It has been almost exactly a year since Putin pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The ex-oligarch now lives an exile existence in Zurich. Of late, he has been much more vocal in expressing his views on Putin and Russia’s future.
Take for example this piece from Bloomberg that appeared yesterday. Khodorkovsky muses about Putin’s situation, given the oil price and sanctions-induced economic straits Russia finds itself in. He openly suggests that a coup is a real possibility:
“Putin has far less room to maneuver financially, which creates difficulties for him, and as a result the cost of any mistakes he may make could be critical,” Khodorkovsky, 51, said in an interview in Zurich, dressed casually in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. “For Putin, even $120 a barrel for oil is a problem because, with his system of rule, he can’t survive without the revenue from raw materials growing every year.”
. . . .
There’s at least a 50 percent chance that Putin won’t last the next decade, according to the former tycoon, who pins his hope on a coup by the Russian leader’s inner circle because in his view elections won’t bring about any transfer of power.
“I believe that the problem for Putin will come from within his own entourage,” he told Bloomberg yesterday. “For my country, it would be better if things happened this way than through clashes on the streets, as a palace coup would spill less blood.”
Knowing Khodorkovsky’s background, it is plausible that he is playing a Machiavellian game here, ostensibly pontificating about possible outcomes, but really intending to bring about that outcome, and using his words to advance that objective.
One interpretation is that he is waging psychological warfare against Putin. Note his remark regarding Putin’s entourage. He is stoking Putin’s paranoia and attempting to start a clan war, and believe me, especially where Khodorkovsky is concerned, Putin is paranoid: his reactions to Khodorkovsky can only be described as Pavlovian, and don’t think for a nanosecond that Khodorkovsky doesn’t know that.
If the coup comes to pass, Khodorkovsky can ride in as the white knight. He is plainly volunteering for the role:
In a scenario that Khodorkovsky acknowledges isn’t more than an outside possibility, this could open the chance for him to come back to Russia to head a transitional government that would steer the country for two-to-three years before stepping down after a free and democratic vote.
How generous and public spirited of him. Of course, in Russian history “transitional governments” tend to be transitions between one autocracy and another. Further, I understand completely time inconsistency and (non-)credible promises: it’s likely that two-to-three years would turn into twenty-or-thirty. At the end of the second or third year, one can imagine the excuses: “My work is not finished. The enemies of the people are still there and will return if I leave.” I cannot see him as a Russian Cincinnatus.
In other words, when predicting the future (a reprise of 1917) he is saying what he wants to come to pass. He is trying to hurry that along, and the economic crisis (or impending economic crisis) is an opportunity for him. The old Russian revolutionary idea of “the worse, the better” could well apply here.*
Like Putin, Khodorkovsky is an opportunist. He perceives that current events have created that opportunity. (I think it is likely that his conversion to becoming an advocate for corporate transparency and western-style governance was also opportunistic, rather than a Road to Jerusalem conversion: he realized that was the way to make Yukos attractive to a western supermaj0r buyer/investor.)
All that said, I believe-and wrote here often-that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was a travesty of justice. Indeed, he was persecuted rather than prosecuted. His experience from 2003-2013 demonstrates the arbitrariness and evil of the Russian system under Putin.
But Khodorkovsky was not an angel. No man could have risen to where he did, and amassed the fortune that he did, in the Russia of 1990s without being utterly ruthless and without scruple. What probably set Khodorkovsky apart was that he is also incredibly intelligent. He is also very charismatic. I know two people who worked with him closely who are in awe of him. He clearly had a mesmeric influence on them. Putin’s palpable fear of the man also speaks volumes about his intelligence and personal magnetism. Ruthlessness married to charisma married to intelligence is a very dangerous combination.
Even if Khodorkovsky’s currently expressed sentiments are sincere, and he is not speaking out as part of a scheme to become Russia’s savior, if his scenario comes to pass it is highly doubtful that his lofty principles would survive a few months in power. A post-coup or post-revolutionary Russia would have no real institutions to check him. He would be surrounded by enemies. Russian politics has always been highly personalized and a-institutional. Every force would press him towards autocracy, personalized rule, and a cult of personality.
