“There are two possibilities.”

June 3, 2016

Mikhail Khodorkovsky talking with Evan Davis on BBC Newsnight

Evan Davis: You are fielding candidates, you are supporting candidates in the Duma elections in September. What will success in that election look like for you … what are you expecting to achieve?

MBK:  Well, there are two scenarios/possibilities. The first scenario would be if the elections take place without any major interference by the authorities/regime. Clearly, they would not allow opposition candidates an opportunity to promote their views using mass media channels but they would not interfere with them. This is the first possibility. In that case, I think, quite a few of our candidates have a realistic chance of getting elected to the State Duma. The second scenario, is, I am afraid, more likely, with not just interference but also falsifications /election rigging taking place. That happened during the previous Duma elections. In such an eventuality, it is hard to imagine our candidates getting elected to the State Duma. This, however, is not particularly important in the present context when the State Duma does not really have a very important role in the current system of governance in Russia. What would constitute success in this latter case for us would be to see our candidates getting a sufficiently high number of votes in their constituencies/districts and demonstrating  a real ability to communicate with people, and to see that people really support them. In that case, we would be able to proceed to the next step.

ED:  You would not deny that Putin is enormously popular, 80% of votes according to the opinion polls …

MBK: He is quite popular, although I do not think one can talk of the 80% voter support. The reason is that today in our country with its rich totalitarian legacy people are afraid of talking politics even inside their family circles, let alone talking to some sociologists who they often, and perhaps, with good reason, suspect of having links with the FSB. Yet it is true that his popularity is fairly high. We know of many totalitarian leaders who enjoyed that level of popularity. Romania, Ceausescu is a case in point. We can recollect that two months before he met his sad end he had gained, I think, 90% of the votes in that very district.

ED: How are you going to lead a campaign from London that would get any credibility inside Russia?

MBK: To my great regret, Russia has a long-standing tradition of opposition acting from outside Russia/ from abroad. Because for those in opposition who remain in Russia, as soon as any one of them gains sufficient popularity, pressure is exerted on them and then they are forced to either tone down their oppositionist ardour or strike some deal with the regime. Otherwise, a sad fate awaits them, not in the sense of potentially ending up behind bars.  That, in fact, is not the worst outcome. They would be simply silenced, together with their supporters and allies. In that sense, I have certain advantages. I can openly speak my mind and I have modern communications that allow me to be heard. The entire might of the Russian propaganda machine is being used today to show that there is no alternative to Putin.

The entire might of the Russian propaganda machine is being used today to show that there is no alternative to Putin

I and other people like me are paraded as enemies. Many believe these stories, but there are enough people who do not. They are the people we address today, those who are capable of critical thinking. So that by the time the regime begins to collapse, and that moment is inevitable, there would be a critical mass of people, and those who are gaining political experience as part of our projects, would become centres for their crystallization.

ED: Where do you place President Putin on the scale of evil?

He [Putin] is not a monster, he is simply a person with an evolved mindset of a thug and a policeman

MBK: I would not necessarily place him on that scale. I would place him on a slightly different scale. He inhabits a different reality. He is not a monster, he is simply a person with an evolved mindset of a thug and a policeman, in the Russian sense оf the word policeman. These two mindsets in Russia are very similar. He is loyal to his friends, he adheres to a certain code of honour, certain principles that would seem rather odd to an ordinary person. And it is totally incompatible with the law. That is the reason why Western leaders will never succeed in reaching a long-standing agreement with Putin. His view is that they try to dupe him all the time, because he imagines the world order as completely different. For example, he thinks that the British Prime Minister can control the UK courts. If the PM does not want to manage the courts, then he is out to trick Putin/deceive Putin, and in that case Putin has no obligations to fulfill. The world order, according to Putin, is completely different from the one people here [in the West] are accustomed to. Another thing is also important. If there is a change of prime minister in the UK, there is a whole system of institutions to maintain his obligations. Any new PM, even if he represents a different party, has to carry out obligations his predecessor undertook [to the electorate]. If he does not want to discharge those obligations there are plenty of mechanisms to make him do it. Putin has destroyed all such mechanisms. He is the only guarantor of his words/promises to the extent that he feels like fulfilling his promises. I do not believe one can build long-term relations on such a foundation.

