In a hall with over 400 (mostly) students at the Campus The Hague Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ex-CEO of oil company Yukos, former prisoner and opponent of Vladimir Putin on May 29 spoke about the future of Russia. The lecture was organised by Raam op Rusland and Basis, the association of students of International Relations of the University of Leiden. Khodorkovsky declared himself a staunch supporter of evolutionary change in Russia, from a presidential system to a fullfledged democratic parliamentary republic.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in The Hague (pictures Otto Snoek)
by our staff
In his short introduction Khodorkovsky (55) described Russia as a ‘normal middle-European country’ with 140 million inhabitants, of whom 80% live in Europe and 80% are ethnical Russian. Contrary to popular opinion, the production of oil and gas makes up less than 10% of the GDP. This amounts to 30% when all connected energy services are included. In all, 63% of GDP is earned in the service sector. ‘Moscow is richer than Amsterdam, but just out of town there is poverty. There, 10 euro's a day is considered a good salary.’
Whereas the world speedily develops, Khodorkovsky added, the Russian economy now stagnates for 6 years in a row. ‘The living standards of the population are deteriorating while the number of billionaires is growing. There are over a hundred now, which is exactly a hundred more than 20 years ago. And president Putin is in power for precisely 20 years.’ When people are asked about their living standards, the standard answer is: 'it is all very far from simple'.
Khodorkovsky entered business in 1987 and founded, amongst others, the MENATEP bank and oil company Yukos, that was valued at $35 billion in 2003. During a now famous meeting between Putin and top oligarchs in the Kremlin, which was broadcasted live on television, he openly criticized the president for protecting corruption. 'Putin did not build the power system on the rule of law or institutions, but on personal dedication, guaranteed by corruption,' the ex-tycoon explained.
'How does that work? Very simple. Do you want an influential job? Steal! If you don't steal you are a liability. If you steal, there are three reasons that can land you in prison: if you do not steal according to your position in the picking order or refuse to share; if your are disloyal; or if your job is wanted by someone who is closer to the leader.'
When Khodorkovsky in 2003 openly attacked Putin on corruption he crossed a red line. ‘As a result I spent 10 years in jail. I was pardoned before the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi [in 2014] without admitting guilt and sent into exile. After that, several new accusations were made against me to ensure that I wouldn’t come back, but I didn’t back down and stayed in active opposition.’ He explained that what the Kremlin thinks about him today can be seen this week on the Russian tv-channel NTV, where a documentary entitled The Bloody Empire of Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be shown.
If Russia held free and democratic elections, Putin would lose ‘even to the Ukrainian Zelensky’, figures Khodorkovsky. But in an autocracy, everything is different. ’Where there are no real elections, the result is made up by the election committee. Where there is no real parliament – not one deputy of the independent opposition parties was admitted –, the law is changed on the whims of the leadership. Where there is no independent judiciary – judges are appointed and dismissed by Putin’s assistants – you cannot fight for your rights in court.’ This system only has one problem: the people can go out into the streets. ‘To prevent this, Putin founded a National Guard of 340.000 people who, in distinction to the army, are trained to fight civilians. They not only have shields, sticks and watercannons, but also artillery and airplanes.’
When Putin is gone, concluded Khodorkovsky, the country has two options: there are those who want a new ‘good tsar’ to solve their problems, and those that want to push the institutions in the direction of a western-style parliamentary democracy by evolutionary means. He sides with the last and hopes for the new generation, for whom freedom of movement and freedom of internet are a normal fact of everyday life.
For Khodorkovsky, the direction of Russia's development is no question mark: 'It is the road to Europe. Russia has walked that road for the last 500 years, sometimes with detours. What is important now is that the rest of Europe makes up its mind about its own direction and does some experiments. We will watch that process carefully and will try to avoid your mistakes.'
In discussion with the audience, moderated by Kysia Hekster, the former Moscow correspondent of Dutch public broadcasting service NOS, Khodorkovsky explained why Putin was furious at him: ‘I told him that he made corruption the backbone of the system.’ Khodorkovsky didn’t leave the country as some other critical oligarchs did, and was arrested at the airport in Novosibirsk.
