“Putin believes that people can be bought or bullied”

November 1, 2016

Mikhail Khodorkovsky interview with Die Zeit


ZEIT: Mr Khodorkovsky, what is the nature of today’s Russia in your view?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: The power elite is personalised, and its “ruler” is above the law. The state institutions are in ruins, and education has suffered most of all. People are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the complex structures of government, and we see this trend not only in Russia, but also in Germany and Britain. In Russia, people are aware that they live badly, although they view Putin as a good ruler. It never occurs to them that their low living standards might be connected to their apathy towards politics and what happens to their taxes. They don’t realise that today’s regime is simply the product of Putin’s power-building exercise over the past 16 years.

ZEIT: What is President Putin like as a person?

Khodorkovsky: I haven’t met him for many years. But I don’t think he’s changed all that much. Just more experienced now, of course. He used to show deep respect for top Western politicians. But today he considers them weak. The only exception is Angela Merkel, who poses a threat to him. He’s tried and failed to put pressure on her, so the next line of attack will be the German elections. What’s more, the attempts to influence them will be more coordinated than in the US elections.

Vladimir Putin has remained true to himself. His guiding principle is that money talks. He has no faith in institutions or rules, and believes that decisions are made by real people, who can always be bought or bullied. He sees conspiracies everywhere. You can’t strike a deal with Putin, because he’s convinced that all references to laws and institutions are a smokescreen. That’s why he believes he has the moral right to violate any agreements.

ZEIT: Regarding the Minsk agreements or ceasefire in Syria, that means…

Khodorkovsky: … they have value only if it suits Putin to comply with them.

ZEIT: Does Europe have a sufficient grasp of this logic?

Khodorkovsky: Some experts are clued-up, including Frau Merkel. The only question is whether the political establishment understands it. I have my doubts on that score.

ZEIT: How will Russia’s attitude to Europe develop?

Khodorkovsky: The Russian elite believes it can either reach a compromise with a united Europe or bury it. Putin still reckons that he can achieve his aims by pressuring Europe. For him, the best outcome would be EU disintegration to be able to negotiate with each state individually and impact the internal processes through his agents of influence, in particular the radical right and left. However, if Europe shows resilience and remains united, Putin will be forced to make compromises.

ZEIT: You want to change Russia. In what way?

Khodorkovsky: The key is that change should not depend on one individual. Over the past 500 years Russia has wavered between three development models: Asiatic, Islamic and European. Nothing will change significantly in this regard in our lifetime. However, institutional mechanisms can promote the European path by strengthening local authorities, which are now very weak, introducing ballot-box accountability and rejecting super-presidentialism. We need a presidential-parliamentary model during the transition period, ultimately with a view to parliamentary democracy. Sooner or later Putin will lose power, and Russian society must understand that these three problems are the obstacle to a normal life in our country.

ZEIT: Do you see parliamentarianism taking hold in Russia?

Khodorkovsky: We can’t instantly transform ourselves into a parliamentary republic; society isn’t ready for it. People want a tsar. It doesn’t matter if he’s young, old, good or bad. Therefore, we propose to balance the president with other branches of power.

ZEIT: But can’t history repeat itself? After all, Vladimir Putin is a product of the system built by Yeltsin.

Khodorkovsky: True, it was Yeltsin who created the pre-conditions for a super-presidential republic. He was a strong leader and managed to take advantage of the revolutionary transitional period. Of course, you can’t eliminate the risk that the next president will try to build another super-presidential republic. However, it’s still too early to convince people to abandon the need for a president with sweeping powers. It takes centuries in some countries. I believe that we can embark on that development path with the help of the transitional model. Sure, we might end up with nothing to show for it.

ZEIT: When can this process begin?

Khodorkovsky: While still in prison, I wrote that the regime would enter a period of instability in 2014. Russian society tends to lose faith in the elite after 15 years. And it was 2014, just as Putin’s rule was nearing the end of the 15-year cycle, when everything started going haywire.

ZEIT: You mean the annexation of Crimea and the military intervention in eastern Ukraine?

Khodorkovsky: Prior to 2014, such things were almost impossible to imagine. Russia has entered a period of transition, and it’s likely that between 2018 and 2024 the country will face a great deal of upheaval.

ZEIT: But the system appears stable. If Vladimir Putin runs again for the presidency in 2018, the majority of Russians will vote for him once more.

Khodorkovsky: How do you define “stable”? The Putin regime is actively supported by only around 15% of the Russian population.

ZEIT: Where does that figure come from? Real polls show Putin’s approval rating at 80%.

Khodorkovsky: The parliamentary election turnout was 40%. The ruling party’s share of the vote was also around 40%, which means that only 15% of voters actually bothered to show support for the regime. These 15% are mostly employed in government. Some were bussed to the polling stations where they had to tick the right box, photograph the voting slip and show it to their supervisor to avoid awkward questions.

ZEIT: Yet Putin still enjoys strong support. How can anything change in light of that fact?

Khodorkovsky: We understand that support for the ruler does not necessarily mean support for the system he created. If the ruler is taken ill or makes a mistake, he has nothing to fall back on. If, for example, God forbid, Frau Merkel had health problems, in Germany itself nothing much would change. The courts and authorities would continue to function as normal. But in Russia, the country would fall into a stupor.

ZEIT: So you think the regime will not survive Putin’s departure?

