“The main objective of the regime is self-preservation.”

April 27, 2016

In a speech at the Oxford Union, Mikhail Khodorkovsky talks about “Post-Putin Russia.”


Post-Putin Russia

“Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an enormous honour for me to address this chamber, although I’m told that applause is by no means the only type of response to greet the ears of orators at the Oxford Union.

I hope I won’t be treated to a first-hand experience of the other type.

Mind you, judging by what my opponents write about me, it would seem that I’m hardly worthy of applause: richest man in Russia prior to imprisonment; still made the Forbes Rich List after; stole more oil from Yukos than Yukos actually produced; total outstanding taxes amounted to more than Yukos’ entire revenue; bought the entire State Duma before being jailed, then the US Congress while doing time… And, as the joke goes in Russia, I’m presently committing ever more heinous crimes in the past.

I don’t particularly like talking about myself, but you need to acquaint yourselves with another point of view as well. I’ve been involved in two armed standoffs in the battle for a democratic Russia, the first in 1991, the second in 1993. I’ve been in business since 1987. Having made my first million selling computers, I put the money towards the creation of one of the first commercial banks in the USSR – and became its head. Nine years later, I bought an oil company, which, despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, was extracting around 40 million tons of oil a year – and became head of that, too. Fast forward another seven years, and the company was extracting and processing twice as much oil as before, while production costs had fallen fivefold and capitalisation had risen tenfold. I then delivered a report on corruption in the highest echelons of power to the president. You can look it up on YouTube. I got a ten-year jail sentence, only to be freed as part of the president’s pre-Olympic ploy to improve his image.

I’m the founder of Open Russia. Open Russia is a civic organisation whose goal is to demonstrate to people both within Russia and beyond its borders that there is another model of development available to the country – a model wherein Russia is open to the world rather than isolated.

Our goal is also to ensure that whenever the current regime falls, Russia is not devoid of political players that the public understands and recognises; political players with a concrete development strategy that would facilitate the creation of a state founded on the rule of law, on the separation of powers, and on free and fair elections.

We should be making a very clear distinction between the terms “Kremlin”/”the Putin regime” and “Russia”/”Russians”

– despite the figure of “84% support ” we’ve so often heard from sociologists. Firstly, this isn’t the case. Many people won’t even tell their relatives and friends what they really think – let alone sociologists. Furthermore, their survey answers are massively influenced by the notion of “socially appropriate behaviour”, as imposed on the populace by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

Secondly, even the support that Putin does enjoy – 40-50% of the population – is passive in nature. People aren’t prepared to defend this regime. This is a pale imitation of genuine choice. We can and will work with these people as well.

Thirdly, the majority of people who have taken an active stand for democracy – and I’m among their number – are campaigning specifically against the current regime, but will categorically never regard as allies the enemies of Russia and the Russian people as such.

The interests of Russia’s citizens are fundamentally unlike the interests of Putin’s entourage, and fundamentally unlike the interests of Putin himself.

The main objective of the regime is self-preservation.

To ensure its irremovability, the regime has destroyed almost every single democratic institution in the country.

And if the dearth of independent media and the non-existence of real elections is lamented only by 10-15% of the populace, a far larger percentage of my fellow citizens bemoan the lack of an independent judiciary as a genuine problem.

Political activists – and even simply people with an active political stance – are progressively being forced out of the country. The majority of them are young, successful, and highly educated. The intellectual potential of Russian society is falling, as is the quality of medicine and engineering; and society is far from pleased at these developments. But the policy of pushing the actively disloyal segments of the population overboard because they dare to rock the boat is an advantageous one for the regime – and it will therefore continue.

The regime needs to prevent people from understanding the benefits of democratic models of governance – hence the isolationism, the armed provocations, the backdrop of anti-Western propaganda. And it’s ordinary people that are paying the price.

But the regime also needs legitimisation from abroad – proof that it’s being taken seriously by the West. Beyond that, it needs to ensure that its own families enjoy comfortable lives; it needs technology. Hence the “we’ll-force-you-to-love-us” operations, as in Syria; hence the ever-spreading tentacles of trans-border corruption. Does our society need any of this? Of course it doesn’t. People just want to live normal lives; people want to see at least a modicum of improvement with every passing year; but what people do not want at all is to pay dearly for the regime’s “adventures”.

We know this regime won’t last forever. It’s even less stable than its Soviet predecessors,

revolving as it does around an individual whose paranoia will only increase, and whose age is guaranteed to cause problems.

