"I´m not saying that I´m better than Putin"


Photos: Alex Schlacher

Once he was Russia’s richest oligarch. Then he turned into Russia’s most prominent political prisoner under Vladimir Putin. Now the drama of the two men goes into the next round: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, exiled dissident in London, challenges Vladimir Putin to resign and let Russia go back to the European path.

One could understand if Mikhail Khodorkovsky retired. The man who has been Russia’s richest oligarch and Russia’s most notorious political prisoner is now living in London. Here, where so many other Russian émigrés enjoy life without Putin, Khodorkovsky would be forgiven if he did the same.

It is an afternoon in April. Khodorkovsky meets us in his elegant Mayfair office. You cannot say that prison has harmed him physically. His eyes are attentive behind his glasses, his smile can be shy, sometimes sly. His stature has become a little heavier since his release – at least one sign that he enjoys the pleasures of London.

He was a leader of the Soviet youth organization Komsomol before turning into one of russia’s most successful business men in the first post-soviet years, when Russia’s huge industry was privatized. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of those, who profited by moving fast and ruthlessly to gain ownership of valuable state assets. At the hight of his career he controlled the oil company Yukos and was supposedly worth about 15 billion Dollars. He belonged to a circle of highly influential oligarchs, who managed Russia’s first president Boris Jelzin and who chose his successor Vladimir Putin. When the former KGB officer came to power in 1999 and entered the Kremlin in 2000 Khodorkovsky was at the height of his career.

From then on it when downwards. Putin gained control of media, parliament – and courts. His special forces arrested Khodorkovsky at gunpoint in his privat jet on a Sibirian airfield, he was tried for corruption and other economic crimes and sent to a prison camp at the Chinese border in Siberia for ten years. Khodorkovsky had openly challenged Putin about corruption at a time, when he thought that Russia needed to become a lot more Westernized in its understanding of transparency and business operations. When Putin needed Western opinion to look upon his managed democracy with kinder eyes before the opening of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, he had Khodorkovky released and exiled.

This tale of these men and their power struggle seems to have been won by Vladimir Putin. The president of the Russian Federation has been in power for the past 17 years and looks certain to be re-elected in 2018 for another six years. But who knows? Mikhail Khodorkovsky is donating some of his wealth and a lot of his energy into his third career as senior exiled dissident. With his organization “Open Russia” he wants to build up Russia’s civil society, see current president Vladimir Putin out of office and help implement a transition period wich would lead Russia to free and open elections.

The afternoon light in his office turns to dusk. Khodorkovsky sometimes hesitates and searches for words. He speaks mostly Russian, sometimes a sentence in English. Does he hate Putin, the man who cost him so much? The 53 year old does not say. But if he has his way, Putin will eventually go through something Khodorkovsky has already experienced: How it feels to lose power, wealth and, possibly, freedom.

Profil: When did you first meet Putin and what was your first impression?

Khodorkovsky: I met him probably in the year 2000 for the first time. He made a very good, positive impression on me. That is probably his greatest strength: He makes a very good first impression on people.

Profil: At that time you could not have known, how dangerous Putin would become for you. Did you understand each other well?

Khodorkovsky: I am not sure if we understood each other, but there was a mutual respect.

Profil: Did you see eye to eye with him?

Khodorkovsky: I was a business man who made five percent of the federal budget with my company. And I was the chair of the Russian Union of businessmen and entrepreneurs. Putin did not come form nowhere. He was for many years vice governor in St Petersburg. That was quite a big position. He controlled a budget that was smaller than mine, but still!

Profil: It was not his budget, it was the budget of the city.

Khodorkovsky: Well, you know how it is…sometimes in Russia this difference is not so clear. Putin then worked for Jelzin’s administration in the Kremlin. And became head of FSB in 1998 and Prime minister in 1999. So we cannot say that I met a person who came from nowhere. Sometimes we met together with economists, sometimes with members of the government, sometimes alone.

Profil: Did you discuss politics?

Khodorkovsky: Not really. We could discuss this or that political event and it’s relevance for the economy. Before I went to prison I clearly saw myself as someone who was dealing only with the economic side of Russia.

Profil: 2003 was considered to be a watershed moment between you and Putin. You spoke in public up against corruption. Was this a calculated provocation?

