In a far-ranging interview with RFE/RL, Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky analyzed the Russian president, spoke about the opposition’s prospects and Russia’s problems, and compared governing systems all from a viewpoint living in self-imposed exile for more than five years.
Khodorkovsky, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main opponents, didn’t hide his respect for the Kremlin leader’s ability to stay in power for 20 years.
Speaking in Germany’s capital on October 1, the tycoon called Putin an “autocrat,” who has a knack for spotting weaknesses in people and quickly size them up.
Putin knows how to ingratiate himself with politicians at home and world leaders by telling them what they like or want to hear, Khodorkovsky said, who now runs a project called the Civil Society Support Group in Russia. The endeavor is part of Khodorkovsky’s effort to unseat Putin from power.
Like any good spy “handler,” he said, Putin has effectively managed relationships with U.S. President Donald Trump, former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, and others, for example.
“The KGB was a good school” for teaching that skill, Khodorkovsky said of Putin’s past career in the spy agency.
Putin ascended power based on his ability to capture the public’s mood 20 years ago, when the public had “grown tired of revolution, it wanted a counterrevolution, it wanted to return to the past.”
However, a new generation has grown up, so “society has changed, and the people want something else,” he said without specifying.
Another factor to Putin’s longevity is that has delegated macroeconomic matters to “systemic liberals” like central bank chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina, Sberbank CEO Herman Gref, and Economic Development Minister Maksim Oreshkin.
People like them have “prevented catastrophic failures” in the economy.
Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in prison for what he has said were trumped up charges.
A mistake he made was in trusting former President Boris Yeltsin’s choice of Putin to replace him in 2000.
“Boris Nikolayevich made a choice that benefited him and his family the most, not the country,” Khodorkovsky said.
As for Putin’s main weakness, it is that “he doesn’t believe in institutions at all.”
Putin “believes that a person can be faithful to him, he believes that he can control a person, but he does not believe in institutions.”
In developmental terms, Russia is behind Europe by at least 60 years, and “Moscow is stuck somewhere in the 1980s.”
Khodorkovsky called having one homogenous opposition group a “mistake” because if it comes to power the “regime won’t change, only the faces and names will.”
A diverse group of opposition groups “with different ideas” is healthy so if they replace the current government, a ruling “coalition” will emerge.
He insisted that any change in power should be done democratically through “free and fair elections on a regular basis.”
Democracies are superior to authoritarian regimes because they could adopt to change faster and “meet challenges” effectively.
Since there is no rule of law in Russia, “any autocrat understands that when he leaves, he goes to prison if he does not die,” Khodorkovsky said of Putin. “Any autocrat understands that if he ceases to be a key element of balance, he will be demolished, and he will be in prison at best. That is why such an autocrat, like Putin, ties the balance personally.”
Some of Russia’s problems from afar do seem “trivial” at times, but as a country of 140 million people, its problems still matter to Europe, he said.
“Russia is that part of Euro-Atlantic civilization that has not yet fully decided where it belongs,” Khodorkovsky said. “And this is very significant in today’s world, which is built on the cultural competition of civilizations.”