Khodorkovsky plots out a long game: a post-Putin Russia
By ANGELA CHARLTON and FRANCESCA EBEL
Feb. 16, 2018
LONDON (AP) — He once was Russia's richest man, and then for 10 years its most famous prisoner. Now Mikhail Khodorkovsky wants to try a new mantle: godfather of Russian democracy.
Khodorkovsky is playing a long game, looking well past the Russian presidential election on March 18 that is guaranteed to give President Vladimir Putin yet another six-year term.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press ahead of the vote, Khodorkovsky warned that U.S. and European Union sanctions against Russia are fueling Putin's domestic agenda instead of hurting him, and predicted more ugly Russian-U.S. relations in Putin's next term.
"For him and for those he represents, America is only good as an enemy," Khodorkovsky said.
Exiled and forced into managing his political movement remotely from London, Khodorkovsky's own presidential ambitions appear to be fading, as the 54-year-old looks for younger proteges more likely to outlast the 65-year-old Putin.
"I can do what I want and still die under Putin. Those who are today 20 or 30 are today planning how they will live afterward," said the oligarch-turned-dissident, who spent a decade in prison seen as punishment for his political ambitions.
Khodorkovsky was stripped of the bulk of his assets but is using his remaining fortune — around half a billion dollars — on a plan to re-imagine the Russian political system. He wants to put more power in the hands of parliament and regional legislatures.
He's not alone in thinking ahead. The outcome of the March 18 vote is so pre-ordained that many of Putin's opponents are focusing instead on what happens when his term ends in 2024 — or beyond.
Still, Khodorkovsky is urging people to "get off the couch" and vote next month, arguing against a boycott like that suggested by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Khodorkovsky himself is barred from running because of his recent criminal record.
His own presidential vote may go to Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old Russian TV host. But Khodorkovsky has challenged her to clarify her positions first, to prove she's not just a superficial effort to inject controversy and glamour into the largely tension-free race.
"I don't know if I will vote for her — or cross everyone out and write 'I'm sick of Putin,'" Khodorkovsky said.
Khodorkovsky says Navalny is too focused on seizing power to be a viable solution. Navalny is also barred from challenging Putin in the March election due to a conviction that supporters call politically motivated.
"We don't need a czar, good or bad. We need people who are ready to seek consensus," Khodorkovsky said.
Asked if he wants to run for president in 2024, Khodorkovsky said, "I am against anyone running to replace Putin. I think it's a doomed position."
Contrary to whispers that the former oil tycoon would launch a political career upon his release from prison in 2013, Khodorkovsky has a longer-term strategy: a 10-year plan to lay stronger civil and political foundations in Russia for when the Putin regime is "swept away."
Khodorkovsky is ready to finance alternative leaders, particularly young ones. But he doesn't want a revolution — he wants an evolution that focuses on policies not personalities.
"If there's a parliamentary system and a president is needed ... that person should have minimal ambitions," he said.
And that person probably won't be Khodorkovsky himself.
He knows he's widely disliked for making billions in the country's turbulent 1990s while most Russians suffered bitterly. Known for his steely determination in business, Khodorkovsky bought up floundering state companies for a pittance, turned them around and used his resulting power to squeeze out rivals and minority shareholders.
Asked how he responds to Russians who see him as a thief, Khodorkovsky sighs deeply and stares at the table. After a pause, he calls his fortune a "justified bonus" for his work.
But unlike other Russian oligarchs, Khodorkovsky now enjoys an exceptional moral authority for surviving years in Russia's dismal penal system and waging legal battles in a corrupt and troubled justice system.
And his money speaks: funding his Open Russia political movement that supports opposition politicians, provides legal support for victims of rights abuse and runs media projects.
He was pardoned in 2013 but the Kremlin still sees him as a threat — the Open Russia website and all affiliated domain names have been blocked in Russia since Christmas.
Khodorkovsky "is relevant as long as he has his political movement ... he wants to keep his possibilities open," said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"He has support in society - rather small, but it exists," Makarkin said — and that could prove useful "if the machine of the state turns out to be not as durable as expected and suddenly collapses."
In the meantime, Khodorkovsky travels around Europe and the United States to meet like-minded Russians, invests in real estate and gives lectures at universities.
He is bemused by the Russian security services' haphazard attempts to keep tabs on him, but no longer fears for his life, rejecting the question with a nonchalant shrug.
His voice rises, however, when railing against enemies — including today's Russian oligarchs, who he says are too invested in the current system to stand up to Putin. He said a recent name-and-shame U.S. list of rich and powerful Russians means the oligarchs now face a life-changing choice.
"Stay and work in Putin's Russia, but then understand that from that moment on, you no longer have opportunities outside Russia's borders. Or say, that's it, we earned something, and now we need to get out of this game before it's too late," he said.
He's also frustrated that U.S. and EU sanctions — prompted by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine — feed Putin's argument that Russians' problems are caused by the West.
U.S. officials "say 'we are helping the Russian opposition with sanctions.' No, you are not helping," he said.
However he doesn't think that Putin organized interference to ensure Donald Trump's election in 2016.
"America is a powerful democratic system and no czar, even with loyal hacker armies, is capable of deforming such a system," he declared.