Khodorkovsky: My colleagues and I thought at the time that it was the right time for this. Russia was at a crossroads. The country could continue as it was or it could take the road to Europe, departing from corruption, increase transparency in economy. And for us, the business leaders, the second option was clearly the better one. So I made this presentation not as a private person, but as head of the group of industrialists. I understood that there was a risk. But it was not clear to me how deep Putin was already entrenched in corruption at that time.

Profil: How was that not clear to you? He took control of the media in his first year as president, he positioned his Siloviki, the people coming from the so called power ministries – security services, defense ministry – and you did not notice that?

Khodorkovsky: It was not clear at that time. Yes, we knew that the Siloviki, these people from the security services, wanted to take control of the country. Igor Sechin in particular. But we believed that the president would find another model more advantageous for our country. At that time also the German Bundestag applauded Putin. We thought although he had to rely somewhat on the enforcement group, the Siloviki group, he personally wanted to support the European path. Maybe he was hesitating at that time. Money played a negative role in all of this.

Profil: You held this presentation in all innocence?

Khodorkovsky: I gave him advice, but also attacked those who I thought gave him wrong advice. I knew who they were. I saw them. I just thought that Putin was not with them.I just did not understand that Putin was himself corrupt until I read the Panama papers.

Profil: Excuse us, but the Panama papers came out in 2016! You had been ten years in prison and you had not understood what Putin was doing?

Khodorkovsky: Yes, I did not know. I thought that Putin was using corruption to stay in power, not to enrich himself. I did not believe he puts money in his own pockets. Because – (he smiles) – the president of Russia does not need money! Every luxury is at his disposal.

Profil: Many who grow up without money, want money.

Khodorkovsky: But none of those is president of Russia. None of us has 23 residencies, ten airplanes and three yachts. This is all work related. For all of this you don’t have to spend your own money.

Profil: But it is only borrowed, you are not president forever.

Khodorkovsky: This is the irony. When you stop being the president of Russia, the wealth you accumulated personally during the presidency, becomes like a stone on your shoulders, a burden. You need to be sure, that anyone who comes in to replace you will not take it away. Will not say: Where is this wealth coming from? As a result you either stay on as president forever. Then you don’t need personal wealth. Or, if you leave the job, the money becomes dangerous to you. Based on this pragmatic thinking I just did not believe he would want to steal. But then I saw in the Panama-Papers that people like his friend Sergei Roldugin were used to transfer money over to Putin. These are people who are only loyal to Putin. This money went through a very complicated money laundering scheme. If they were used for other purposes other than putting it in his personal pocket, then there would not be a need for such a complicated scheme. Only after the Panama papers I realized that he is also putting money aside for himself. This was an eye opening moment.

Profil: Was money not equally important to you when you started your career? What motivated you throughout your life?

Khodorkovsky: Ambition. I always wanted to prove that I could do things better than others in a particular sphere. For example: Industrial organization.

Profil: You managed to build up a company, Yukos, and then even managed to give it a good name. But your success made you also dangerous and brought a prison sentence on you.

Khodorkovsky: Absolutely. Since I came out of prison this ambition has changed.

Profil: When you came out of prison, you were silent about politics, you spent time with your family, but now you are back. What do you want to achieve?

Khodorkovsky: I want Putin to leave and see that there are free and fair elections in Russia.

Profil: And then?

Khodorkovsky: We need a transition period which should not last longer than two years. As reformer you either leave after two years or you stop being a reformer. I am willing to help during this period. After this transition period I would leave. You cannot stay in Kremlin for 10 years as a reformer. This is the difference between me and the leader of the opposition Alexej Nawalni.

Profil: But this transition period starts when? Nothing seems to be able to remove Putin from power – his election in 2018 seems to be guaranteed. Then he is in power till 2024. And then you want to start removing him?

Khodorkovsky: No, I think the transition period has already started. Putin’s authority is not very big. Everyone now is thinking what happens after Putin. But nobody is doing anything yet. The last part of the transition period is, when we act. This could be well before 2024.

Profil: Whenever opposition leader Alexej Navalny goes to a demonstration, he is being arrested. the vice chair of Open Russia, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has been poisoned twice in the last two years. Boris Nemtsov has been shot dead two years ago. The regime is playing cat and mouse with the opposition There is no question that this is a vicious and cruel game. How can you even play it?

