Founder, Open Russia
Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia, National Security Council
Mikhail Khodorkovsky provides his perspective on the domestic political climate in Russia, prospects for democratic change, and the future of U.S.-Russia relations.
GRAHAM: Good afternoon. I’m Tom Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I want to welcome you to today’s meetings on Russian democracy: what happens after Mr. Putin.
And I also want to welcome Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was last with us in October of 2014 if I remember. So we welcome you back to continue our conversation with us today. The situation has changed somewhat since then.
As you all know, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been Russia’s richest businessman, he’s been a political prisoner for over a decade, and now he’s perhaps the leading figure in what we might call Russia’s opposition in exile. He is a(n) activist, the founder of Open Russia, and plays a great deal—pays a great deal of attention to what is taking place inside Russia today.
Mikhail and I are going to engage in a—in a conversation for about half an hour. Mikhail prefers to speak in Russian, so we’re going to have consecutive translation. I prefer to speak in English, and we’ll do that without translation I hope.
So I want to begin the conversation with a question, and it goes like this. In 2004, you wrote from prison that Putin is neither a democrat nor a liberal, but he’s more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the Russian population. And so my question is, was that really true then? Is it true now? And how has Putin changed over the past—over the past fifteen years?
(Note: Mr. Khodorkovsky’s remarks are made through an interpreter.)
KHODORKOVSKY: First of all, hello to everybody, and it’s great to have yet another opportunity to speak with all of you.
I’d like to say that in a certain sense Putin has created a very particular, peculiar kind of regime. But in many of its features it is a typical autocratic regime. And, as is the wont of autocratic regimes, it is following the path of development from a more liberal autocratic regime to a less liberal autocratic regime. Russian society, on the other hand, much like in other countries in Europe too, is developing along a path from its traditional more authoritarian model to a more democratic consciousness. So I would say now that Putin is more liberal and more democratic than no longer 70 percent of the population, but let’s say 20 percent of the population. (Laughter.)
GRAHAM: Just following up on that, do you also think he’s become much more nationalistic in his outlook? I mean, there’s a theory here that when he returned to power in 2012, back to the Kremlin, in part because of the declining economic fortunes, that he turned to nationalism as a way of legitimizing his regime. Do you see that in his—in his outlook as well?
KHODORKOVSKY: You know, this is actually a very interesting, unique feature of Russian society. There isn’t all that much nationalism within Russian society. I’m referring to nationalism in the bad sense of that word. And the situation that happened in the aftermath of the Crimea incident, where there was this surge of ebullience of nationalism, is really an abnormal situation, not typical.
And it occurred that way because many Russian people felt and feel that Crimea is Russian territory. And Russian literature, which plays a large role in the shaping of the mentality of the Russian people, there’s a lot in Russian literature about Russian Crimea. And it’s a result of this that the question of the annexation of Crimea just happened to, like, fit right into the groove of everything else. But if we look at the situation in eastern Ukraine, things are entirely different there.
On the whole, there really isn’t that much nationalism in Russian society.
GRAHAM: So in a sense Mr. Putin is out of step with Russian society at this point.
Let me ask another question. You know, the subject for today is what happens after Mr. Putin, but I imagine there’s a great deal of interest in when and how we get to after Mr. Putin. (Laughter.) And when I was in Moscow three weeks ago there’s a lot of talk about succession. It’s connected with the end of Putin’s presidential term in 2024. I have to say that I didn’t meet many people who thought that Putin was going to leave power in 2024. But I’d like your take on it, your thinking to a post-Putin era. How are we going to get there, and in what timeframe?
KHODORKOVSKY: This question is actually quite similar to a lot of questions concerning market economies, where in a market economy there are many things that we can predict in the long term but it’s very complicated to say at what particular point this will occur in time. When Tom Graham and I were just chatting before we came to the stage here we were talking about how in a few years we’re going to be wishing Henry Kissinger a happy ninety-sixth birthday. Well, just very recently we were wishing Mr. Ligachyov—I don’t know how many of you even remember him—a happy ninety-eighth. So that’s kind of the extreme end of the forecast. (Laughter.)
