Unite or Hate, Negotiate or Bring Them Down: A discussion on the future of Russia

March 17, 2017

On the 9th of March, Open Russia founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky went head to head with journalist Arkady Babchenko in a discussion broadcast through live video chat.  They explored a number of pressing questions facing today’s Russia: Is it possible to unite a deeply divided Russian society? Is it necessary to expose the corruption of the regime? Will Russia adopt a European-democratic path of development? 

The state and the individual

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: As we know very well, Russia has been on a political trajectory similar to that of Europe for the past few hundred years, albeit lacking behind by a few decades. The European trend since the end of the 17th century has been to place the sovereignty of the individual above that of the state.

Arkady Babchenko: I don’t agree with your thesis that [in Russia] the rights of the individual come first, and the state comes second. The way I see it, Russia is more of an Asian state, and that’s the way many Russians today see it going too.

MBK: Well, we have to live with these people, and we have to work with them to decide the future of the country. There are people who want a law-governed society but also think that “Crimea is ours.” We have to work with these people, what alternative do we have?

A law-governed society

AB: The thing is the people who are for Crimea and also want a law-governed society amount to about 14% of the population.”

MBK: That 14% consists of those who aren’t on board with “Crimea is ours.” If we look at it from a sociological perspective, the amount of people who desire the rule of law is much higher. Even if we take a large portion of officials, they also want a law-governed society because it provides a guarantee for themselves and their families. Even the people who go to elections and sincerely vote for Putin—I believe that we can and we have to negotiate with these people. While Putin’s still around, they don’t want to risk their careers and their freedom in pursuit of a law-governed society.

AB: Well, us liberals and democrats have come together, but I still don’t see how it can be done.

Transition of power

MBK: If the regime endures until the final moment, then we’re going to have a full-blown civil war on our hands. Putin doesn’t want that, and so the question of power will be decided earlier. People want stability, they want to defend their wellbeing. These are the officials, the educated classes, and if these people have a common vision of the future, no government will decide to spill blood on the streets.

AB: If you think that Putin’s going to hand-down power to a successor then I have two questions for you: what’s the point in our movement, if it’s going to take place without us? And why should he hand the reigns of power to Navalny or Khodorkovsky?

MBK: Our society, being in the earlier stages of European-style development, will more easily accept someone closer to the regime. That’s fine.

Negotiate, or bring them down?

AB: There are groups in society that receive state money to form nationalist organizations like “Young Russia” and “Nashi”, in my view this is a criminal offence. I think these people should be persecuted for their crimes, there should be court cases and a public discussion.

MBK: This will have to be negotiated. If we say, for instance, that Igor Sechin should be tried, then I think it would be the best process for bringing the regime to account. This man is the epitome of what the country dislikes about the regime, from the point of view of corruption, the abuse of power and ineffective management.

AB: Moreover, the judges of this judicial system should be tried too.

MBK: Yes, the judicial system needs a complete transformation. I’m opposed to this kind of lustration as I don’t believe we have the right to depersonalise punishment, although I realise that it is a means of negotiation. If someone committed a crime then we can either prove it or we can’t. If you’re innocent and have been suspected of committing a crime then bravely go to court and prove your innocence. If you win, claim compensation for any inconvenience caused. This is the sort of justice I’m ready for.

This translated version of the interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.

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