of just such a behavioural process that the American scientist Richard Thaler was recently awarded the Nobel Prize.

It is far more justified —from the moral point of view as well — to make a distinction between society and the criminal clan that has usurped power. To convey to Russian society the desire to help solve the problems it is facing. In this sense, the decision by the American Congress about measures in relation to government officials who are plundering Russian society and then hiding what they’ve stolen outside the country is a step in the right direction. If this is properly presented, it will find support in Russia.

You will ask how this can be done when the state stands in the way of things working normally, and when all of society rallied behind this criminal clique?

It is a big mistake to assume that all of Russian society supports the Kremlin, while the state is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing as it is infested with criminals and is completely under Putin’s control. This is not so.

The bulk of the population is not interested in politics at the federal level. For them, supporting or not supporting Putin is a symbolic gesture without any substance (the way the pagan Christmas tree is for Christians). Not only are they not prepared to go fight a war for him, but even when they take part in pro-Putin rallies it is only because the bosses have pressured them to. And, by the way, the bosses themselves are not a reliable source of support either.

The Russian state “on the ground” really exists quite separately from the Kremlin, and works at solving its own everyday problems.
Just as an example, let’s take a look at the most critical issue for a rule-of-law state — the matter of the judiciary, on the example of the criminal courts.
Russian courts mostly rule on cases of robbery, muggings, and drug dealing. Only 2-3% of trials are politically motivated, and these, as a rule, are handled by special judges and courts (but this is still tens of thousands of cases, by the way—if we’re talking not only about actual political prisoners, of whom there are a little over a hundred people).

We’ve got several hundred camps in our country. In each of them there are a thousand or more prisoners — and only one or two political ones.

In the prisons where I was, only 10% of the prisoners spoke about their innocence. Perhaps this was their perception of reality, or maybe it was judicial error. But this was just 10%. Which is certainly bad, but it’s not terrible.
I saw many decent people working as judges. Yes, they aren’t judges as the word is normally understood, but they are people who are trying to do an honest job serving the law.

And the majority are like that.

Schoolteachers teach children mathematics, geography, and astronomy—politically charged “pro-government” lessons are in reality not all that frequent a phenomenon (although even this is still horrible, of course), while the public utilities engage in providing municipal services and only a couple of times a year do they unenthusiastically have their employees take part in pro-government rallies.

The millions of public sector workers, civil servants, police, and military are not getting any benefits from the regime. They, like everybody else, live from payday to payday, just trying their best to do their jobs, which people need very much.

The real beneficiaries are Putin’s inner circle. About a hundred people. “The court”, as it is called, and their clientele, which numbers several thousand in all.

As a rule, nobody elected any of these people to run the country, and they are not accountable to society. Making use of the president’s post, and flat out breaking the law, they have usurped power in the country. They are forcing elections to be falsified and extra-legal laws and court decisions to be adopted.

This is nothing more than an avaricious criminal grouping, sufficiently ordinary in size. Very similar to what existed in Italy, for example. The only difference is that they have managed to seize the post of president, which under Russian law possesses limitless power.

Just remove this grouping from power, and the rules-driven state will go right back to functioning normally. These days, if you see some kind of flagrant violation of the law, like a high-profile political trial, falsification of elections, an immensely suspicious business transaction, a police raid on opposition headquarters — you won’t make a mistake if you confidently assume that you will find there the hand of the presidential administration, of the president’s innermost circle, or of the FSB. Actual government officials acting on their own try not to grossly violate laws.

It is very important that when this regime falls for one grouping not to merely be replaced by another in conditions when the monopoly structure of power is highly conducive to just such a scenario.

Working together to educate society, to identify and punish the real criminals. Demonstrating to Russian society that in fact we all have common enemies and common goals — this is the way to solve the problem.

I and my colleagues at Open Russia are working in just this way, and we consider it imperative for our country to switch to a parliamentary form of rule.

We are not in agreement with the idea of searching for a “good tsar” and handing him unlimited power in the hope that he will “bestow freedoms” upon the people. There have been more than enough such attempts in Russian history by now for us to understand that this doesn’t work. Freedom isn’t given—it is taken!

Our parliament cannot be based on a party structure — something that is undergoing a crisis throughout the world: people are simply incapable of understanding the difference between party programs that have become extremely similar and complicated. And this opens up the field for populists whose promises are full of incompatible inconsistencies.

The alternative that would be suitable for Russia is real federalism, rooted in political representation of the regions, with federal power not as the center where all decisions are made, but primarily as a place for inter-regional coordination in everybody’s common interests.

Russia is a country of cities with a high level of urbanization that continues to increase.
Not all the provincial capitals are capable of becoming real political centers. Their number is going to be 15-25 large cities with serious universities, and not the 85 formally existing provinces.

Today we are setting ourselves the task of helping the provincial centers acquire their political representatives. Serving this task are schools for elected municipal councillors, discussion clubs, and participation in local elections.

If we ignore the repressions (and just last week all of our regional branches were subjected to raids by the authorities), their number is increasing. Open Russia has a presence in 25 provinces today. More than 1000 activists in the field are engaged in political education and in legal support for citizens and civic organizations; they distribute information with the help of internet publications and organize street activism.

People’s political activism in local elections is growing. In September in Moscow, around 400 people went through Open Russia’s summer school for candidates, while the overall number of independent candidates exceeded 1500 persons. This is an order of magnitude that far surpasses previous years.

The presidential elections of 2018 are probably going to follow the usual inertial no-alternatives scenario, but they aren’t going to give the Kremlin any greater legitimacy. Through the joint efforts of many opposition groups, including Open Russia, society is being called to actively boycott these elections in which people are supposed to “choose without being given a choice”. That is, not to participate, or to participate with voting against Putin. And such a position is gathering supporters.

We’ve still got a long road ahead of us before we achieve democracy. What is important is that Russian society is capable of democracy and is going to call for it. Our main guidepost along this road is the rule of law. Russia is a rules-driven state, which works at solving society’s problems, but whose efficiency is substantially hampered by the criminal clan that has usurped power.

Our task, once we have removed this clan, is not to allow the country’s political system to exchange hands between those who have been doing the locking up and those who have been locked up, but on the contrary, to carefully — while remaining within the law — separate the Russian state and its decisions from this criminal group and the decisions imposed by it.

We can and we will do this.