Open Russia’s Khodorkovsky Envisions a Russia Without Putin

Fred Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Open Russia. Photo by Larry Luxner. Someday, predicts Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia—freed from the authoritarian grip of President Vladimir Putin—could be an ally of the United States, an economically strong democracy, and even a responsible member of both NATO and the European Union.

And even though that day may be a long way off, Washington shouldn’t waste any time getting ready for it, said the former Russian businessman and political prisoner, speaking June 17 at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

“Sooner or later, the system will collapse, and we need to prepare for this now,” he urged. “The West must establish close relations with the European-oriented part of Russia, and rapid reintegration into the global system after the regime changes. We’re not going to have a big window of opportunity.”

Khodorkovsky headed giant Russian oil producer Yukos prior to his 2003 arrest on fraud and tax-evasion charges, which were widely believed to have been fabricated—or at the very least, politically motivated. At the time, he was Russia’s wealthiest man, with a fortune estimated at $15 billion, and ranked 16th on the Forbes list of billionaires.

Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison, a punishment extended to eleven years after a second trial. Declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, Putin pardoned him in 2013. Khodorkovsky immediately moved to Switzerland, where he relaunched Open Russia, an NGO that promotes a strong civil society.

The 51-year-old former tycoon—who was introduced by Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe—calls Putin’s current confrontation with the West “absolutely artificial,” and says it’s being promoted by Russian elites who want to hold onto power.

“They desperately need an enemy which will distract the populace from all the corruption, and inflaming them [against the West] is the only effective mechanism for the survival of the current regime,” said Khodorkovsky, speaking in Russian. “Sanctions have seriously hurt the Russian economy, and of course modern Russia has far fewer resources than the former Soviet Union once had. Nevertheless, Russia has enough of them to keep things tense for the next ten or twenty years.

Even so, the Kremlin has already been redistributing its budget to cope with the pain.

“The state is stopping investments in social capital, and putting money into arming the security structure,” said Khodorkovsky, noting that in the first quarter of 2015, military spending came to 9 percent of Russia’s GDP. “This means less money will be spent on schools and hospitals, leading to a serious deterioration of people’s quality of life.”

Khodorkovsky, who accumulated considerable wealth in the mid-1990s through the privatization of state assets, accused today’s “Russian elite” of preserving his country’s isolation and pushing it back into the Middle Ages.

“The national interests of Russia and the US are contradictory, and these contradictions can easily lead to tensions. Today, relations between our countries are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War,” he said. “In part, our countries are paying for the illusions they had during the perestroika era, when it seemed there were no contradictions. Both sides turned out to be ill-prepared for that when the reality hit home.”

But there’s a silver lining, he said: the long-term, strategic interests of Moscow and Washington overlap in many ways.

“The main political challenges we have are the same. Terrorism and the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East are equally dangerous for both Russia and the US—perhaps even more dangerous for Russia, given the situation in the south of our country,” he said. “The bad news is that in the political elite of today’s Russia, there is no one to advance the country’s true national interests.”

He pointed out that Russia is the world’s only northern country that has not made the transition to democracy.

“Unfortunately, there can be no talk of strategic rapprochement while Putin remains in power. Any decision can be suddenly changed at the whim of one person,” he said. “But Russia has a monopolized media, so most Russians support him. Leaders of other states who have access to objective information assume quite reasonably that Putin often deliberately feigns madness and unpredictability, considering this to be a shrewd political move.”

And even though Russian citizens mainly want security, a comfortable life and a good education for their children, “as the history of the past hundred years has shown, such a transformation is impossible without integration into the Western world.”

This, said Khodorkovsky, is why “the United States and Western Europe must make every effort to facilitate Russia’s economic integration with the West” once Putin is gone.

“Russia, from a historical point of view, is a Euro-Atlantic country, and in the end, this will entail accession to NATO and the European Union,” he noted. “After the regime changes, Russia’s accession to both NATO and the EU will be absolutely necessary. Of course, such a move will lead to a reformatting of these institutions, but the alternative is worse.”

Asked whether influential EU member states like France or Germany would be ready to accept Russia into their realm, Khodorkovsky said this is the second-biggest problem.

“The first problem is that Russian society isn’t ready for this yet,” he replied. “But we know how opinions in society can change even in a short period of time. Germany itself is one of the finest examples of this.”

He added: “Russia is mostly in Asia, but if we take a map of Russia that’s weighted to the population, we’ll see that out of 140 million, 120 million live in the European part. And that part is increasing. After people figure that out, the question of whether Russia is or isn’t a European country won’t exist.”

Of much more immediate concern, however, is the chaotic situation in Ukraine. Citing recent polls, Khodorkovsky said that 84 percent of Russians—unlike people in virtually every other country around the world—believe Ukraine is essentially a conflict between the United States and Russia.

“If [the Pentagon] starts shipping arms to Ukraine, this view will increase,” he said. “Will the Obama administration be ready to step into this conflict and win? Because if it is not ready for that, this will be interpreted as America having lost.”

The solution to the Ukraine crisis, he added, is a “freezing of the conflict” as the only realistic decision that can be made for now.

“Anyone who promises the Ukrainian people that he will return the Crimea to them and pay compensation won’t get the vote of Russians,” he said. “This is why I say a short-term solution to this question is not going to happen, although the annexation was done in violation of international laws and treaties as we understand them—and any person with a healthy mind would agree with that. I think Russian society can be convinced of the gradual resolution of this problem along the model of Hong Kong, limited autonomy and free economic zones.”

Sadly, Khodorkovsky predicted, there is no chance of reaching an agreement with Putin on Ukraine, comparing that situation to the standoff between North and South Korea.

“The United States must answer for itself the question, what is America’s place in the world,” he said. “My view is that Putin is a person who’s oriented towards force. If he sees force on the other side, he’s ready to talk. If what he sees on the other side is empty threats, then the only reaction you’ll get from him is laughter.”

Larry Luxner is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Fred Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of Open Russia. Photo by Larry Luxner.