Politics / Richard Sakwa

Khodorkovsky’s Freedom and Russia’s Liberty

The timing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s release from prison raised many questions. So what were Putin’s motives, and now a free man what role can we expect Khodorkovsky to play in Russia’s future?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s sudden release from a correctional colony in Karelia after ten years of imprisonment on 20 December 2013 raises a whole series of questions. Why was he released at this time? After all, he only had eight months to go until his sentence was due to end in August 2014. In addition, what were the conditions attached to his release? Was some sort of deal made with President Vladimir Putin in which Khodorkovsky was given his freedom in exchange for a promise to keep out of politics and to soft-pedal the claims of Yukos shareholders? Above all, what would Khodorkovsky do now? Would he go into business, or engage in public life in some capacity. Would he become the symbolic, and possibly the practical, leader of the Russian opposition? While in jail Khodorkovsky had become one of the most perceptive analysts of contemporary Russia. Now that he was free to speak without prison censorship, what would be his analysis of Russian politics?

Khodorkovsky, the head of the Yukos oil company, was arrested on 25 October 2003. This was accompanied by an attack on Yukos, which under Khodorovsky’s leadership had been transformed into one of the world’s most successful oil companies. The company was bankrupted and the bulk of its assets went to Rosneft, which thereby began its ascent to become the world’s largest oil company. In May 2005 Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in jail (reduced to eight on appeal), and in December 2010 Khodorkovsky and his leading colleague Platon Lebedev were given further long sentences, but after various reviews their anticipated release dates were 23 August and 2 May 2014, respectively.

However, on 19 December 2013 Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky, and early next morning he was released and flew to Berlin. In his first statement, Khodorkovsky announced that on 12 November 2013 he had written to the president for a pardon ‘due to my family situation, and I am glad that his decision was positive’. He stressed that ‘The issue of admission of guilt was not raised’. It soon became known that he had written another letter to Putin stating that he had no intention of entering current politics and that he would not fight for the return of Yukos assets expropriated by the Kremlin. His statement gave special thanks to the former German foreign minister (1974-1992), Hans-Dietrich Genscher, for ‘his personal participation in my fate’, and looked forward to celebrating the holidays with his family.

The pardon indicated Putin’s confidence that the oligarch no longer represented a threat. The protest movement provoked by his return to power had fizzled out, accompanied by some political reforms that would not change the tutelary powers of the regime but did allow a mild degree of greater pluralism and electoral competitiveness. The model of state-business relations in operation since the Yukos affair, with business largely absent from open politics, was still operating satisfactorily from the regime’s perspective. With the Sochi Winter Olympics starting on 7 February 2014, the amnesty of most political prisoners and Khodorkovsky’s release removed some of the major human rights issues poisoning relations with the West, although this almost certainly was not a major driver in the release. It came too late to make much of a difference to the composition of national political delegations. More significantly, Russia’s economic performance was deteriorating, with only 1.4% growth registered in 2013, and thus Khodorkovsky release was a signal to western investors that Russia was open for business.

Khodorkovsky did not consider himself in exile and wished to return to Moscow, but only on condition that he would be able to leave again. He insisted that the Yukos affair could not be over until the last of the Yukos prisoners was free. As for why Putin allowed his release, Khodorkovsky considered that it was intended above all to send a signal to his own entourage, to limit their fractiousness and greed. He opposed a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, arguing that ‘a festival of sport should not be spoilt’.

As for the question of what he would do with his new-found liberty, Khodorkovsky insisted that he had no intention of funding the Russian opposition, and stressed that his involvement in politics was over. Neither was he planning to go back into business. Instead, he would get involved in unspecified public activities. Khodorkovsky’s personal wealth is unknown, although he admitted that he did not need to go into business to survive, and would not take part in Yukos litigation. A judgement is expected soon at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the case of the Yukos shareholders claiming damages of some $100 billion based on an estimate of what Yukos would be worth if it had survived.

Khodorkovsky’s career has been marked by his restless quest for something beyond the given. This means that even in the 1990s he was more than an ‘oligarch’, but someone deeply concerned about the fate of Russia. This is why he became so actively engaged in the 1996 presidential election, and later, Khodorkovsky actively sought to shape energy politics, tax policy and even foreign policy, which brought him into confrontation with Putin’s regime. In jail Khodorkovsky’s liberal views were not repudiated but were tempered into a distinctive type of democratic statism. On a whole range of issues he supported the goals of the Putin regime, while decrying the methods.

Khodorkovsky’s stream of letter and interviews from jail revealed that he was what in an earlier era had been called a ‘national liberal’, with statist ideas on Russia’s development that were far from alien from Putin’s own views. It is for this reason that Khodorkovsky could not be a hero for Russia’s neo-liberal opposition, and would be an uncomfortable interlocutor for those in the West who would have liked him to become an instrument in their struggle against Putin.

Khodorkovsky continues to fight for the release of remaining political prisoners, including Yukos officials. Abroad and at home, Khodorkovsky remains one of the moral leaders of post-communist Russia. After ten years of imprisonment he maintains his characteristic balance and composure, avoiding anti-Putin demagoguery while advancing piercing analyses of the problems facing his country. His commitment to the peaceful but resolute improvement of Russia remains undimmed.

Khodorkovsky could help shape a path for the regime to become constitutionalised (i.e., to subordinate itself to the impartial rules which it claimed to defend), and thus to help overcome Russia’s age-old gulf between the state and society in an evolutionary manner. By giving resistance to the arbitrariness of the administrative regime a positive and patriotic form, Khodorkovsky could apply his moral authority and undoubted managerial abilities to the mission for which deep down he knew he was always destined. It is only a question now of finding the appropriate path of achieving his life’s work through dialogue and reconciliation. Khodorkovsly is uniquely placed to give expression to a vision of a strong and democratic Russia at peace with itself and the world. ■

Putin and the OligarchRichard Sakwa is the author of Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky-Yukos Affair, published later this month. He is Professor of Russian and European Politics and Head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and an Associate Fellow of the Russian and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.
This articles draws on a paper Richard Sakwa wrote for Chatham House, ‘Khodorkovsky’s Release: Why Now and What Next?’, and is available to download here.

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