Khodorkovsky: I often discuss this with my colleagues here in Europe. The French say: If something is not going well in our countries, we go demonstrate and the government knows it has to change something. But in Russia if you are a leader you can do whatever you want for a long time. Then, suddenly,
one day, you lose power.

Profil: It happened to the Romanovs, but it might not happen to Putin.

Khodorkovsky: It did not only happen to the Romanovs.

Profil: It did not happen to Jelzin.

Khodorkovsky: Well, Jelzin is probably a soft exemption to the rule. Also: He took a step back in time. Otherwise it would have been different with him, too.

Profil: You are saying to expect a sudden end to Putin’s reign. Who would be the most credible force to replace him – someone coming from inside the system or someone from the opposition?

Khodorkovsky: I think it will be someone coming from inside the system. But then this person will be confronted with a very complicated question. Either he relies on the enforcement structures – then he will be a manipulated figure. If that person selects the second way to become a transitional person to open the country for a democratic process, then I am willing to help do that.

profil: Why don’t you offer Putin your help now to do exactly this already now?

Khodorkovsky: Putin can do this without my help. He has enough power to do so. But psychologically he cannot do it. I always leave a one percent chance for people to change, but I don’t think he will do it.

Putin: Putin already changed once, at the beginning he was rather Pro-European.

Khodorkovsky: (takes his pen and moves it vertically upwards): Do you know how the rocket takes the Sputnik out to space: It is being launched and goes straight up. The Jelzin elite pushed Putin up into the space – this straight trajectory continued for a while till 2005. (The pen changes direction.) Then it made a turn 2008 around the financial crisis and now the rocket is coming down. It is getting closer and closer to Earth. I don’t know when it hits, but it will be soon.

Profil: In your book “My fellow prisoners” you have very moral thoughts. Have you always been such a moral person?

Khodorkovsky: We all know what is good and what is bad. (smiles) Well, not everyone. But almost everyone. We not always conduct ourselves as we should. But we know when we behave badly and we are ashamed.

Profil: Also not everyone.

Khodorkovsky: I am not saying that I was better than Putin. But when Putin was asked if he regrets something in his life, he said no. If you ask me, I would never say I don’t regret anything I did. And that is where my ability for moral is. I say: I did that. It was bad. Don’t do that, if you can avoid it.

Profil: What do you regret?

Khodorkovsky: I am always thinking about 1993. Post-soviet Russia went through a big transformation. Big state companies were privatized during this period. At that time I could have done something good for my country. I had the possibility of changing my country, but what did I do? I was busy thinking about managing my own industrial plant. It was important for me, but it is not as important as many other things. I understood this only much later.

Profil. You don’t regret challenging Putin in 2003?

Khodorkovsky: I could not have done anything else then. Tactically maybe yes, but it would have only delayed the result. Because when Putin started to destroy the TV channel NTV, I could not watch this. I gave them 20 million Dollars. Later the regime added this to my criminal case. Of course it irritated Putin. I always supported the opposition. Even during Jelzin’s time. But Jelzin had a different view on that.

Profil: Did he believe more in pluralism?

Khodorkovsky: I am not sure. But I know that he was generous. I watched him watch the program “Puppets” (“Kukli”) at television. It’s not that he liked what he saw, sometimes he turned red out of anger. In my presence he once even said: Turn it off. But he would have never given the order to close the entire program down.

Profil: Unlike Putin? Is he revengeful or does he only strictly protect his interests?

Khodorkovsky: It seems to me that there is not a big difference.

Profil: It is the difference between being hot headed or cold blooded.

Khodorkovsky: Putin does not like leaving his enemies without attention. And sometimes he shows emotions. I think part of what he has done was done because of emotion.

Profil: For example?

Khodorkovsky: What he did to Yukos was emotional.

Profil: What he did to Yukos or what he did to you?

Khodorkovsky: Both. If he would have been reasonable, he would have locked me up for two years. But ten years? And it would have been reasonable to take my part in Yukos and incorporate it somewhere else. The West would have supported that. But to destroy Yukos completely? It was a big, costly mistake.

profil: So it was revenge and it is personal between you and Putin.

Khodorkovsky: Yes, I think so.

Profil: And for you, is it also personal?

Khodorkovsky: I am much more cold blooded.

Profil: I am not sure that I believe that.

Khodorkovsky: You know, you have to deal with Putin personally to understand that. I am more the level headed guy. I would think always what is the most effective way and would take this most effective way. If for the peaceful transition I would have to shake hands not only with Putin but also with Igor Sechin, I would. Even Sechin.

