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Interview: Khodorkovsky Says He Won't Stand On The Sidelines

Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Project Aims To Be 'Political Force'
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WATCH: MIkhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Project aims to be a "political force."

Former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky has relaunched his Open Russia Internet project with the aim of influencing his homeland "through political means." He discussed his vision with Voice of America (VOA) correspondent Aleksandr Panov.

VOA: The relaunched Open Russia is largely a website, an Internet project. What is the goal of the project and are you worried that the Russian authorities will be able to restrict your efforts. After all, just recently the Russian government held a meeting devoted to "preserving Russia's national interests" in the information age.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Of course, the Internet and the opportunities it presents will play a major role in the new Open Russia project. However, naturally, we are not exclusively relying on online technology since people have traditional mindsets -- we are used to personal communication. So offline, personal communication will be a part of our activity as well.

The essence of the project is to enable the Europe-oriented part of Russian society to communicate together, to find one another, and to learn how to act together in their common interests. That is, to become an influential political force in Russia. We think this will take some time, but the first step is the elections of 2016.

This portion of society must make its views heard more loudly than in the past although it is possible that even this will not bring about any real results in the voting. After all, as we say, in Russia it isn't important how people vote but how the votes are tallied.

VOA: When you were released from prison, you said you weren't interested in participating in politics, but recently you said you would be willing to help resolve Russia's many problems if necessary. Have you changed your position on this?

Khodorkovsky: As I have said in the past, I'm not interested in any political activity in the sense that we most often understand it. I am still not interested in getting power over any bureaucracies. But I certainly do not intend to back away from responsibility for what I have said in the past, including when I spoke about the fact that we must influence contemporary Russia and we must influence it through political means.

Moreover, when I am asked whether I am prepared to participate in this personally, I answer, "Yes, I am prepared." I have never shirked such responsibility. It is another question whether I enjoy such things. No, I have other interests in life. I don't like it and I have other things to do, but I think it would be wrong to stand off to the side at this moment.

VOA: Let's turn now to Ukraine, and I'd like to ask you the eternal Russian questions -- who is to blame and what is to be done?

Khodorkovsky: I haven't changed my position -- what Putin has done in Ukraine is an enormous political mistake. Undoubtedly, the question of Crimea is not a simple one. For the Russian public, Crimea has something of a sacred significance. I have spoken about this in the past, including with my Ukrainian colleagues.

But it is another matter if you consider it a choice between territory and a 45-million-strong fraternal nation -- I would have, of course, thought it correct to choose in favor of friendship with one's neighbor. Russia does not have that many obvious allies. There are not many nations, peoples with whom we have shared historical roots. And the Ukrainian nation is the largest of those few.

Now we have quarreled -- a quarrel that will be felt for decades. And we have quarreled over a border that, in reality, in the context of a uniting Europe and a globalizing world, does not really have huge significance. In general, I oppose borders in Europe. People should be able to move without problems. We simply should not have borders. Today, the country that affords people the greatest opportunities to move about is the winner, compared to those countries that create varying conditions and restrictions.

VOA: Many people think it is a little strange that you -- an oligarch from the era of President Boris Yeltsin who benefited enormously from Russia's much-criticized privatization in the 1990s -- are now playing an opposition political role. What do you say now about privatization as it was carried out, particularly the privatization of the most lucrative part of the Russian economy -- the energy sector?

Khodorkovsky: There is no doubt that the method by which privatization was conducted produced very difficult social consequences. And there is no doubt that a method that would have created closed funds that could have produced less estrangement of the public from private property would have been better.

In fact, we approached the Russian government with such a proposal in 2003. Unfortunately, by that time Putin apparently had already decided to redistribute the best pieces of private property to his entourage, and so he didn't show interest in the idea of redistributing property to the benefit of the entire country.

We see that now, de facto, that, under the slogans of nationalization, a process of redistributing property into the pockets of Putin's inner circle is happening. And, as a result, we see costs in the oil sector going up and the budget contribution from that sector is falling significantly. It even reached the point that the head of Rosneft, who, according to media reports, is paid $50 million a year, asked the government for nearly 1 trillion rubles from the National Welfare Fund, I think, or from the Reserve Fund. In any event, from the fund that was supposed to be used to make up shortfalls in the Pension Fund.

VOA: But isn't this the influence of Western sanctions against Russia? What is your view of the sanctions?

Khodorkovsky: I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that it was sanctions -- as opposed to the poor management of the sector -- that has forced them to ask for a reduction in their tax burden and for subsidies from the government's reserve funds. The oil industry is profitable -- and considering current oil prices, it is extra profitable -- and so it is really hard to understand how it could have been mismanaged to such an extent that they need -- whether there are sanctions or not -- subsidies from the federal budget.

VOA: In your opinion, what is the main difference between the oligarchs who surrounded President [Boris] Yeltsin and the current oligarchs from the so-called Ozero Cooperative [Eds: a group formed in the 1990s by Putin and several people from his current entourage to privatize a dacha community outside St. Petersburg.]

Khodorkovsky: When I compare the influence that major entrepreneurs had during the time of Yeltsin with what I see now in the Putin era, I must conclude that it would be hard to imagine Yeltsin, despite his debatable character, giving uncounted billions [of rubles] directly from the federal budget to his inner circle, even to members of his family. In addition, his inner circle was smaller, so its appetites were considerably smaller.

VOA: Would you consider returning to Russia? What if, all of a sudden, Putin calls you and offers you the position of prime minister?

Khodorkovsky: I have a hard time imagining a situation in which a person who is primarily concerned with his own power, with remaining forever as the leader of the country, would make any step -- no matter how beneficial for the country -- aimed at eventually losing that power, aimed at establishing real elections, aimed at facilitating the regular change of power by means of those real elections. And, for me, that is the only possible approach.

VOA: And one last question, what is your prognosis for the short-term future of Russia? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, otherwise?

Khodorkovsky: Russia's history is more than 1,000 years long. And I am certain that no matter what the current regime does, Russia will continue to exist. In our history there have been more unpleasant regimes, but we somehow survived them. And we'll survive this one.