We all understand the possible mechanisms of regime change: the voluntary relinquishing of power (as in the case of Franco or after a palace coup); non-violent protests (colour revolutions); and armed uprisings (1917). Any evolutionary transformation of the regime is unlikely to be feasible for personal reasons (Putin doesn’t believe anyone any more).

In any case, regime change, whenever and however it comes about, will necessitate a transition to fair elections; this transition must be preceded by the formation of independent political parties and the enabling of free election campaigning, which is impossible under current laws and enforcement practices. In other words, the reform of the political system must pave the way for free elections, rather than arise in consequence of the latter.

Essentially, my colleagues and I are assembling a team in accordance with the goals of the transition period.

Our task is made simpler by the fact that, not being a political party, we’re able to remove from our current agenda a plethora of issues that will need to be addressed only after the transition period, on the basis of whatever choices are made by Russia’s voters. This allows people with relatively divergent views on the country’s future to join forces today – provided, of course, that they believe the future must be a democratic one.

Our task is complicated by the fact that there’s almost no room in Russia for any non-regime-sponsored manifestations of political or social existence, which means that we have to seek out our future political leaders casting our net as wide as we can, and help them prove their worth in any way possible.

These are precisely the objectives of our various projects: Open Elections (lending assistance to young politicians); Open University (making up for the gaps in our socio-political education that have been deliberately created by the regime), and Human Rights (supporting political prisoners).

In addition, we’re trying to inform the public about what’s happening within the country and beyond its borders – and to offer an alternative point of view to official propaganda; we’re also trying to offer a different vision of the future via our website and research teams.

We must seriously intensify our efforts to shed light on the facts of trans-border corruption and political killings. Killings such as that of Boris Nemtsov, the investigation of which did not extend beyond the perpetrators – as per direct orders of the President, we can only assume.

These things must not be allowed to slip from public attention.

My personal vision of what will actually happen in Russia’s not-too-distant future doesn’t fully correspond to the future that I would ideally like to see, but it’s nonetheless brighter than the present.

Democracy will prevail at some point in the next decade.

There will be regular changes of government, and power will no longer be concentrated in the hands of one man and his entourage, although the post of president will continue to wield considerable influence.

Parliament, opposition parties, an independent judiciary, independent media outlets – all these will serve as checks and balances to the president’s power. The judiciary will regain the public’s trust by returning to jury trials in all significant criminal and civil cases.

The life of the country will cease to be quite so Moscow-focused due to the accelerating development of a dozen new agglomerations centred on St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Kazan, and other cities. Powers and budgets will be significantly devolved to the level of local communities.

Citizens’ personal pension and insurance accounts will be created using rental payments and shares of de-nationalised enterprises. The now-reduced state expenditure will be funded by individual and corporate income tax, and possibly by a sales tax as well. This will motivate people to keep tabs on how their tax money is being spent, and prevent them from regarding the state as a “master-benefactor.”

In the international arena, Russia will be actively competing to attract capital and entrepreneurs by offering the best possible business environment. Although this may not be to everyone’s liking.

At the same time, the country will edge closer to the social-democratic models of Northern Europe rather than to those of the US or UK.

The national republics will be entitled to secede from Russia following a fair referendum and a reasonable transition period. However, the holding of referendums will become possible only in the wake of wholesale democratic transformation in the republics. Voting at gunpoint is unacceptable – not least when the thug holding the gun is in the service of some medieval feudal lord. Any thugs attempting to blackmail Russia’s citizens will encounter extremely tough resistance.

The question of Crimea will be resolved by a legitimate government once fair elections have been held, most likely by means of an internationally supervised referendum, and not without the participation of Ukraine. Hong Kong may serve as a potential model.

This is my personal vision. When we actually get to the transition period, compromises will be inevitable.

The Putin regime is not eternal. Its power vertical is like a house of cards – and one that will fall in the next decade.

We don’t have a great deal of time. It would be senseless and shortsighted on the part of the West to formulate a Russia policy without looking beyond the current regime. This regime can guarantee absolutely nothing – not even in the medium term – due to the lack of any institutional structures. The West must, without delay, hold a dialogue with Russian civil society, with young, democratically-inclined Russians. They are Russia’s future.

It is a future I can see today: a democratic Russia, a Russia open to the world. It is a future towards whose realisation I shall willingly devote my life.

Thank you.

You may now applaud… or heckle.”