ED: Do you feel any responsibility for the rise of Putin?

Putin has succeeded in capitalising on the economic reforms carried out in the 1990s, to boost his own popularity

MBK: I have to say, first and foremost, that were your hypothesis correct, Putin’s popularity would be close to zero right now because the share of the nation’s wealth that has been appropriated by Putin’s oligarchs is incomparably greater than the share owned by the big entrepreneurs before him. Yet the situation is somewhat different, as you can see. The situation arises from the fact that Putin has succeeded in capitalising on the economic reforms carried out in the 1990s, to boost his own popularity. On the eve of 1991 Russia was in a very bad state, indeed. That was followed by very difficult reforms carried out by a team of reformers, which were very poorly communicated to the public. They resulted in the reformers losing popularity, yet the reforms themselves bore economic fruit. Add to it rising oil prices. All that had led to the economic growth by the time Putin came to power. The economy was growing, in fact, it continued growing until 2007 while Putin, who was at the start of his career, did not interfere in the economy. The seven years of growing prosperity came to be associated in people’s minds not with the previous team of reformers but with Putin’s figure. Now, when they see that the situation is no longer improving, Putin’s popularity has begun to dwindle. Then he applied another potent recipe; he began to occupy [other] territories. He embarked on a war, then another war. We know that one can maintain popularity by such means, for some time, and we know leaders who followed that path, but it is a dead end/it leads you nowhere in the end. I do feel my own responsibility, although bear in mind that I was quite a young man at the time, and it lies in the fact that we had failed to communicate our actions to society. This is the mistake I do not want the new generation of Russian democrats to make, once the regime has collapsed. This is why, together with my Open Russia movement, I am putting a lot of effort into preparing people who would be able to give a political boost to the reforms. They need to acquire experience now, they need to gain a degree of credibility in society.

ED: Where does this man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, get his authority from?

MBK: I suspect that this will be something I will have to tackle/struggle with. I have several potential ways to solve this problem. The first one is the way I follow now, helping young political activists who do not have the same political baggage, to move into the political limelight. Secondly, a significant part of the Russian population accepts the answer I provide to them. The answer lies in the fact that my so-called wealth has stayed in Russia. I am talking about the shares in Russian companies that remained in Russia. In fact, even before my imprisonment, my partners and I had transferred those shares into the Fund set up for the companies’ employees. I did receive the dividends from our companies’ operations. And Russian people, in principle, acknowledge the companies’ achievements that had yielded those dividends. They acknowledge the fact that the company doubled its production during my term as its manager. It doubled its oil reserves, it increased its capitalisation almost ten fold. And, yes, three per cent of the income, of the profits is considered by many in Russia a fitting compensation for such work. And this was in fact what I received. Finally, everything is relative. The problems of the 1990s that people of my generation could be blamed for, and that resulted in the ten year prison term I’ve served – as a result of people blaming us for those problems, they pale into insignificance compared with the extent of corruption, embezzlement and other shenanigans that are characteristic of the current P’s entourage. We appear quite saintly against their background.

ED: The worst thing you did in the 1990s?

We simply made use of the emerging opportunities

MBK: I have given it a lot of thought and I think that the main problem was that at the time of privatization, like many people of my generation, people who were quite young and who found themselves in the epicentre of those events, who had a good understanding of the workings of modern economy, I/we did not really try to explain to the rest of our compatriots what was actually taking place, we simply made use of the emerging opportunities. This was not a good thing, and I can only use my young age as an excuse. But it must be quite a poor excuse!

ED: Oligarchs, Putin, it looks like gangsters fighting it out, is this a fair representation?

