A Tale of Two Russias: Mikhail Khodorkovsky on “the real Russia”, Sanctions and how the West can deal with Putin’s clan

March 5, 2018

On February 21 2018 Mikhail Khodorkovsky took part in the Tale of Two Russias event at the UK Houses of Parliament alongside Global Magnitsky Campaigner and head of Heritage Capital Bill Browder and Guardian journalist Luke Harding.  The event was held as a response to the hit TV series McMafia, which paints a moving and somewhat mysterious image of the life of Russia’s elite abroad.  The panelists took a different approach: that there are in fact two Russias; that which is presented to us through the prism of international relations and on our screens through Hollywood productions, and then there’s the Russia of 144 million regular people who live a very separate existence and who are profoundly discontented with the excessive habits of the country’s ruling elite.

Here is a selection of Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s contributions to the debate:

Sanctions against “Russia” boost support for the Kremlin

What I’d like to stress today is that you have to be very accurate in your language when talking about Russia.  We often hear the words “sanctions against Russia”.  This is an erroneous approach, because if we talk about the Russia of 144 million European people, such broad sanctions against the country as a whole cannot change anything.  What these kinds of sanctions really do is make the Russian population look more favourably at their own government and look less favourably at the West.  Perhaps we should define it like this: it is a normal country, but what is wrong is the government.  But even that definition wouldn’t be accurate.


The function of the Russian state and judicial system

So what do we mean when we talk about the government or the state in Russia? We’re talking about around 600,000 bureaucrats.  Pensions are being paid in Russia, the healthcare system, if you compare it with the rest of the developing world, is actually not bad.  Street crime is also being dealt with, and so forth.  I’ll give you an example of what for me is the most painful part of the Russia system: the judiciary.  You could say that it’s a nightmare, but this is not quite true either.  You could say that about 98% of cases are dealt with more or less in accordance with law.  You can’t really call this a court system, it is more like a ministry for allocating punishments, but they act more or less in accordance with the law.  But only 2% of all cases are dealt with on strictly political motivations, which nevertheless is around 40,000 cases a year, of course.

Putin’s entourage, the “Ozero” cooperative and McMafia: myth vs reality

So when we talk about the Russian state we cannot say that it is in its entirety a bad thing.  So then, who are we talking about? So this famous McMafia series everyone is talking about that I’ve been forced to watch, presents the problem as a conflict between various financial groups or oligarchs, whereas the Kremlin is absent from the story.  This is not a true picture.  If we look at how the state machine is run, we see that it is a relatively small group of people who are responsible for the bad things that are done.  This group of people is known in Russia sometimes as the “Ozero” Cooperative, and sometimes as “the Court”.  Behind them there are more or less two organisations: the presidential administration and the FSB.  It is this system that is turning the state into what we know it as today, into that which we despise.  Can we expect the replacement of Putin with another person to change this situation in a radical way? If you’re searching for someone who can replace Putin, you’re searching for someone who will become another Putin.

Russia’s democratic transition and the importance of Magnitsky-style sanctions

What we need to see happen in Russia is a change of the whole system; rather than a Tsar sitting at the top giving orders to those below, there should be real political representation.  Russia isn’t going to turn into a democracy over night.  You can only do it over night by using authoritarian methods, and such methods are inimical to a democracy.  This will take a long time, and we’ll have to observe how Russia moves slowly from its current state as an authoritarian regime to a democratic state.  How can we help this? We can help by doing what our organisation  [Open Russia] is doing; seeking and developing young politicians.  At the same time we must identify the specific individuals who distort the workings of a normal state and we must bring them to justice.  The Magnitsky act was really a first step in the right direction of personally identifying the criminals and bringing them to justice.

The importance of democratic forces in the Russian presidential elections

Personally I am in favour of participation in the elections, I believe that you should either go and vote for the candidate that you consider most suitable or spoil your ballot paper, writing down instead the name of the person you think should be there.  Why?  And here we move to the second question.  There are two ways of changing the existing regime: through force, or through elections.  When we talk about using force we mean coming to power via the barricades, which in Russia typically leads back to an authoritarian regime.  The second way lies through elections.  You will ask “well how can you vote in elections which are fabricated?” Yes, we know that there are falsifications, but we also know that there are limits to this.  In 2012 over 12% of the vote was falsified and people came out into the streets as a result, and the government decided that this was simply too dangerous.  So realistically if the majority of society turns against the government and the authorities, then with the help of the elections they could lead to a change of regime.  Elections are a democratic mechanism and we should not abandon them completely to the existing government.

How the West should treat the Kremlin

As representatives of western countries, every time you receive a letter signed by the Attorney General of the Russian Federation, or the Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, or the head of the Presidential Administration, you should instead see the name ‘Al Capone’, and treat them accordingly.  It’s vitally important to identify this reasonably short list of criminals by name and be brave enough to tell them the truth to their face: that they are criminals.

While sanctioning corrupt criminals, the West must open its arms to the real Russia

The United Kingdom is really very advanced in the field of education, particularly political education.  As often as is possible we like to bring young Russian politicians here in order to witness the functions of democratic institutions.  Unfortunately in recent times it has become much more difficult than in the rest of Europe.  We often say that once you impose sanctions against one set of people, you must create favourable conditions for a different group of people such as activists, academics, young politicians and students.  Those people against whom sanctions are targeted don’t care about the price of a UK visa, they can buy one without a problem.