But then again, who among us could have possibly expected what Mr. Nazarbayev did just a few months ago? What we are certainly seeing in Russia today is that Putin’s structure of power is literally coming apart at the seams. There had been talk some years back about the vaunted vertical of power. That had always been far exaggerated over the reality. But now it’s even more visible how it does not exist and how it’s falling apart.
But the weaker the power of the president becomes, the less of a bother the presidential power is to more and more groups. But as this happens, the various groups begin to fall into conflict with one another. And the further on that goes, the more likely it becomes that the conflicts will get out of control and will be no longer controllable. So the near term of the forecast is the years 2022/2023, when the parliamentary elections are about to come up.
GRAHAM: So somewhere between 2022 and 2042, if I did my math correctly. (Laughter.)
KHODORKOVSKY: Absolutely. (Laughter.)
KHODORKOVSKY: Absolutely. (Laughter.)
GRAHAM: Tell us a little bit about Open Russia. This is an organization that you founded several years ago. My understanding is the goal is to help prepare the ground so that this transition is a democratic transition as opposed to a transition from one form of authoritarianism to another authoritarianism. So what is Open Russia doing? And how effective has it been so far on the ground in Russia?
KHODORKOVSKY: Under the umbrella of Open Russia have gathered people who see Russia’s future as something other than Putin being replaced by somebody with the same kind of powers as Putin has. Personally, I am convinced that that would be the most dangerous development for Russia.
In my lifetime alone there were at least two people—I hesitate to include Putin among them as a third one or not—who went through this transition to an authoritarian figure. I’ve known Mr. Yeltsin since 1986. Believe me, at that time this man was totally democratic in his views. His battle cry of the fight against corruption in the Russia of those days sounded like a fight against privilege. Then, in 1991, he became the president. In 1993, he routed the parliament with gunfire; 1994, he was at war in Chechnya. In 1996, he was ready to create a military state of emergency in order not to give up power.
And Mr. Luzhkov, perhaps some of you have heard of him; he’s a former mayor of Moscow. In Russia that’s a very important position. I have known him, too, since 1986. At that time, too, he was an ultra-democrat. He was the most democratic deputy chief of the Moscow city Executive Committee, which was like the collective mayoralty. Five years, corruptioneer, autocrat, whatever else you want to call him.
Open Russia is an organization that feels that what’s important for Russia is not individuals, not personalities, but institutions. So we engage in political education. We take part actively in the lowest level of elections, because only the lowest level is where you’re still more or less allowed to actually have real elections. And we support civic initiatives and engage in human rights. Because we want, after Putin, for there to be a certain number of young people in Russia prepared to take the burden of power onto themselves collectively.
GRAHAM: Mikhail, about how many Russians actually participate in your activities? And I ask that question because we know there’s a lot of pressure now from the Kremlin and elsewhere to compel people or to intimidate people so that they don’t participate in exactly these types of activities.
KHODORKOVSKY: When we conduct events outside of Moscow, typically we’re talking about conferences out in the regions where civic activists get together in a conference. In each of the cities we hold these we get several hundred people participating in them. This despite the fact that that, for, example, in Nizhny Novgorod we had applied seven times to lease out space in a conference hall for this conference; seven times we had been refused. When I conducted a virtual conference through Skype in Moscow, an hour after the conference began the hall in which it was taking place was surrounded by a cordon of police. All of Moscow was joking that they had decided they were going to arrest me on Skype. (Laughter.)
GRAHAM: Let’s turn this in another direction. Since we are the Council on Foreign Relations, I have to ask a question about American policy. I’d like to get your thoughts on whether you think what the United States is doing now, particularly the harsher sanctions against Russia, the—particularly the harsher sanctions, but this lack of communication between our two governments is having an impact on developments inside Russia. Is it creating more room for the types of developments you would like to see, or is it constricting that room in some way?
KHODORKOVSKY: When they first started the sanctions, from the point of view of Russian reaction to it the feeling was that the Americans had made a big strategic mistake because these sanctions were spun as not to help the Russian people, but against Russia. So yes, there were negative impacts on part of the regime. But at the same time, the regime was able to spin this in such a way that it actually managed to get a little bit more support from the public for itself against the sanctions.