So as much as I sympathize with what he suffered, and as much as I would welcome the fall of Putinism, I don’t trust Khodorkovsky, nor do I think he is the man to lead Russia to the promised land, or even to its border. (And remember Moses never entered Canaan.) Indeed, I can readily see him using his martyrdom as a way of advancing his personal ambitions, and believe that many are blind to that possibility.
(Some of those who work for his foundation, and presumably believe in his agenda, are also passionate defenders of Urkaine against Putin’s predations. How can they be blind to his indifference to Ukraine?)
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Khordorkovsky is not attempting to influence events in Moscow from Lenin’s old neighborhood in Zurich. Perhaps he is just commenting as an intensely interested bystander to historic events.
If that’s so, he’s delusional. The idea that he would be welcomed as a leader who could achieve national reconciliation in the aftermath of a coup (let alone a revolution) is farcical. He is widely reviled in Russia. It would be interesting to see who is more hated: Gorbachev or Khodorkovsky. He is viewed as one of the pirates of the 1990s, indeed as the most dangerous of the lot. I would wager more people than not believe he got his just desserts in Chita (and elsewhere) after 2003. His only role could be as a behind-the-scenes wire puller.
What’s more, Khodorkovsky is delusional in his appeals to Russian liberals, and his appeals to the west to support Russian liberals. There are hardly any Russian liberals left in Russia. Maybe a few hipsters in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a few pathetic hangers on here and there. Indeed, Russian liberals are widely despised, and inextricably linked with the traumas of the 1990s. They are viewed as thieves themselves, or accessories to theft-including Khodorkovsky’s. Navalny’s nationalist rhetoric has a far greater resonance than Khodorkovsky’s liberal language.
Reading some things he has said recently also make me wonder about his connection with reality. Notably this:
Is there hope of being able to effectively deal with this threat? There is, and it stems from the very nature of the Russian bureaucracy, which is generally rational and apolitical. There are many people in the Russian establishment who are sober-minded, think rationally and, on the whole, are oriented towards European values. But today these people are being forced to submit to a political will that has been formulated by a criminally corrupt minority whose only goal is to hold on to power.
Russian bureaucrats are “rational and apolitical”? Who knew? Venal and corrupt is more like it, and quite comfortable operating in an arbitrary autocratic system. After all, the Party of Crooks and Thieves is first and foremost the party of the bureaucratic nomenklatura. “Sober-minded”? That is risible, both figuratively and literally. And as for their “on the whole [being] oriented towards European values”, I don’t think I’ve read anything so absurd in some time. The Russian bureaucracy is Muscovite to the core.
Indeed, these statements (and most of the rest of the speech in which they are found) are so ridiculous that it must be that Khodorkovsky recognizes they are, and hence is willing to say anything to achieve some purpose. The goo-goo nature of his specific recommendations (e.g., the promotion of cultural and educational exchanges between Russia and Europe) only reinforce that impression.
In sum, I view Khodorkovsky in the role of the serpent. Putin is a malign force, but there is too much in Khodorkovsky’s past and character to have any faith that he will fundamentally change Russia.
The fundamental problem is that Putin is far more symptom than cause. He is the current personal manifestation of a national culture and political system and tradition. It is hard to imagine any way of leaping the chasm from personalized, autocratic governance to a system built on strong institutions and the rule of law. The fundamental paradox is that no man-Khodorkovskyor anyone else-is likely to be able to do that.
In other words, we don’t have a Putin problem: we have a Russia problem. We are likely to have it for, well, pretty much forever. And Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the man to solve that problem, even if he is sincere in his statements that he wants to.
*This phrase is often attributed to Lenin, but is more likely traceable to Nikolay Chernyshevsky. It was used by Plekhanov in a newspaper article in July, 1917 that Lenin responded to.