Khodorkovsky: It could, but it’s not very likely. In Soviet times there was the General Secretary of the CPSU, who played an important role. But he was backed by the Politburo, which in turn relied on the Central Committee, which was based on a network of party organisations. That system had the resources to keep the situation under control in the event of a change of power. Today’s system has nothing to rely on.

So how will it happen? For me, the following scenario seems the most probable: Putin departs, I hope voluntarily, and hands power to a weak successor. This successor, according to our model, will be subordinate to the FSB, in which case the regime is likely to turn into a kind of junta, which will quickly burn out.

ZEIT: How likely is that scenario in your opinion?

Khodorkovsky: A far better scenario would be if a successor were appointed able to achieve a balance between the power structures. Therefore, we need a round-table format or a constitutional assembly to frame a new development model for the country. Russia has an urban class. I want these people to be represented at this round table. That’s the most peaceful option and so obviously the most preferable.

ZEIT: Some say that Putin guarantees stability and without him things would be even worse.

Khodorkovsky: I don’t agree with them. Russia is essentially a stable country that has entered the 21st century with an ageing population. Therefore, the likelihood of civil war or other negative scenarios is low.

ZEIT: Your “After Putin” project has proposed alternative candidates in the presidential election. Why have the candidates themselves not heard anything about it?

Khodorkovsky: I didn’t unveil these candidates. Their names were announced by the head of our campaign office. We invited experts to identify people worthy of competing for the presidency. At the same time, we wanted to find new faces on the political landscape. But the experts came up with names we already knew. The head of the campaign office decided it would be a good idea to announce the names. I considered it a mistake, and said so in some heated discussions. We want to work with new faces on the political scene. They should be young.

ZEIT: You can’t go back to Russia for the time being. How are you preparing for what will happen when you return?

Khodorkovsky: I would like to quote the poet Igor Guberman:

From prison I sensed my country—
For a while my heart stood still—
In all its length and breadth
Like one boundless cell.

That small cell did indeed seem boundless. In prison I didn’t feel cut off from society, nor do I now. My friends still visit me as often as if I were still in Moscow.

ZEIT: How do you communicate with Russian society?

Khodorkovsky: I have a website which is visited by half a million people. At least 60-100,000 of them read every publication. We’d like to reach out to a wider circle of apolitical people. We want to increase their role in the social and political life and make our Open Russia community accessible to new members. We’d like to open branches in different cities. But my guess is we won’t be allowed to register.

ZEIT: You might be registered … as a foreign agent.

Khodorkovsky: We can’t be registered as a foreign agent, since I have only Russian citizenship.

ZEIT: Have you already been warned not to dabble in Russian politics?

Khodorkovsky: I’m constantly receiving threats. First there was a new criminal case, then Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov launched a personal vendetta against me.

ZEIT: Are you scared?

Khodorkovsky: Sure, it makes you uneasy. But you get used to it, if like me you’ve spent years in prison among criminals. You can’t live your life in fear.

ZEIT: You just ordered a cappuccino. Do you watch what you eat and drink?

Khodorkovsky: You don’t need to think about that. I have bodyguards who know their stuff. That’s it.

ZEIT: Are you in touch with any members of the Russian government?

Khodorkovsky: They’re scared to talk to me, of course. Contact with me could have unfortunate consequences for them. But what’s interesting is that the political elite hasn’t changed much since I landed in jail. We have many mutual acquaintances. I know people from work and my time in prison, and some in the political elite.

ZEIT: Could you, for example, call Igor Sechin, the head of state-owned oil company Rosneft, who in 2003 went after Yukos?

Khodorkovsky: I can call anyone I like. The only question is whether anyone would pick up. Sechin probably would, but only out of sheer amazement. But I’ve got nothing to say to him except to wish him a long life—long enough to see him in the dock with me as a witness for the prosecution. However, if I were to call my colleagues now doing business in Russia, it would compromise them. We know a lot about each other. Putin knows exactly what’s going on with me, and vice versa.

ZEIT:  What do you say to people who think it’s none of the West’s business what goes on in Russia?

Khodorkovsky: If you allow the regime to completely uproot the socio-political field, the old system will be replaced by weeds.  If no one opposes Putin, his radical forces will push the country to the limit. Europe must sacrifice some of its economic interests to prevent an outbreak of the plague next door. For the time being, the infection is containable.

ZEIT: Looking back, what mistakes did the Mikhail Khodorkovsky of the 1990s make?

Khodorkovsky: My notion of the Western world was all wrong. As soon as the Soviet Union opened up, all kinds of adventure seekers came knocking. We thought that was how people in the West did business, and we tried to learn from them. Only many years later did we realise that we’d taken lessons from the wrong guys. It struck me in the late 90s that life in the West ran along different lines, and that we needed to reorder the way we lived. That is if you’re talking to me as an entrepreneur. But prison completely changed my view of the world. I can’t do business anymore. Ten years in prison killed my appetite for it.

ZEIT: And what replaced the entrepreneur inside you?

Khodorkovsky: These days I’m into social activism. In Russia it’s called “politics.” But I’m not part of the power struggle in Russia. I help people climb the socio-political ladder. I want to create a team of people whose time will come in the post-Putin era. If it happens in my lifetime, so much the better.

ZEIT: Don’t you have any political ambitions of your own?

Khodorkovsky: What I’m doing now satisfies my ambitions. But I can’t swear for sure I’ll never become a politician.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit

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