Khodorkovsky cannot imagine return of Crimea

Russian dissident and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky believes that replacing President Vladimir Putin would change nothing in Russia, which is why an overhaul of the entire political system is needed – to make Russia a federation in more than just name.

Tallinn and Vilnius have become the meeting places of Russian opposition leaders in recent years as they constitute a middle ground for those who have been forced to leave Russia and those travelling from the country. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was among the wealthiest people in the world before falling out with Putin and today lives in Switzerland, has been a frequent visitor in the past year - writes

News from Russia paint a grim picture of the situation there: international sanctions, economic woes, the population being reduced to poverty. However, if earlier in the year 40 percent of people said they would vote for Putin, the figure has grown to 65 percent by today. What is that a sign of? Are outside pressure and difficulties only rallying the Russian society around Putin?

I would not say this year has brought Russia additional difficulties or pressure. Sociological studies carried out in Russia should not be trusted too much, as it remains unclear how they have been organized.

It also must be said that Putin has been skillful in removing all visible alternatives from the political landscape. People who vote for Putin often say that they would like to see someone else run the country, but that there simply is no one else. Putin’s powerful propaganda machine allows him to remove all political competitors.

The main problem is not a paradigm of “Putin or someone else” having been forced on society. It makes no difference: anyone in his shoes would act in exactly the same manner.

Russia is enormous, and there is no one person who can change what it is. I would like to solve that problem. I would like to pull Russia free from that paradigm.

Replacing Putin would change nothing. The system needs to be replaced, not its leaders. Russia’s regions need to be represented on the political level and coordinated by a legislative center. Every region must be able to decide its development. In other words, Russia must become a federation in more than words.

Be that as it may, Russia’s neighbors are interested in what could relations be like were someone else in power. For example, could there be a political leader in Russia willing to give Crimea back to Ukraine?

I cannot picture that. It is very difficult to imagine a situation where a democratically elected Russian parliament could have a mandate from the people to hand Crimea back to Ukraine. Russia has several reasons to consider Crimea a part of its territory. The Crimean society also believes it to be a part of Russia. The Crimea problem is very difficult to solve in Russia-Ukraine relations.

You said in 2013 that you are willing to personally take up arms to protect Russia’s territorial integrity. For example, were the Northern Caucasus region interested in breaking off. There are very serious problems in the region today. Are you still prepared to go to war?

You are interpreting my words arbitrarily. I was talking about Chechnya. It is not the country [Ramzan] Kadyrov is trying to paint it as. People my age and older [in Chechnya] – they are all Soviet people, citizens of the former Soviet Union who still consider themselves part of Russia. Chechens still teach their children Russian and send them to study in Russia.

Chechnya has around 20,000-30,000 people keeping that Russian part under control. It is nothing short of treachery on Russia’s part to leave its citizens to serve as slaves to bandits. Would it be a solution were Chechnya to break away from Russia? I doubt the people of Chechnya would make such a decision as they are economically and culturally tied to Russia.

Should a democratic Chechnya decide to secede from the Russian Federation knowingly and willfully, not under pressure from bandits, that decision would have to be honored. People need to be offered the chance to secede peacefully, while bandits need to be fought.

Russia is headed for a presidential election in March next year. What kind of a president would Russia ideally need? One up to speed on economic matters?

I have already explained this. What kind of a cake should a diabetic eat? There is no president Russia needs; whichever kind would be a liability for the country.

Let us take [former finance minister] Alexey Kudrin. A brilliant economic specialist! However, what would he know about the economy of Dagestan, Altai Krai, or some other Russian region? He only understands the semi-industrial economy of Moscow and St Petersburg.

The economies of regions need to be given the chance to develop independently. It is a task for regional representatives who have to reach agreements by themselves. However, how is that possible in a situation where they are facing a president holding all the power, and where they have no authority of their own?

That is all very nice; however, we know of enough examples of how Russian despotism recreates itself. It happened after 1917 and 1991. How would it even be possible to break out of that vicious circle?

People need to be convinced; they need to be educated socially and politically. It has to be explained that the entire behavioral paradigm needs to change. We need to switch from despotism to representative democracy.

People should stop thinking about what kind of tsar they need, and start electing regional representatives who would search for solutions to their problems in the parliamentary framework.

What would change were we to replace Putin with [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoygu? Everything would remain exactly the same.

Mikhail Borissovich, the West is not particularly interested in supporting the Russian opposition. What could change that?

I’m convinced Russia will have to solve its own problems. The Russian opposition does not need political support from the West. Because we are capable of solving our own problems.

The Russian opposition must work with the West. The latter must understand its conflict is not with Russia, but the Kremlin. It is extremely important as – if the West understands this - it would not be necessary to wait for a long time for relations to be restored in case of a regime change. We can start immediately as we know each other, understand each other, and follow a common path.

That is what is needed. Whereas when exactly this will happen – in two years or six – is of little historical significance.

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