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The Oligarch's Call From Prison

The 29 March publication in "Vedomosti" of the commentary "The Crisis Of Russian Liberalism" by jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the richest person in Russia, provoked a stormy reaction within the Russian political elite. Analysts have been trying to figure out exactly what the article means: Is it the manifesto of a newborn form of liberalism, a public statement of repentance, an act of surrender, or a petition for a pardon?

Khodorkovskii's text would seem to be a little bit of all of these things, except for a manifesto of liberalism. Khodorkovskii proceeds from three basic ideas. First, he describes the crisis of liberal ideals in Russia, placing blame for that crisis on the leaders of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko political parties and -- in a broader sense -- on all the instigators of the economic reforms of the 1990s. Khodorkovskii lambastes them for conducting criminal privatizations, devastating the economy, and ignoring the economic and social needs of the general population.

None of this criticism is new, of course. Such critiques of liberalism have become an entire distinct genre of Russian political science, and most of Khodorkovskii's theses were used routinely during the recent legislative and presidential campaigns. Yabloko, for example, called for "dismantling the system of bandit capitalism." It might be more correct to say, as did human-rights-movement veteran Yelena Bonner in an interview with RFE/RL on 30 March, that there is no crisis of liberalism in Russia because there is no liberalism in Russia and never has been.

Khodorkovskii's second basic idea concerns his fellow oligarchs. He argues that it is impossible to identify liberalism with business because the ideology is simply to make money. To do so, it does not need a liberal environment. "Civil society is more of a hindrance to business than a help," Khodorkovskii writes. "It defends the rights of works, protects the environment, lobbies for transparency, and limits corruption. All of this reduces profits."

Therefore, he continues, it is easier for business "to come to terms with greedy officials than to coordinate its activities with a developed and capable network of public institutions." Here Khodorkovskii reveals his Marxist education, as his depiction of capitalism is clearly based on the portrait sketched by Karl Marx well over a century ago. The great mistake of Khodorkovskii and his fellow oligarchs was that the capitalism they created was modeled on the nightmare scenario that Marx first laid out.

Khodorkovskii's third basic idea is the most important. Here he renounces opposition to the Kremlin and proposes a strategy of "cooperation with the state." This strategy includes such elements as "ceasing senseless attempts to call into question the legitimacy of the president," "searching for answers in Russia, and not in the West," and legitimizing privatization and investing in a "new elite."

Surprisingly, Khodorkovskii's conclusions come very close to the so-called ideology of national revanche, which he criticizes at the beginning of his article. The leading representative of this ideology is former National Strategy Council Director Stanislav Belkovskii, who was the main author of a May 2003 report warning of an "oligarchic coup" that was seen as the opening volley in the campaign against Yukos. Not surprisingly, Belkovskii reacted strongly and quickly to Khodorkovskii's publication.

In publications in "Komsomolskaya pravda" and "Vedomosti" on 30 March, Belkovskii called Khodorkovskii's article "an attempt at public repentance" and "the manifesto of a new Russian elite, which is so needed by [President Vladimir] Putin." Belkovskii said that Khodorkovskii has rejected his former role and is now trying to depict himself as an ally of Putin's. He added that he underestimated Khodorkovskii's character and apologized to the oligarch for personal insults he made in previous publications.

Belkovskii wrote in "Komsomolskaya pravda" that Khodorkovskii has been distancing himself from fellow Yukos shareholder Leonid Nevzlin, who is residing in Israel and is wanted by the Russian authorities. Nevzlin remains staunchly in opposition to Putin. Khodorkovskii does not want to be associated with the efforts of Nevzlin and others to fund the anti-Putin opposition, Belkovskii wrote.

In an interview with NTV the same day, Belkovskii said that he does not believe Khodorkovskii's article will have any impact on his status as a prisoner. But he said that Khodorkovskii does seem to understand that this is the beginning of "an epoch of the revision of the values that were built up in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the return to the Russian national and religious norms and traditions, upon which the country has stood for 1,000 years."

Viktor Militarev, president of the Development Institute and a co-author of the "oligarchic coup" report, told on 30 March that "if I were in Putin's shoes, after such an article, I'd go to the prison and bring Khodorkovskii a small care package. But only the courts can decide his fate." Asked whether other oligarchs will follow Khodorkovskii's lead, Militarev said, "Lent is the best time for repentance."

However, it can certainly be doubted to what extent anything written under the duress of prison circumstances can be called repentance. Neither is Khodorkovskii's article "a new manifesto of Russian liberalism." Possibly, it is a gesture reminiscent of the bitter joke about the German Jew in the Nazi era who was so addled by daily anti-Semitic propaganda that he eventually exclaimed, "Down with us!"

More likely, it is another example of a long, dangerous Russian tradition of letters written by prominent prisoners confessing their sins and extolling the wisdom of those who have imprisoned them.

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