He had never imagined to be sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. ‘Four years was the maximum I expected, as my case was to be tried by a court for commercial disputes. Instead, they handed it over to a criminal court. With this harsh verdict they wanted to frighten not me, but those who were free.’ What the true nature of the verdict was, Khodorkovsky illustrated by the outcry of a press secretary of the court who agitated told journalists not to attack the judge for this sentence, ‘because he obviously didn’t write one syllable of the verdict himself’.
When asked whether his behaviour had been naïve, Khodorkovsky explained that in those days, everyone still had the mindset of the Yeltsin era. ‘Yeltsin was no democrat, but at least he had some principles. He personally didn’t take bribes and he didn't force the courts to make a specific decision. So our idea of what a president can or cannot do was false. Putin is not only an autocrat, he is the leader of a criminal group. That goes with a totally different mentality. In the mafia there are no institutions, everything boils down to securing the trust of the leader.’
According to Khodorkovsky the magic of Putin has long disappeared. 'We are fed up with Putin, as he is fed up with us. That is logical after 20 years in power.'
During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, there was talk of Khodorkovsky being released early. The precondition was that Khodorkovsky had to repent, which he refused. After pressure of the former German Foreign Minister Genscher and Chancellor Merkel, that precondition was dropped. Putin wanted to create a positive atmosphere on the eve of the Olympic Games of Sochi in 2014.
It was a narrow escape, because according to Khodorkovsky there would have been no chance for an early release after the conflict with the West on Crimea and the Donbas erupted. The ex-tycoon denies the persistent rumour that he promised the Kremlin to stay out of politics after his pardon. ‘Putin himself, when asked on tv, said that I promised him nothing.’
Choice for evolution
When comparing Ukraine to Russia, Khodorkovsky stressed that a violent revolutionary regime change in Russia would lead to the restoration of the same autocratic system. ‘A transition to democracy in Russia can only succeed with evolutionary means. I don’t fear anything, but I don’t want people to lose their lives and then get stuck with a repetition of the same regime. In Russia people believe in a good tsar, but that is not going to work. There is no such thing as good power, there is only the possibility of an authority that stops robbery.'
As the case of Ukraine shows, there are no quick solutions in the fight against corruption. ‘You have to start from the top, as Saakashvili showed in Georgia. But Russia is too large and unequally developed for one president to beat corruption. That would only be possible in a dictatorship, which is unacceptable. It is a long and winding road, and it needs different solutions in different regions. It is everyday's hard work by everybody.’
One question visibly angered the speaker. When asked why he had called Russian ‘volunteers’ fighting IS in Syria ‘criminals’, he explained that he was talking about the mercenaries of the Private Military Company Wagner, which is not legalised by Russian law and therefore a criminal organisation. ‘They are no volunteers, that is an outright lie. They receive salaries for their mercenary work, but if they are killed, according to Russian law they are outlaws. Their relatives are paid to keep silent about their deaths. That is a disgrace.’
One of the many Russians in the audience wanted to know how to change the negative attitude that exists towards Russia in the West – some call it Russophobia. Khodorkovsky’s answer was simple: 'Don’t speak about Russia if you mean the Kremlin.’
Asked why Russian opposition parties are constantly fighting each other and why they cannot cooperate, Khodorkovsky called that a false premise: ‘People have different opinions and every party works for its own electorate. That is normal. We are united only in one question, that is that we want fair and free elections. On all other issues we beg to differ. If there would be free elections now, I guess the communists – in Russia in effect social-democrats – would get 30%, the liberals 15% and the nationalists 10%. Maybe the communists would win the elections. And that would be fine with me.’
Khodorkovsky sees no way out for Putin after 2024. ‘Before 2014 he had the possibility to leave, but now that 10.000 people have been killed in Ukraine, he understands that there is nowhere to go. He will probably go with his feet flat forward.’ Khodorkovsky says he has no personal presidential ambitions, but ‘if a Russian Zelensky would invite me to head the ministry of Energy, I would reluctantly consent out of a feeling of duty towards my country. But it would not be my choice. I prefer to remain an activist in civil society.’
For a report in Russian see Echo Moskvy