MBK: I think that some of my colleagues and I mentally resembled Putin and his close circle at the beginning of the 1990s when we did not understand how the modern Western economy really works. And how could we have learnt about it in the Soviet Union? Gradually, talking to other people, talking to our partners, talking to those who had studied in Western universities, we came to realise that everything worked in a very different way, and we wanted to have a different life. I personally experienced that change after the crisis, the crisis that proved to be a psychological shock, a real blow. It was after the crisis that I set up the then Open Russia, that we set up a Pension Fund for our employees, that my partners and I got involved in public life, became socially active. Because by the end of the 1990s beginning of 2000s we had overcome those problems. What is really sad is that everything got back to square one in 2005-2006, only with a different set of actors. I had thought that our country, our society had already emerged from that period; that it was in the past. And what could be even sadder, is that they did not just linger in that period of time, but they had also introduced new, violent methods of solving problems. In the highest echelons. Not just inside the country, they had also exported that approach beyond the Russian borders. We are talking violence in the form of corruption, in the form of individual physical pressure, and now as we have already seen, violent military methods. And that, you must agree, was not at all characteristic of my partners and myself.

ED: What were you thinking when you took Putin on in 2003?

I was a rank and file entrepreneur who only wanted business in the country to work in a different way

MBK: I would very much like to appear today as this knight without fear and beyond reproach. In reality, things were different. When Putin was putting me behind bars, I was a rank and file entrepreneur who only wanted business in the country to work in a different way. Who had already realized by that time that corruption was something bad, that systemic corruption was something even worse. That we needed transparency, not because it was such a wonderful thing in itself; that was not the point. But because it was in our interests/it was of benefit to the country. That was what I addressed P with, I did not address him as an opponent, I addressed him/I turned to him as an arbiter, because in my eyes, and in the eyes of many people he was exactly that, the supreme arbiter.  I turned to him with the words: “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, just have a look at what is really happening among your close circle. Look at the embezzlement, at the corruption verging on systemic.” I adduced an example of a specific deal, in which I had thought his entourage were involved in stealing, embezzling money. To my great regret, as I discovered five years later, when already in prison, from the then Prime Minster Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin had been well aware of that deal and in fact, it went ahead, in all likelihood, under his watch. Ten years in prison have definitely changed me, Putin no longer represents this supreme arbiter for me, he is part of the system he has created. I am still the system’s opponent today, not Putin’s personal opponent. Not because I think of Putin as someone different from his system. In fact, I think that he is part and parcel of it, and that is why one does not just need to replace Putin but to change the whole idiotic system that is destroying my country, all of it. So, yes, he has helped to turn an ordinary entrepreneur into his political opponent.

ED: How grim was life in prison?

I was born in a communal flat, shared by several families, I had spent a number of years working as a janitor and a carpenter

MBK: This might sound funny/ridiculous but for the kind of person I was, who had spent twenty plus years of my life living in the Soviet Union, this was not a huge problem. I was born in a communal flat, shared by several families, I had spent a number of years working as a janitor and a carpenter in a local housing maintenance unit. Our family was not particularly well off, in fact, it was not at all well off, so we were well used to eating quite modestly. From that point of view, when I found myself in prison, I simply went back in time, about ten years back.

And found myself, well, quite OK. It is not the Gulag of the Stalin era. There is no dreadful cold any more; the barracks are heated, for better or for worse. As for hunger, well, they feed you pig swill, that is true, but the balanda as we call it, prison food, is plentiful. The way you are treated by the people around you, I mean the guards and my partners in misfortune, depends entirely on you. As a rather famous person, on the one hand, and as someone with certain experience, I did not come across that type of problem. With the exception of being struck with a knife there, once. Such things do happen in prison, though.

ED: Brits and Russians.

