Mikhail Khodorkovsky: US Sanctions, Putin’s Support and How to Revive Democracy in Russia

August 25, 2017

On August 7 Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke to Russian news outlet Voice of America about US sanctions, Russia’s political institutions and how to revitalise local democracy through municipal elections.

Alexander Gerasimov (Voice of America): Dmitry Medvedev recently said that any hope of an improvement in relations between USA and the Russian Federation has vanished for decades to come. Is this a new iron curtain? What are they thinking?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Dmitry Medvedev, from some reason, thinks it necessary to send out a message to Vladimir Putin that he will live forever. Of course, I do not agree with this, although I don’t know, perhaps scientists will invent something. But for now, only in mausoleums can you find people who have been around for over 100 years, and this probably doesn’t qualify as ruling the country, perhaps only in a psychological sense.

I don’t think we’re talking about many decades ahead, although the configuration of the current sanctions and of the bills that are yet to be signed makes it much more difficult to annul them, even after a change of government in Russia.  It won’t be easy, in particular because the first time around in the 1990’s countries eagerly came to each other with open arms, but next time it will be done much more cautiously and bound by purely legal prerogatives, as we can see with the new bill from the presidential administration to Congress.

AG: All the political experts are saying that these new sanctions will make Putin’s inner circle work against him in some way. What do you think about this?

MBK: I don’t believe it. I think that Putin’s inner circle clearly understands they have gone far enough and that if they go further they will be under greater risk from a change of government than from Putin himself. However, the second, third and fourth circles of Putin’s entourage at this moment in time are beginning to take certain risks…  I think that many people, especially those who are in high demand on the market, are wondering whether they should take these risks upon themselves.

AG: In what way can they affect the situation that will unravel after the sanctions bill is signed?

MBK: I’m sure you understand perfectly well that policy can either be good or bad in regards to its aims but it can also be intelligent or not very intelligent.

In order for policy to be intelligent, its needs to be produced by intelligent people who think carefully about their future,

which up until now has been cloudless, but after the introduction of these new sanctions it is becoming less so. Thus the policy will not just be bad, it will also be stupid. Even now we can see that in a lot of places it is already stupid, but it will become even more so. Will it have a direct impact on Putin? Probably not. However, will it influence the possibility that the current regime self-replicates? Without a doubt.

AG: And what do you think about the prospect of establishing more or less satisfactory relations between the US and Russia under the current regime? What could the regime do to make the situation move in a positive direction?

MBK: As long as it depends solely on the US president, I would say that there is probably a way for Putin to convince Trump to see something positive in the KGB emblem. But today, when this process requires the decision of people with different interests who are sitting in the US Congress, it all becomes a very, very difficult task. First, it is necessary to implement the Minsk-2 treaty at the very least, a move which, in my opinion, is not a particularly easy task. Next, we need to find a solution to the problem of Crimea, which in perspective is certainly a solvable problem, but I very much doubt that it can be done under the current regime.

We also have to return freedom to the mass media and reduce the number of political prisoners in Russia. I think that in the run up to the presidential elections, and taking into account the general stupefying of the regime’s politics, the number will grow, not decrease.  Well, maybe not dramatically grow, but in any case will not decrease for sure. In this sense I’m a pessimist, like Dmitry Medvedev, but I’ll be a pessimist for much less time than he will be.

AG: At the moment 85% of people support Putin and believe that the Russian mantra “the worse it gets the stronger we are” is still relevant. All these sanctions are most likely going to motivate the population to rally around the president.  How can the people realise the severity of the situation and go against the leader?

MBK: You know, the people have already rallied around the leader so much that if they rally harder, they will strangle him. Maybe this is not a bad way out, but let’s leave it aside for now. The fact that Russian society reacts to sanctions in the way that you say is generally obvious to all, and I think that there are not many additional opportunities for Kremlin propaganda in this area. Everything that could be squeezed out of this situation has already been squeezed out of it. However, there are further things that people do not directly link to sanctions or they are already tired of hearing about sanctions.