Subsequent to that, the American side tried to change the situation by changing to individual targeted sanctions. That was very painful. But here, too, not enough effort was put into explaining to people why it is that these particular sanctions are being applied to these particular people. So, again, the effect that they may have had was not fully achieved because the Russian authorities are explaining that the Americans are punishing the people for daring to have an independent foreign policy; whereas we actually know that the people to whom the sanctions were applied, we may not know exactly for what particular things but we know full well that they’re a bunch of thieves and corruptioneers. So if it had been explained straight out that the reason these people are being sanctioned is because they’re a bunch of thieves and corruptioneers, that would have resonated very, very solidly with the Russian people.
Now, what to do next? I am afraid to say that there’s probably very little room for maneuver left right now already. On the one hand, all subsequent sanctions have less and less of a marginal impact than the previous sanctions because already the interaction between the two sides has been reduced thanks to the previous sanctions. On the other hand, to sit down and try to hammer out something through negotiation is already also—doesn’t have much room for maneuver because the Kremlin and Putin are old. And by old I don’t mean in chronological age; I mean in terms of their flexibility. They’re set in their ways. And also, they’re no longer in a position to be able to promise anything and come through on these promises. So I am afraid to say that until regime change the sides have very little opportunity to come to some sort of new agreement about anything.
GRAHAM: Just to follow up on this very quickly, but does U.S. policy have any impact on the way Open Russia operates in Russia? Does it make it more difficult for you to operate on the ground in Russia or does it actually create some space for you to do what you like to do in Russia?
KHODORKOVSKY: What we do we do irrespective of any international opportunities being created or whatever. Really, nothing that the United States can do can help us or hinder us. For those Putin supporters who blindly believe him, to those people—with all due respect to the State Department that may not like this phrase, to those people I’m still regarded as a stooge of the State Department. As far as Putin’s blind supporters go, I am acting in the interests of the CIA or MI6 or whatever, something like that. From the point of view of more normal people, their reaction is this question is of no interest to us whatsoever. We couldn’t care less about it. What we care about is, is what you’re doing positive for the country or negative?
We’re trying to do things that are positive, useful for our country, and to explain that we are doing these things for the benefit of the country. We are doing these things with our own hands and with our own money.
GRAHAM: (Laughs.) So it’s the Russians who will make Russia democratic, ultimately.
I have one final question before I invite the members to join the conversation. Mikhail, when are you going to return to Russia and in what capacity?
KHODORKOVSKY: When the time comes when it becomes more dangerous for the authorities to throw me in jail than to not throw me in jail.
As for the capacity, what’s important to me is that immediately after Putin that what comes after is balanced; that is, separation of powers. I am ready to come back in any position or no position. The only position that I don’t want to come back to is the post of president. The post of president should be empty.
GRAHAM: OK. With that, I’d like to ask the members to join the conversation. I remind you that we’re on the record. Would you please wait for the microphone, state your name and affiliation, and ask one question? And please make it concise so we can get as many questions in as possible.
So the man right here in the middle.
Q: Hi. I’m Gary Ross from Black Gold Investors. I have a question.
How do you think Russia’s going to cope with declining energy export revenue in the longer term, let’s say over the next five, ten years? We’ve seen the highs on oil and gas prices. Given the fact that revenue—energy revenue is so important to Russia, is it going to be a prelude to a more aggressive foreign policy by Putin facing economic hardship with lower energy revenue?
KHODORKOVSKY: First of all, I want to say that we should not overestimate the importance of oil and gas export revenues for Russia’s economy. They’re big, but they don’t change the balance. They’re not that big.
On the other hand, also, any opportunity for increasing budget revenues from further oil and gas exports has reached the ceiling already. There is no more room for more. And so we therefore understand that Putin does not have the ability to leverage this additional income into improving his popularity by spreading the largesse. And also, wars do not garner support in Russian society just in principle. They do not. So what I’m driving at is out of concrete considerations we should not be expecting more aggressive foreign policy on Russia’s part, in terms of just pure rationality.
But on the other hand, though, we do understand that one of the inherent problems of late-stage authoritarian regimes is a lack of information flow. And therefore, there is no way we can predict what’s in Putin’s mind on this topic.
GRAHAM: In the back here.
Q: I’m Jim Zirin.
And knowing as you do from a personal standpoint the way Vladimir Putin operates, I wondered, what is your take on the interference with the 2016 election in the United States? And what do you think Putin was trying to accomplish? Do you think it would have been done without the coordination or cooperation of the Trump campaign? And do you think there’s been kompromat, and is he likely to try it again in 2020? (Laughter.)
KHODORKOVSKY: Tom and I happened to discuss this very question before we came onstage also. (Laughter.)
I firmly believe that Putin’s strategy is to weaken his foreign counterparties. And so I am firmly convinced, and I have the evidence to support this, that Putin was not banking on getting Trump into power. The Kremlin was convinced that Clinton would win. What they wanted was for Clinton to win, but become weaker as a result of this victory, not be as strong as she might be.
And this exact same policy is going to continue to be pursued, a policy of weakening the people that you’ll be sitting across from in the future. This is why they were thrilled by Zelenskiy’s victory in Ukraine—not because they felt that Zelenskiy is their guy, their agent; in their thinking Zelenskiy is weaker than Poroshenko, therefore Zelenskiy is better. What they’ve actually gotten, well, we’re all going to find out very soon ourselves.
GRAHAM: Down here in the front, please.
Q: I’m Ronald Tiersky from Amherst College. I’m a professor of political science.
The Roman philosophers, the stoics advise every wise person to think about the circumstances of their own death. And so I ask—I ask you, Putin, what would be a good—the question is simple. What do you think would be a good ending for Putin? (Laughter.) How do you think he thinks about it? Maybe it’s impossible to say at all. But how could it end not in the worst possible way, but in a nice way?
KHODORKOVSKY: It is obvious today that inside the Kremlin they’re working through a number of possible models. Model number one, which has been around for a while and which remains the preferred model, is a union with Belarus because this creates a new constitution, a new—the clock starts from zero again for a new president, who may, say, step aside from formal power but still be able to structure things so that he still retains control over the things that are important.
Option two that is being looked at, we provisionally call it the State Council model. That is, the State Council becomes a more powerful entity; Putin retires from the post of president but becomes a member of this now more powerful State Council. He no longer runs things directly but still has all kinds of levers, and ropes, and chains with which he can control things.
Model number three, which we—and indeed most of the Kremlin also—consider to be the least viable scenario is another musical chairs.
These are the three models that are the most obvious ones that they are clearly thinking about. There may be some fourth one that I am not aware of.
GRAHAM: A question right here in the middle.
Q: Thank you. I’m Raghida Dergham. I’m executive chairman of Beirut Institute.
About the Putin-Trump relationship, would Putin now consider Trump worth weakening for the next election? And what’s their relationship like in terms of foreign affairs? Let’s say Syria. Are they understanding each other and collaborating or are they really competing in such places?
KHODORKOVSKY: Look, for Russian society, Syria has pretty much zero interest which means that Putin has got a free hand until Russian soldiers start getting killed there. The biggest difficulty for them occurred—you remember there was this attempt to attack, raid and take over an oil refinery, and several hundred professional private soldiers fell under an American attack. If something like that does not take place, Russian society is not going to be losing any sleep over Syria one way or the other. Putin is going to continue to use Syria as he uses other hot spots in ways to get the Americans to sit down at the negotiating table with him on terms and conditions that are advantageous to him.
What does he want from these negotiations? This is something that the Americans unfortunately can’t—couldn’t give even if they wanted to. What he wants is to return to the good old days when the world was divided up into spheres of influence with total non-interference by the other parties in the internal affairs of the other parties, even in questions of human rights.
Nonetheless, however, this is what the Putin regime would like to see, and it would also like to ensure the opportunity for members of the inner circle to be able to freely spend their money anywhere in the world without interference.
GRAHAM: A question down here.
Q: Stephen Schlesinger.
Does Putin feel threatened by NATO? And if you were to get a democratic Russia, how would NATO be seen under those circumstances?
KHODORKOVSKY: Given today’s administration’s positions on the subject, I’m not sure exactly how the United States sees its position vis-à-vis NATO and NATO’s role, so the prospects for NATO’s relations with the Russia of the future are directly dependent on how America builds its relations with NATO in the foreseeable future.
GRAHAM: Question against the column right over here.
Q: Thank you. Lyndsay Howard, Bloomberg.
I’d like to ask a question about how you see scenarios for Russia’s vision and role in determining the future world order after Putin. What do you see ahead? What do you see with Belt and Road? Will Russia cede Central Asia to a more open infrastructure? What will happen?
KHODORKOVSKY: No matter who comes to power after Putin, there is no doubt that Russia is going to continue to take part in the lives of the countries adjacent to its Asian borders. And in a very broad sense, you might compare Russia’s relations with its Asian neighbors to something like the United States’ relations with Mexico, although the U.S.-Mexican relations are a lot smoother.
The big question, standing entirely separately from the relations with those countries, is relations with China. That’s a whole separate question. Good relations must be maintained with China, but not in that direction in which Putin is taking them now. Putin has tried to build relations with China on the premise that China is an alternative to Europe. Turned out that China is not an alternative to Europe, either in the economic sense or in the political sense.
I have some experience in dealing with China, and I can say from my experience that such an approach would never fly. In fact, whenever Russia’s relations with Europe and with the U.S. get worse, relations with China get worse, too, just because of the way the whole world financial system is all interconnected—
KHODORKOVSKY: (In English.) No, no. Nyet.
INTERPRETER: Sorry, sorry. (Laughter.)
KHODORKOVSKY: OK, so when Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States get worse, Russia’s relations with China get worse in the financial sense also because they are tied together. They may get better in the political sense, but financially they will also get worse if relations with Europe and the U.S. get worse. So this is a problem that the future Russia faces and will have to deal with.
Now how does Russian society view this problem or this question? Well, we actually have a meme that describes it. There is a mid-sized city in the central part of Russia called Voronezh. It’s a big place, but life there is not good as is the case in all of the Russian provinces. And the meme is, you know, before we spend too much time trying to fix things up with our relations outside the borders of Russia, let’s first deal with getting things fixed up in Voronezh.
GRAHAM: Over here.
Q: Paul Podolsky from Bridgewater Associates.
What lessons do you draw about how the system works, about how you concretely were treated by the system? In other words, was the attitude of the administration towards you—first to arrest you and then to release you—driven exclusively by self-interest or do you see any deeper understanding of how the system works—about how you were treated relative to other opponents who sometimes ended up in different situations?
KHODORKOVSKY: I do want to emphasize that the way the country is run is changing, but in general terms, the situation remains the same. We are dealing with what can be described as a neo-feudal model where, in exchange for votes, regional elites, in return for providing votes at the center, are given the opportunity to deal with their own financial issues within their region as they see fit without interference from the center.
Let me add to that. They have—the regional elites have free rein to deal with their own personal financial issues however they see fit without interference because the regional governmental administrative financial questions—those actually are a mechanism by which the center controls the regions. So the three principal mechanisms of administration—so revenues, 60 percent of the revenues collected within the region go to the center leaving 40 percent. That is categorically not enough for them to do what they want to do. Then 10 to 20 percent of the money that has been collected by the center gets redistributed back down to them in exchange for political support, for votes. That’s one mechanism.
The second mechanism: all officials must take bribes. If you don’t take bribes, you are removed from power. So if your loyalty is at some point questioned, they’ve got those bribes that they know about, that you’ve taken, and they can lock you up legitimately for having taken bribes.
The third mechanism: conflict between groups of influence. The economy continues to be run by the so-called liberal bloc. They are by no means liberal, but that’s what we call them. On the other side are the so-called siloviki—the people from the military and enforcement agencies. They, as always, never have enough money. So on the one hand, Putin instructs the liberal bloc not to give one kopek more to the siloviki. On the other hand, he says, I’m barely holding on to them, these guys are champing at the bit, they are going to break free. I can’t hold on to them anymore. Now and then these two blocs clash horns and, at that time, you see people being sent off to jail. And now and then he also sets off various sub-factions within the siloviki against one another, and again, the outcome of these clashes is you see people going to jail.
Here’s your three main administrative methods. In the absence of institutions, this creates a very potentially dangerous situation because the moment you pull Putin out of that equation, before the system gets to a new equilibrium, a large number of heads will roll. And Putin does this intentionally to make it that much harder for him to be pulled out of the equation.
The problem with all of this is that the Lord couldn’t give a damn about this. At some point or other the Lord will pluck him out of the equation.
GRAHAM: Now on that happy note we’ve run out of time—(laughter)—but I’d like to thank Mikhail for spending this hour with us. (Applause.)