London is undoubtedly a place where many well-heeled Russians like to spend time, educate their children, keep their savings

MBK: London is undoubtedly a place where many well-heeled Russians like to spend time, educate their children, keep their savings.  What proportion of these people have earned their money by illegitimate means, is the question better left to the intelligence services. Although, as I see it, I would not single Britain out from the rest of Europe. Whereas the Russian money of the Putin circle behaves quite aggressively, if I may put it so. It is not just being used to have a nice life, but it is also used to influence the local political elite, the public mood, to lobby Russian government’s interests. It is important to emphasise this. We are not talking about lobbying/promoting Russia’s interests; that is considered a normal practice. No, it is the lobbying of specific interests of the regime, the specific interests of Putin and his circle, whose aim is, first and foremost, to stay in power, and secondly, to be recognised and accepted in the West. And this money is also used to put pressure on the part of the Russian opposition that was forced to emigrate. To my great regret, many public figures, politicians, businesses in the West think that there is nothing particularly wrong with it and think that they can even help with solving these problems, for a fee, of course. In fact, within the notion of capitalism that I had harboured at the beginning of the 1990s, such things are considered OK: you are being paid for doing your work. You are not breaking any rules, after all.

If you approach this issue from the point of view I adhere to today, from the moral point of view, this type of earning money has something unpalatable about it, it stinks a bit. And I do not like it when Europe, I mean Western Europe, which we considered and still consider a sort of example/model of the way we want our own country to develop, is slightly undermining this model, with one hand.

ED: Should the West regulate the banks and the money they take from rich Russians?

MBK: I think that the Western regulatory system has been developed very well, I am familiar with the Western financial system and I think that regulation works OK in the West. It simply needs to be applied in a consistent manner, instead of turning a blind eye on the account of what some think are the realpolitik considerations.  I am not against Russians educating their children in Western universities, by the way. I naturally support this wholeheartedly and think it very positive for my compatriots to have a chance to see with their own eyes the way normal democratic countries operate. In fact, there should be an open doors policy in this respect, for we are neighbours, after all, we are Europeans, we should be more open to each other in that respect.  But when these opportunities are abused in order to use the Western system in order to prop up one’s position in Russia this should clearly be singled out and if possible, curbed.

ED: Is Putin financing the extreme right to destabilise the West? Have you evidence?

MBK: As soon as I have evidence that I could make public, I would do it, I would not hide anything. Unfortunately, it is not an easy task: to prepare a dossier that could be presented to the public. But even what we can see, I mean, the extreme right in France, some political figures in Germany, links with certain Hungarian political forces, Italian etc., Greek, even what we can see already, even if it cannot be described as criminal, it does seem quite suspect from the ethical point of view.

ED: Brexit and Putin

Undoubtedly, VP adheres to the famous “divide and rule” maxim.

MBK: Undoubtedly, VP adheres to the famous “divide and rule” maxim. If we take the past decade, we can see that each time Putin communicates with Europe, he tries to talk to each leader individually, and to find a way to agree some personal benefits/personal preferential treatment with them. Undermining the united front, by doing so. Given the dependence of some parts of Europe on our country’s energy, this policy is quite successful in Europe, not in the whole of Europe, but in parts of it. From that point of view, a weaker EU plays into Putin’s hands. Whether he is taking any practical steps to pursue this agenda, or not, well, I would assume that he is doing something rather than doing nothing.  I reckon that the people and the opportunities he has in Europe have been co-opted by him to do this work. I would not want to pontificate whether a Brexit would be good for the UK. It is up to the people living in the UK, UK citizens, to decide this. But as a Russian who is watching the way Putin’s regime relates to Europe, I cannot approve/support the British exit from the EU in any way.

ED: Do you fear for your life?

MBK: I do not want to accuse Putin of greater sins than those that are evident and have been proved. I cannot say for sure if he issued orders for his opponents to be “removed.” But there is no doubt that the climate of persecuting dissent that he has created, of fighting political opposition, provokes his entourage – I cannot tell you now with confidence what circle we are talking about, but they are definitely those quite close to him, well, it provokes them into using violence. I think that those who were involved in the assassination of Boris Nemtsov thought that they were acting in the interests of Vladimir Putin. I am sure that those who were involved in the murder of Politkovskaya, thought, at the very least, that they were acting in the interests of Vladimir Putin. I could adduce scores of such examples. For me personally, my present situation is much safer than that in prison, when I could have been killed at a moment’s notice, following an order. It would be a bit more difficult to execute it here. I do realise that only Putin himself could take such a decision vis-à-vis my person. This does not make my life entirely risk-free but at least it allows me not to obsess about it every minute of my life.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email