Ten Years Ago Today: Khodorkovsky Dared to Challenge Putin on Corruption

February 19, 2013

Ten years ago today, at a Kremlin meeting of Russian business leaders, Mikhail Khodorkovsky challenged President Vladimir Putin over the destructive scale of Russia’s official corruption. That meeting is broadly considered the watershed moment that pushed Putin to order charges against Khodorkovsky and his arrest in October 2003. Khodorkovsky, now an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, has been imprisoned ever since that fateful year. Yukos, formerly the rising star of Russia’s privatised oil industry, was destroyed and most of its assets handed to state-controlled Rosneft.

Interviewed on the monthly internet programme, “Territory of Glasnost”, broadcast today, the then-prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, recalls the Kremlin meeting and the events that followed it. Kasyanov describes how regular meetings took place between Putin and the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, in which Khodorkovsky was a leading figure. Ahead of the meeting on February 19, Khodorkovsky had been asked to prepare a report on corruption. It appears that he took the report seriously – more so than Putin was comfortable with.

Kasyanov recalls: “Khodorkovsky demonstrated that public companies make decisions that are, to put it mildly, not very transparent. As an example, he cited the state-owned Rosneft’s purchase of a small private company called Northern Oil. And Khodorkovsky indicated that the company was bought, by a state-owned company, at a highly inflated price, and that all of the business public agreed that yes, this price is too high, and that this can be clearly traced to corruption.”

Khodorkovsky’s use of Rosneft as an example was prescient: when Yukos was later broken up and sold off through rigged auctions, it was Rosneft that appropriated most of its assets. According to Kasyanov, “the business community were on one side, the President, and apparently Rosneft, on the other. It was a very clear dividing line. That day was a watershed.”

In the interview, Kasyanov goes on to refer to the charges against Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev as “all fabricated,” and notes that there was no legal basis for the retroactive tax charges levied against Yukos. Kasyanov further describes the deterioration of the Russian legal system that began with the Yukos Affair in 2003 and 2004. In a comprehensive indictment of Putin’s Russia he laments the emptiness of Russia’s democracy and the Russian Constitution: “There are no free elections, no separation of powers, no independent judiciary. Well, freedom of the pressit’s a completely arbitrary concept. If we’re talking about one or two radio stations, it does not mean that the press is free.”

He also offers the prediction that if and when Khodorkovsky is finally released, “he will do what he started before going to jailnamely, educational projects.”

Kasyanov’s interview, in Russian, can be viewed here

A video of Khodorkovsky and Putin’s exchange on February 19, 2003: