Mikhail Khodorkovsky on how the Putin system works

April 5, 2018

Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks to Alan Philips from Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The original interview is available here.

What does Putin intend to do with his next six-year term?

All of Russia is pondering this question. The Presidential Administration has tried to think up some vision for the next term but without success. Judging by Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, we see a combination of two incompatible things. The first part is made up of fantastical plans for the development of the economy.  The second is his plan – also fantastical – to develop the military. We should not expect any radical harshening in internal politics. Rather, a slow pace of economic growth and some form of confrontation with the United States and NATO to explain to society at home why things are not so brilliant.

Can he ever retire? 

My opinion is that he wanted to step down this time. He surely wants to leave the next time. He is looking for a way to leave but he needs some guarantees. This is not difficult to achieve as regards himself. But the task is almost impossible to resolve if we are talking of his inner circle, I mean up to 100 people, who may be drawn from various backgrounds including the security services and business, but they are all wealthy. These people have been exerting pressure on him. They managed to talk him out of stepping down this time and they may do it next time as well.

In the West, we tend to think of Putin as a kind of dictator  

This has never been true. The presumption is that there is system of managing the state and at the top it works for him. This is not quite so. This system has to a certain extent been destroyed. This is particularly true in the regions because many are under the control of semi-feudal bosses. In industry, control has been given to people who have no idea what they are managing. Or maybe they have some idea, but it is limited to their own pockets. Putin may issue an order but, as soon as his back is turned, it will not be carried out. The totalitarian model is not working. He tried to re-establish the Soviet model because it is the only model he knows really well. But he could not re-establish it in full, only as regards his personal powers. As for the rest you could say he outsourced it. It is similar to the time before the 18th century, when absolutism was not fully developed and relied on vassals.

So the vassals need someone to keep order among themselves?

From his time in St Petersburg [1990-96], Putin has been carrying out the functions of an arbiter between criminal gangs, to maintain the balance among them. If he goes, his circle will understand that the new leader will create a different balance.

Why did you call on people to vote in an election that was obviously rigged? 

I went to Germany specially to cast my ballot.   Of course it is not an election but one can view it more like a demonstration or a political campaign.  When we go on the streets to protest, we know we are not resolving any issues by marching, but we have a chance to explain our ideas to an audience beyond our supporters. Unlike in Britain, in Russia it is legal to post your ballot paper on the internet. We called our on supporters to write on the ballot paper whatever they wanted and to post it online. Many people did that.  We also sent observers to the polling stations. I knew that Putin was capable of falsifying the result without obvious fraud, but I was confident that these breaches would still be there. And there were enough examples of clear falsification to make the elections very suspicious in the eyes of many people.

What proportion of the electorate turned out?

More or less the same as in previous years. It was announced as 67 per cent so maybe they added 5 or 7 per cent.  What was obvious compared with previous elections is that the people who turned out were older and more dependent, by which I mean people concerned they might lose their jobs if it is known how they voted.

In the past you said you were confident that Putin’s vertical power structure would give way. Are you still confident?

Unfortunately there are two ways of development. The first, the traditional Russian way, is that Putin goes and a new Putin replaces him. The second, and the one I am fighting for now, is to change the system; either completely do away with the position of president or weaken it as much as possible and go for the parliamentary model. I am sure that anyone who came to the post of president as it exists now would either be very quickly pushed out or would have to become an autocrat, even if they were a totally admirable person. The only way is to either make this position nominal or get rid of it altogether.

Are you certain the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter was done by a Russian hand and, if so, which one?

I have no definite response but I can suppose it is the Kremlin. I cannot imagine Putin calling in someone and saying: ‘You should kill Skripal with a chemical weapon.’  Also, I do not believe that someone from the GRU [military intelligence] would say: ‘Putin has lost the plot completely and we don’t even have to tell him. Let’s just kill that traitor Skripal.’ It must be somewhere between the two. At some stage, a year or two ago, someone came to Putin and said I think that all these traitors running around is not right. Putin might have replied with the sort of formula he likes, ‘act according to accepted rules’.

Why Skripal? He’s an old man? What had he done?

As far as I understand from the media, he continued working in intelligence.

Why now, just before the election and the World Cup?

There is not necessarily any connection to these events. For example, the murder of Boris Nemtsov; I don’t believe the killer was ordered to carry out the murder on St Basil’s Descent [beside the Kremlin]. An order was given, then people went into action. When they saw a good opportunity, they used it.

Should we understand that the Kremlin views Britain as particularly vulnerable at the moment, after the Brexit vote and with Donald Trump as US president? 

I am sure they think the West is weak. That was part of their reasoning for their attack on Ukraine. They thought the West would not react, and their expectations were reasonably well founded. As for Skripal, they definitely did not expect a firm response. So the reaction has been a little tougher than they expected. But still within acceptable limits.

What should Britain do now?

Up to now, the western governments have been deceived by a false paradigm about Russia. Journalists like to simplify things and this is how they present it:  Russia is 146 million people, [it provides] 30 per cent of European energy imports and has the ability to destroy the world three or four times over. What can we do? Nothing. Sometimes they think of some action against the Russian government, maybe something unpleasant in the diplomatic sphere. I am trying to explain to your leaders in Britain that there is no point in talking about the Russian government – it is mostly busy with internal matters. The issue is the members of Putin’s inner circle. These are the main beneficiaries of the system and for them this is a happy time to enrich themselves. These people are completely indifferent to the law. They refuse to abide even by the laws they have written themselves. If we admit that these 100 people are a criminal gang using criminal methods then we should be fighting them with police methods. If you have a criminal gang creating havoc in London, you don’t start bombing the city or surrounding it with border guards. You will do what police normally do – investigate people who are suspected of being gang members and find out who is the treasurer so you can seize the assets. Even if you cannot arrest these people you can block their criminal activities. I think this is the most effective way of solving the problem. At the moment, this investigative work is being done by journalists. This is not good enough – journalists don’t have the right powers.

Some of the Putin circle are subject to sanctions. Has that had no effect? 

Sanctions are unpleasant for ordinary people. If your bank account is frozen you will not know what to do. But if we are talking about a member of a criminal gang, he is prepared from the start for this. If you want to freeze his assets, you need to find out who is keeping these assets for him.

Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, said Putin would revel in the World Cup in Russia just as Hitler did in the 1936 Olympic Games. Was that wise?

I don’t like harsh comparisons. There is always a chance that reality will prove to be so harsh that you won’t have any words left. If you compare the current regime with the Nazis and then, God forbid, a real Nazi regime appears, you will not have any terms to brand it. What I would have said is that we have an unpleasant situation where the tournament’s host is a criminal gang. I think the way to look at it is this: the World Cup is one thing and accepting an invitation to visit Putin is something else.

So the tournament goes ahead and European leaders stay away?

I would recommend they watch it on TV.

What is your team?   

As a boy, I played football for Spartak Juniors. But playing ice hockey, I caught a puck in my eye and my retina was torn. The doctors fixed it but said if I wanted to keep playing sport, it would have to be with one eye.

Will you ever stand for office in Russia? 

I told my friends that if I live to 90 then I would like to run for President of Russia. That would imply that the presidency is something a 90-year-old can cope with. Just pinning on medals with a trembling hand – that’s the best job for a president, and I would really enjoy it.