The Russia for Which They Locked Me Up

September 19, 2011

By Mikhail Khodorkovsky


When the attack on YUKOS started in 2003, some observers explained it away by saying that we – my partners and I – were purportedly working on developing some kind of secret plans for transforming the Russian Federation into a parliamentary republic and in this way constraining Vladimir Putin’s power and authority.

In actuality, this whole scenario with the ―parliamentary republic‖ had nothing whatsoever to do with the forced takeover of YUKOS by raiders. Those who engineered the criminal cases against me and my colleagues simply wanted to grab for free the country’s most thriving oil company, which the market valued at around $40 bln. Everything else may have served as a convenient excuse for this squeeze play, but was not the true reason for it.

Incidentally, my colleagues and I in 2002 – 2003 were indeed supporting certain independent research structures that were engaged in working out a possible new design for the Russian political system. I, among others, created ―Open Russia‖, which at that time was the largest independent non-commercial organisation. Moreover, there were also highly-placed staff members from the administration of the president of the RF, State Duma deputies, senators, and even prominent sensible members of the ―United Russia‖ party taking part in this work. After my arrest in October 2003, these influential persons preferred to pretend none of this ever happened – fine, let God be their judge.

Of course, the concept of political reformation that was being prepared with our participation did not assume a transition to a pure parliamentary republic. What was being considered was something more along the lines of a presidential/parliamentary model. Under which a president elected by the entire country stands above the separation of powers, plays the role of guarantor of the Constitution and of the unity and integrity of the state, and directly appoints a series of officials, first and foremost – siloviki,1 as well as presenting to parliament candidacies for head of the Centrobank and key persons in the judicial system.

But, according to this concept, parliament does not remain a bit player in this celebration of life either. The majority party in the State Duma is transformed from a strictly arithmetical value into a political one: it gets the opportunity to propose the candidacy of the head of government to the president. After the appointment of the premier, the State Duma confirms the ministers of the socio-economic bloc proposed directly by him – the premier – and not the president. Correspondingly, a government tenders its resignation to a newly-elected Duma, and not to a president who has been re-elected.

Besides that, it was being proposed to qualitatively expand the authority of the legislative power in the sphere of parliamentary inquiries.

Naturally, constitutional reform of such a type, even if it had begun in the middle of the previous decade, could not have been completed earlier than 2008, because the question of constraining the powers of a concrete person at the presidential post was simply not on the table during these discussions. 2

At that time, I considered such a concept to be the right one. The Constitution of 1993 had factually established a super-presidential republic in Russia at the federal level.

The reasons for this are more or less understandable. On the one hand, the ―father‖ of the current Fundamental Law – Boris Yeltsin – wanted to rule out in principle the possibility of a repeat of the constitutional deadlock that had led to the bloody events of the spring of 1993. On the other, – building a base for a new state with all of its elements and attributes required a high level of concentration of power in one pair of hands.

But the situation in the country had changed by the beginning of the 2000s. The political chaos of the ―revolutionary‖ nineties – with all their pluses and minuses – gave way to a traditional post-revolutionary stability. As a chemist by training, I can characterise this as the transition of a system from a liquid aggregate state to a solid.

And in these conditions, the shortcomings of a super-presidential republic started to become quite evident indeed.

Shortcoming No. 1 – the uncontrolledness of presidential power, which in and of itself is the most important precondition for the spreading and deepening of the large-scale corruption that has overwhelmed Russia from top to bottom in our days.

Looking back now, I can assert: we had been moving in the right direction. Russia needs a new political model, which can tentatively be called presidential/parliamentary. And this is becoming ever more obvious these days.

Since 2003, when I found myself behind bars, the presidential power in our country has become even more of a monstrosity. The president has obtained factual rights to appoint governors, the head of the Accounts Chamber and even the chairman of the Constitutional Court. The term in office of the head of state has been increased to 6 years. A complex of powers has been formed that is truly gigantic – both in space and in time. Moreover, current president Dmitry Medvedev is not making use of a significant part of these powers.