Profil: Igor Sechin is Putin’s closest advisor, he is the head oft he state own Russian oil company Rosneft and he is said to be the head of the Siloviki. Is he the worst player for you?

Khodorkovsky: How can I phrase this politely? If I have to pick up a stone, even a dirty stone, it is much easier than to pick up shit.

Profil: People in opposition in Russia can die any moment. Are you not scared for your life and that of your family?

Khodorkovsky: Putin so far had limitations. This allows us to conduct this fight according to some rules. Putin does not touch families. If he decides that I am a threat to him, he will take a decision. There are several options. But it can only be made by him, nobody can take this decision but him because everyone knows that I am an opponent.

Profil: If Trump turns to you to ask your advice in how to deal with Putin, what would you tell him?

Khodorkovsky: If Trump wants to do what he promised to do before he was elected – to have good relations with Russia – he has to make a deal on the terms under which Putin leaves. If Putin does not leave power, it does not make sense to agree on anything. Putin is interested in America only as an enemy. The other way for Trump to handle Russia is to show clearly where the red lines are. If there are no clear red lines, Putin will try to cross those lines. Trump, unlike Obama, is not a level headed person and as a result we could have a very difficult conflict.

Profil: Do you see any forces in Europe who could balance out the hotheads in DC and Moscow?

Khodorkovsky: There is only one rational force in Europe who can make a difference.

Profil: Angela Merkel?

Khodorkovsky: Exactly. After the French elections Emanuel Macron could be a good force of reason, too, if he wins against Marine Le Pen.

Profil: Is it a conspiracy theory to think that Putin wants the EU to collapse and that is why he finances right extreme parties in Europe?

Khodorkovsky: I don’t think that is a conspiracy theory. There is a clear line of thinking. Putin wants to influence people in Europe to come to power who will then feel that they owe him something. If that’s not possible then he would like to put isolationist people in place, because that will allow him to destroy the European Union. If the EU is not completely destroyed than at least he hopes to weaken it. Important for him is that Europe will lose its capabilities to act as a powerful player. Influential Europe is a bad thing for Putin, because model Europe is the opposite of what Putin wants: Human rights, change of power, democracy, rule of law – only one of these values is a threat to Putin’s regime. He understands it well. If he wants to stay in his office after 2024 he needs a new Iron Curtain between Europe and Russia.

Profil: Did you just say that Putin wants a new Iron Curtain?

Khodorkovsky: Yes. I know, it is not the 50ties of the past century. It is not so easy to build a wall.

Profil: Don’t say that, President Trump is just building a wall to Mexico!

Khodorkovsky: Yes, true, but even Trump would not succeed here in Europe. Putin wants at least a virtual Iron Curtain and he brings it up from his side of the borders. More and more Russian officials are not allowed to travel. Members of Putin’s bureaucracy, about 5 million people, cannot leave the country. Policemen, FSB, some officials from ministries.

Profil: Because?

Khodorkovsky: Because. He wants to keep Russia away from Western values.

Profil: Shall we keep the sanctions against Russia, which were imposed after the annexed Crimea?

Khodorkovsky: It is hard for me to talk about sanctions. They damage the regime from one side but they also strengthen the regime from the other side. More important is the dialogue between the Russian civil society and the one in the West. This changes the situation. Because culture, shared values are what destroys borders.

Profil Will you look back on your life and think: What a shame that Putin dominated my life for such a long time?

Chodrokowski: I don’t look at things like that. One day I realized that for 25 years I had been involved in questions of democratization of Russia. I did not plan it like that. But it is my life.

Profil: In the interview we did with you when you were in prison in 2009, you said: “Prison liberated me.” How do you look at this statement today?

Khodorkovsky: Intellectually and physically I can say that the only thing that limits me now is that I cannot go back to Russia. Before prison I never had enough time. A large company puts a lot of constraint on its leader. Prison does not do that. I had no limitations of that sort. I could write what I wanted, I could say what I wanted.

Profil: Do you consider your life to be a happy life?

Khodorkovsky: If I see that Russia makes a turn to the European path of development, then that part of my life which was dedicated to achieve this was a happy period. If not…

Interview: Tessa Szyszkowitz, Robert Treichler/London


Photo: Alex Schlacher

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz