Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum

June 23, 2017

Ingo Mannteufel: If we look at Russia today we have superficially the impression that Putin is in a very strong position.  The elite stands behind him, the security forces are loyal to him, he has a big national guard, and supposedly 80% of Russians agree with his policies.  Do you agree with this superficial outlook of Russia?

MBK: If we look at more detailed research, we see that a significant part of Putin’s support today is based on the fact that people do not see an alternative.  It is a very unique technique which the Kremlin has successfully adopted.  They destroy people’s reputation, send people to prison, or into exile.  They do this with any force, or any person that could potentially become an alternative.  If we look closer at this 86% of people who intend to vote for Putin, it turns out that somewhere in the region of 43% are his genuine electoral base.  The others, if they will in fact vote for him, will do so out of hopelessness.  This is a very weak basis for support.  It shows that society is looking for an alternative, and when society begins to search for an alternative, it will find it sooner or later.  My goal, and the goal of my organisation Open Russia, want this alternative to take a non-personal form; not simply to exchange Putin I for Putin II.  Our goal is to change the system in which Putin or any other person in his place, can take full control of the way in which the country develops, to be the one who takes practically all decisions.  We would like to create a system where the rule of law occupies the highest place in the state, with the separation of powers, where they are balanced and there is an administration, a strong parliament and an independent judiciary.  This is our goal.

Ingo Mannteufel: Don’t you think that Russian tradition and Russian culture would view this decentralisation as a form of chaos.  This is the image that you have to break in Russia, as you know.  How are you going to do this?

MBK: In reality it is simply a media image from the vertical of power which we have today in Russia.  We know perfectly well that a country as big as Russia is impossible to govern outside of the law, and today the law is not obeyed.  We can see this in Chechnya, as well as in corrupt courts.  Putin is practically forced to govern the country with his own two hands.  Is this possible?  Of course not, it’s a myth!  All he is able to do is confined to his attention at any given moment, and once that attention is directed elsewhere, the people that were once there will do whatever is beneficial for them personally.  Today the country is practically split into separate principalities, both territorial and sectorial.  Of course the creation of a normal, balanced parliamentary system, with a strong administration and independent judiciary would be to strengthen the country’s governing system, rather than its gradual weakening.

Ingo Mannteufel: How do you plan to get there?  I mean we have talked about the future of Russia, but how do we get there today?  What are you doing with your project Open Russia?

MBK: The main goal of Open Russia is to show people that they already have an alternative.  What I mean by that is not that they should wait until some kind of new Tsar or hero comes along, but that they already have alternatives.  At the moment, the country is being governed ineffectively, and if the people really want it to happen then this situation can change.  In what practical way could this take place?  Of course all of us would like that to happen as softly as possible.  The best way would be for Putin not to run for president in 2018, and for him to appoint an heir who will be forced to conduct necessary political reforms.  For me this is a sort of fantasy.

Ingo Mannteufel: Because he could have done this four years ago, or six years ago, but he didn’t do this.  I think you also do not believe this will happen, so what is the real way?

MBK: I believe that Putin is nevertheless a pragmatic person.  He knows full well that if he tries to change the constitution for a second time, that it won’t be as easy as last time.  I really hope that, as a pragmatic person, he understands that it is not worth giving such powers as he enjoys today to an heir.  I very much hope that he will use the opportunities that he has to conduct necessary political reforms over the course of the next 6 years, and in the middle of that term, whenever he considers it appropriate, to step down.  This is also a dream, but it is more or less believable; it has benefits both for Putin individually, as well as for his entourage, and most important of all it has benefits for society, which will not have to live through another wave of repressive measures.  Of course he may not choose this path.   However a number of problems will arise in this case: the question of loyalty comes up; he is no longer a young man, and he will have to guarantee for the current government apparatus that he provide protection for them until the end of their lives.  This government apparatus will begin to look for an alternative within the next year, even if it is virtual.  This means that time is running out until the moment when things change in a much more violent way.  I am really hoping for a soft transition of power.

Ingo Mannteufel: In the morning we had a session about fake news, disinformation and propaganda.  When we enhance the information, the different opinions in Russia — as you said, the trolls are going after the dissenting voices and so there is a sea of information or disinformation by the Kremlin — even individual facts which contradict the official line of the Kremlin do not reach the public.  One thing behind this, I think, is the successful Kremlin narrative of a Russian world.  It is a kind of Russian exceptionalism and Putin has somehow monopolised not only the political power in Russia but also Russia as a brand, as a national and international brand.  What do you think of this concept of a Russian world?  Do you have something to contradict this Kremlin narrative?

MBK: Putin has worked aggressively on the Russian diaspora around the Russian Federation, and is attempting to influence the politics of Russia’s neighbouring countries.  I think you have already encountered this and will encounter it more in the future.  It is a new kind of 21st century war.  I believe that competition is always a good thing, but competition that utilises unfair methods and lies is very bad and must be fought against.  I hope that western societies and the tech companies such as Facebook will find a solution to the problem of fake news.  This problem undoubtedly does exist, it is one of the weapons that authoritarian regimes utilise, and not only the Putin regime.  It’s a great shame that democratic countries have not come up with any answers to this challenge.  An answer in the form of “more information”, as you said, is not an answer.  More information can simply be deconstructed.  Lies need to be called out as lies, and this is a serious task both for governments and for tech companies.  This must be done without sacrificing freedom of speech, and that is very difficult.  About the “Russian World”; unfortunately these words, which are very close to every Russian, have been twisted and distorted.  I believe that in essence the Russian world, if we remove the inverted commas, is a very important thing; it is the world of Russian culture and the Russian language, which is one of the most important languages, and Russian culture is one of the most important on the European continent.  We’re not speaking about the whole world, but on the European continent this is certainly the case.  It’s a shame that now this centuries-old concept is being used to propagate lies.  As a result people turn away from Russian language and culture, as has already happened in Ukraine.  We will do what we can to oppose this, but I very much hope that our western partners and friends, as difficult as it is, will learn to distinguish between the Kremlin and Russia, between Vladimir Putin and the Russian people.  This is very important.

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