Elections of the president of Russia – we shall keep silent about their actual character in this article – in such a system are transformed into a zero-sum game: the winner takes all, the losers – nothing. The fate of the country turns out to be entirely and completely dependent on just one single person – on the figure of the president, who can be de facto not accountable to anybody as well.

Which is why the closer we come to the next elections, the more loudly and furiously do polemics in the spirit of ―So-And-So or death!‖ ring out. One is constantly forced to hear points of view along the lines of: now if A. becomes president, then we’ll stay in Russia, but if B. – it’s time to get out of here.

A normal modern democratic state is not able to function like that.

A super-presidential republic in Russia has led to the atrophying of other extremely important political institutions, first and foremost – the parliament, deprived of real powers and authority. In recent times, we have seen an increase in the frequency of situations when extremely important laws – ones that have strategic consequences – are being adopted at the initiative of 3

the Kremlin or the White House in a matter of literally just a few short days, while the deputies and senators do not even have the time to understand: just what was that.

In its turn, the degeneration of the Federal Assembly leads to the atrophying of parties, inasmuch as their role in the political system is falling to zero. Parties can not develop and gain strength if they are not given a chance to fight for true power.

Finally, Russian federalism is on the verge of extinction, although nobody has yet (thank goodness) actually gone and repealed article 1 of the Constitution of the RF.

Governors have been transformed from political figures and expressers of the vital interests of local elites into ―regional managers‖, who by typology of behaviour not infrequently bring to mind outside administrators. They show up – they do something (or not) – and then they leave. The mechanism for the selection of the heads of regions – a ―black box‖, the logic of the functioning of which is not clear to pretty much anybody. Not only the inhabitants, but even the elites of the regions have been deprived of even remotely effective mechanisms for influencing the choice of candidacies of the governors.

We are observing movement in this same direction as well with the municipalities, which by the Constitution and according to European standards do not belong to the system of organs of state power at all: those same ―city managers‖ – this is a clear attempt to replace elected local power by a network of appointees, who may be not in the least bit connected organically with the object of management. The fundamental conceptual core of the very idea of ―municipal power‖ is undermined as a result.

In such a system, all of the factual responsibility is concentrated in one body of authority – the presidential. And nobody shares this responsibility with the head of state — because there is nobody to do so. This concept of total and complete unaccountability in principle is being duplicated at all other levels of administration. If something happens, there is only one way out – to roll one’s eyes and point heavenward.

Such a system can still work for a time by inertia. But it is not capable – and world history proves this – of effectively reacting to any out-of-the-ordinary situations – let alone emergencies of a large scale. To put it in simpler terms, such a state machine is fully capable of driving straight ahead with confidence, so to speak – until it runs up against its first roadblock.

If president Dmitry Medvedev wants to go down in Russian history with a ―plus‖ sign next to his name, then he could have another six whole years (2012-2018) still to conduct a fundamental political reform.

Yes, Mr Medvedev has declared many a time that he has no desire to change anything substantive in the country’s political system. But life dictates a need to be aware of changes. Yet from all appearances, the current president – let us assume that he intends in 2012 to remain at the helm, – has many sources of information on top of the official briefing summaries he gets from his staff.

Objectively speaking – I underscore, objectively, irrespective of the person of the head of state and these or those party or corporate preferences, – Russia is in acute need of political reform, the basic components of which can be described as:

  1. a ―revitalisation of the State Duma – through the delegation to it of the right to form the backbone of the federal government (other than the siloviki structures), as well as the creation of a real institution of parliamentary inquiries;
  2. a ―revitalisation of the Federation Council – through a transition to elections of senators (even the president has already remembered about this, albeit without having promised any timetables for the actual implementation of the idea);
  3. a revival of federalism and of the very institution of regional elites – through the transfer of the right to choose governors to the parliaments of the subjects of the federation, without the participation and interference of the federal power.

By 2018 there should not be a super-presidential republic in Russia.

As a citizen of Russia, I do not want to forever have to pin my hopes on some mystical leader figure up on high, ruling according to an algorithm known only to himself. It is imperative to create the institutional conditions for the country to be run by a transparent team of responsible professionals. A team that is prepared to leave power just as it is prepared to come to power.

If this works out, YUKOS – is a small price to have paid.