From this point of view, the problem is more likely to be that people do not see an alternative. We see from sociological studies that a significant number of people who appear to be supporting Putin, but at the same time would like to see some other person go to the polls. They do not see this alternative though; in many ways, artificially, as a consequence of successful propaganda.

More importantly, people do not see an institutional alternative, because Putin has managed to discredit all institutions from parliament, the judiciary and regional authorities to local government. It is here where I see our opportunities for success. We can really help people realize that there is an institutional alternative.

I want to draw your attention to the fact that people already notice this today. Nobody was interested in local municipal elections. Nobody got involved with them.  Currently in Moscow, three thousand people are contending to be elected as municipal governors. This is a lot, an unexpected number in fact.

Between Moscow and the rest of Russia there is a gap of about five years.  This means that the willingness of people to replace the regime’s institutions with their own real political representatives has begun to manifest itself. I think that this journey will not take as many decades as people like Dmitry Medvedev predict.

AG: I clearly remember the end of the 1980’s and beginning of 1990’s. The Soviet Union was full of hungry people who didn’t have anything to eat or drink. Currently the Russian population is in a relatively healthy position.  What can we say to people so they can look critically at the government as they did 30 years ago?

MBK: I do not fully agree with you. You can say that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the government was demolished at the hands of hungry people, but in fact it was done by that same political elite (we all know the surnames) who understood that the country had reached a dead end. Now we face the same dead end and people see it and understand it. Moreover, we are perfectly aware that hungry people do not usually start democratic revolutions. We witnessed this in the 1990s. Democracy can overthrow an authoritarian regime in the event that people are more or less fed and have the time and opportunity to think. From this point of view, it upsets me that as a result of stupid economic policies, for the past four years people in the country have not had their incomes grow and in many regions they have even declined. This reduces the chances that the next change of government will go in a democratic direction.

Nevertheless, since the standard of living of people is quite high in Russia, I mean in comparison with the countries of the third world — naturally, not in comparison with developed countries — there is a chance for this democratic shift to take place.

All that needs to be done is to tell the people that there is a different model of the future and that they have their own political representatives in the regions.  These political representatives will say that we need to replace the government not on a personal level – from Putin to Shmutin – but rather we need to change the system — from an authoritarian to a normal democratic parliamentary regime, where the regions will determine their own destiny and development.

I am not a supporter of the idea that in the near future all of Russia will become completely democratic. It’s impossible. We have very different and diverse regions. On the one side we have Moscow, on the other side we have Kemerovo, on the third side, we have Yakutia and Chechnya. All regions will go through their own path of political development. Some of them will be in the post-industrial stage, some on the industrial stage and some even on the pre-industrial level. All these regions, through their political representatives will have to agree on how to develop together for the common good. I believe this is absolutely possible. It’s unrealistic if we leave it down to one person who will automatically try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, or even better, dress them all in the same uniform. It is better for the people that they themselves can choose how their region will develop or, if something does not suit them, have the opportunity to live in a region that suits them.

AG: What are the real political conclusions the Russian opposition can make from this situation? How can the opposition take advantage of it?

MBK: I think that the political opposition needs to use all opportunities, including ones that have been newly created, in order to protect the rights of citizens. That is, if we can use these new tools to punish those people who violate the rights of citizens, we must do so. It doesn’t matter with whose help we do this; we must defend our fellow Russian citizens.

Secondly, we must demonstrate that this political regime is leading the country into technological backwardness, and that we can only solve this problem by changing the regime. We can show and explain to people in Europe and America that at the heart of this regime there are people with a completely different mentality and attitude.

We must show our colleagues, our partners and our neighbours that Russia does not end with the Kremlin. We must demonstrate to Russians that the problems that this regime has with the West can be resolved not in the many decades that people predict in Russia, but literally tomorrow or the day after by the right people. This is because the West can communicate properly with these people and regard them positively. These are the tasks we must deal with.

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