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Khodorkovsky: Putin Could Seek Kremlin Exit Amid Infighting After 2018 Election

Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky receives a replica of a saber after he was awarded with the Knight of Freedom award by the Kazimierz Pulaski Foundation in Warsaw on December 3.

Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky says Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely coast to a second six-year term in an election slated for 2018, but that mounting infighting among insiders could prompt him to seek an exit from the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned for more than a decade on financial-crimes convictions widely seen as politically motivated, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he did not believe Putin will try to change the constitution to allow him to serve a third consecutive term.

But he said that recent high-profile skirmishes between centers of power in Russia -- which include the arrest of former Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev -- were a harbinger of conflicts between elites that may spin beyond Putin's control.

"I think he will get through 2018 just fine, and after that may even try to reproduce his own kind of Chinese model [of elite consensus], though I don't think anything will come of it," Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Russian oil major Yukos, said in the interview.

"After that, he'll start thinking about a way out," added Khodorkovsky, who was pardoned by Putin in December 2013 in a move widely seen as part of an effort to improve Russia's image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Khodorkovsky, 53, was flown out of Russia shortly after his release and now spends most of his time in Britain and Switzerland. He continues to be a Kremlin antagonist, backing opposition political movements from abroad.

Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister. A constitutional amendment in 2008 extended presidential terms from four years to six, though presidents are still forbidden from serving more than two consecutive terms.

No clear possible presidential successor has emerged, though Putin told Bloomberg in an interview published in September that Russia's "future leader has to be a fairly young person."

Khodorkovsky told RFE/RL, however, that Putin, 64, will undoubtedly face a "crisis of dual loyalty" among the rising generation of officials "because he will cease to be [their] guarantor of security."

He called Putin's vaunted "power vertical" a "myth" and said that he was merely managing "separate regional barons or 'siloviki'" -- slang for those tied to security agencies and the military -- who have their own interests and "do not coordinate their activities with each other."

"And there is the Kremlin, which bargains with each of them on one single issue: 'Secure my permanent grip on power. In return, I will give you this and this, or that.' That is how it works," Khodorkovsky said.

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