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Kremlin Critic Khodorkovsky Says Putin's Circle Wants Him To Remain In Power Beyond 2024

Once Russia's wealthiest tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison after being convicted of tax evasion and other financial crimes in two trials widely seen as politically motivated. 

Former Russian oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky says political and business circles close to President Vladimir Putin want him to remain in power after his fourth term ends in 2024.

Taking via video-link from London on April 4, Khodorkovsky told RFE/RL that Putin's inner circle feared for their "safety" and were trying to convince him to stay in power.

Khodorkovsky said it was "very likely" that Putin could decide not to seek another term or some in his circle could "push him out" if his health deteriorated.

But Khodorkovsky added that others in the president's circle understood that their "safety could not be guaranteed" and "therefore those people will talk Putin into a new term, either by Belarus joining [Russia] or something else."

In recent months, Putin has held talks with Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka on the countries' "further integration" through the Union State of Russia and Belarus -- the alliance established in the 1990s that exists mostly on paper.

Khodorkovsky also said the recent leadership transition in neighboring Kazakhstan, for example, was not possible in Russia.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on March 19 abruptly resigned after nearly 30 years in office, but will continue to head the ruling party and keep his lifetime post as chairman of the influential Security Council.

Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Open Russia civic movement, said the transition in Kazakhstan was made possible because Nazarbaev's "clan" and family have a chokehold on the political and economic system.

"Putin's circle has learned how to manipulate him and shape his views and ideological approaches," Khodorkovsky said. "They are driven purely by business interests -- either to rip off a market competitor or to acquire an official position that gives them access to economic resources."

He added: "For those [Russians] who are in their 40s, to say nothing about those who are in their 30s or 20s, Putin is very archaic, obsolete, and surely none of them want to live their whole lives under him."

He added that it was important that leaders stood down at the right time, saying Russia must be ready when Putin is no longer in power so the country avoids mistakes of the 1990s, when Russia lost its chance to become a European democracy.

Khodorkovsky also cited recent data from independent opinion polls in Russia that suggested Putin's popularity had reached near-record lows amid ongoing economic woes.

He also said the Russian president was "interested in entrenching the state of a frozen conflict" in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting government forces since 2014.

Khodorkovsky said if the war ended, Putin would face "thousands of armed people who will seek refuge in Russia," a prospect he said the president "cannot allow to happen."

Khodorkovsky said political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy's victory against President Petro Poroshenko in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election illustrated a "global trend that brings good and bad populists to power."

Zelenskiy faces the incumbent in a runoff on April 21.

Khodorkovsky said that although "Ukraine's political system is far from perfect," it was more "efficient than what exists in Russia after 20 years of Putin's reign."

Once Russia's wealthiest tycoon, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison after being convicted of tax evasion and other financial crimes in two trials widely seen as politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky now lives in Europe after leaving Russia when he was pardoned by Putin and released from prison in 2013.