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Russia needs to shift from autocracy to democracy, says Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Source: (AFP/Scanpix)

The West needed to understand that it was in conflict not with Russia, but with the regime in the Kremlin, former Russian industrialist and exiled opposition politician, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, told daily Postimees in a recent interview.

Khodorkovsky was asked if the mounting external pressure on Russia was working to the benefit of the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. After all, his support in the population had recently been on the increase.

Khodorkovsky was reluctant to agree—first off, the ongoing year hadn’t brought any more pressure on Russia, and then there was the issue that it wasn’t clear who was doing the approval polls.

Putin had removed all the possible alternatives, Khodorkovsky pointed out. There were many among those Russians who voted for Putin who would like to vote for someone else, but there simply wasn’t an alternative, and Putin had an enormous propaganda machine at his disposal.

Anyway the issue wasn’t so much that Russians couldn’t vote for someone else, but rather that whoever would replace Putin would most likely turn out to be exactly like him. Russia was a vast country, and there simply wasn’t any one person able to change it.

This was the real problem he wanted to solve, Khodorkovsky said. He wanted to get Russia away from this paradigm. Replacing Putin wouldn’t change a thing, the whole system needed to change.

The country’s regions needed to be represented and coordinated by a legislative center, while every one of them needed to decide about its development by itself. Russia needed to become an actual federation.

Asked if another Russian leader might ever return Crimea to Ukraine, Khodorkovsky said that he couldn’t imagine anything like it happening. “It’s difficult to imagine a situation where a democratically elected Russian parliament would receive a popular mandate to return Crimea to Ukraine,” he said.

Russia had several reasons to count Crimea among its own territory. The Crimean society also saw itself as part of Russia. The problem was very difficult to resolve because of Russia and Ukraine’s relationship, Khodorkovsky added.
Reminded that he had said in a 2013 interview that he himself would defend Russia’s territory, gun in hand, Khodorkovsky said that he had been talking about Chechnya then, which wasn’t the country at all its president, Ramzan Kadyrov, was trying to present to the world.

Most people in Chechnya were still former Soviet citizens who looked at themselves as a part of Russia. “The Chechens are still teaching their children Russian and sending them to school in Russia,” he added.

There were currently some 20-30,000 people in that country that controlled their particular part of Russia. In the eyes of Russia, “abandoning its citizens to become slaves of bandits” had to be treason, Khodorkovsky said. The connections of the country with Russia were too close, both in terms of culture and the economy, for Chechnya to work as an independent state.

On the other hand, should the Chechens decide democratically that they want to leave Russia, and not while being pressured into doing so by “bandits”, then such a decision needed to be respected, Khodorkovsky added. The people needed a chance to peacefully leave the Russian Federation, but bandits needed to be fought.

Asked about next year’s presidential elections in Russia, Khodorkovsky said that no president would work for the country. Looking at potential contenders, for example former minister of finance, Aleksey Kudrin, the problem was once again with the question of the regions—Kudrin may be a great specialist, but beyond the country’s industrialized centers, he didn’t know anything about the regions.

The regions’ economies needed to be given a chance to develop autonomously. The representatives of the regions themselves needed to take care of this and find common ground, which in turn wasn’t possible as long as there was a president holding all the power, Khodorkovsky pointed out.

It was Russia’s people who needed to be convinced and educated socially as well as politically. They needed to be explained that a paradigm shift was needed for change, that the country needed to move from an autocratic to a representative system, to get them to a point where the question wasn’t anymore who to install as tsar, but who they should elect to represent them and solve their problems. If Putin was to be replaced by, say, the defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, nothing would change at all.

Khodorkovsky also insisted that the Russian opposition did not need political support from the West. Russia needed to sort out its own problems, and the Russians were capable of what was needed themselves.

At the same time, the West needed to understand that it was in a conflict not with Russia, but with the Kremlin. “This is extremely important, as at the moment of a regime change it then wouldn’t have to wait long for [good] relations to be reestablished—if the West understands that,” Khodorkovsky said. This was what needed to happen. Whether it happened two years from now or six years didn’t make a difference.

Former industrialist and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2005 as well as 2010 for tax fraud, misappropriation of funds, and money laundry. He was freed on Dec. 20, 2013, after president Putin had granted him clemency. Khodorkovsky and his family have since lived in Switzerland.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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