“He has embarked on a war he can’t stop”: Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Putin’s next move

In January 1995 a 31-year-old Mikhail Khodorkovsky travelled to Switzerland to attend the World Financial Discussion board. At a café in Davos one morning he noticed a fellow Russian businessman, Boris Berezovsky, chatting with the Hungarian financier George Soros. It was a small place, and he sat shut sufficient to know they had been talking about Russia’s first post-Soviet-era election, which might be held the next 12 months. “You’ve had a good life so far,” Soros informed Berezovsky, “and now the communists are coming back, and it’s time to flee.”

That night Khodorkovsky had a chance to ask the communists themselves, who had been additionally attending the summit: would a victory for them imply catastrophe for Russia’s rising enterprise elite? Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Get together chief and presidential candidate, informed him: “Mikhail Borisovich, we’re full of respect for what you do, and so we will keep you. We will keep you as the CEO of one enterprise.”

Khodorkovsky had already constructed or acquired quite a few companies – beginning with a café of his personal, then a pc and software program enterprise, then a titanium producer, then a banking group. He knew how time, effort, intelligence and assets had been squandered within the command financial system. He discovered Berezovsky and informed him that one thing needed to be achieved.

This was a sentiment shared by loads of Russians. The state nonetheless owned most of the nation’s largest corporations and most had been managed, by a cadre of “red directors”, as in the event that they had been nonetheless communist organisations. They struggled to grow to be actual companies: the oil firm Yukos had not paid its staff for six months and owed the federal government $4bn (then an enormous sum, greater than 1 per cent of GDP) in unpaid taxes. Because the election approached, oil staff “were ready to block the export pipelines”, Khodorkovsky remembers once we meet in late April. “That would have meant a collapse of the government.”

Later that 12 months Khodorkovsky was requested to attend a gathering on the Kremlin with a bunch of different bankers and businesspeople. “They told us there were 800 [state-owned] enterprises and: ‘Take as many as you can.’”

There have been circumstances connected: the bankers needed to make their very own offers with administration, and so they instantly wanted to cowl the wages of the workforce of any enterprise they took over. Lastly, the state requested its financiers to commit “all the money you have” to the deal. “Your entire capital. If you have a little, give it all. If you have a lot, also.”

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Khodorkovsky thought he may usher in international traders, and maintain a few of his personal cash, however nobody wished to take the danger. “The investors said, ‘In six months you’ll have communists in power, and you want us to lend you money? No, no, no. Come to us in six months’ time, and we’ll have a look.’”

Six months handed, and Khodorkovsky now not wanted a mortgage. With the help of Russia’s bankers and CEOs, Boris Yeltsin had returned to energy and a brand new class of oligarchs helped themselves to the nation’s freshly privatised corporations. Khodorkovsky took Yukos, the oil and fuel producer, and started turning it into an environment friendly and very profitable enterprise that will make him the richest man in Russia, and the richest particular person below 40 on the planet.

What the oligarchs failed to grasp on the time was that it was not solely Yeltsin – who they assumed “might still have four to five years” within the Kremlin – with whom they’d made a deal. Unwittingly, they’d additionally cleared a path for Vladimir Putin, the previous KGB agent who would grow to be head of the safety companies in 1998, take over the presidency on the finish of 1999, and ship Mikhail Khodorkovsky to jail for a decade.

Khodorkovsky’s workplace in Marylebone, central London, is a spot of muted tones and darkish wooden, extra suited to a really costly psychiatrist than an exiled oligarch. He tells me his avoidance of demonstrative consumption – a rule he has imparted to his 4 kids – has been certainly one of his higher choices.

He speaks in a mushy Russian however understands my questions, that are in English (he additionally switches to English sometimes, to make clear a sentence). Smiling typically, typically with a slight wagging of the pinnacle, Khodorkovsky appears barely incredulous in any respect that has occurred to him. As a possible Kremlin goal, he takes his safety severely with out letting it take over: “I lead quite a risky life,” he smiles. “But I’m used to it.”

He can’t keep in mind the primary time he encountered Putin. “It was not a major event at the time. There was nothing dramatic about meeting him.” It’s tempting to attract parallels between Putin, the ignored securocrat, and Stalin, who earlier than he got here to energy was described by Trotsky as an “eminent mediocrity”, and by the author Nikolai Sukhanov, in his eyewitness account of the Russian revolution, as a “grey blur, which flickered obscurely and left no trace”. (Trotsky was rewarded with an ice decide to the mind, Sukhanov with a firing squad.)

However Khodorkovsky does keep in mind vividly the second in 1999 when his enterprise profession peaked: on the Priobskoye oil area in Western Siberia, an expanse of two,000 sq. miles that had been deemed by Soviet analysis to be comparatively unproductive; Yukos found it was able to producing greater than 5 billion barrels of oil. He can nonetheless see the road of heavy items automobiles, stretching into the gap, prepared to start creating the riches that lay beneath. His childhood dream had been to run an enormous manufacturing unit, to command the behemoth machines: “That was the thing I really liked.”

This urge for food for scale was additionally what made him harmful to Putin. Below Khodorkovsky’s management, Yukos had grown to grow to be Russia’s largest oil firm, producing a fifth of the nation’s provide. It used European expertise, raised capital from American markets and was exploring a merger – presumably with a US oil big – that will have made it one of many largest power corporations on the planet.

The early years of Russian privatisation had been harmful instances. “Those who scared easily either perished in the 1990s or found a different, less risky job for themselves,” Khodorkovsky says. However Yukos was transferring extra shortly than others in direction of international requirements: its senior administration and record-keeping had been extra clear than any main Russian enterprise, and Khodorkovsky deliberate for it to adjust to America’s Sarbanes-Oxley guidelines on company governance. Nonetheless, he knew this wouldn’t occur until he addressed the broader drawback of endemic corruption within the Russian financial system. It was this topic – and his readiness to boost it – that led to the confrontation with Putin that will seal his destiny.

When he talks about that assembly on the Kremlin on 19 February 2003, Khodorkovsky smiles and shrugs, virtually as if telling a joke. He wasn’t nervous, he says: “It was for me largely a business issue.” He had already mentioned corruption with senior cupboard ministers. A regional spokesperson had agreed to boost the matter with Putin, however then received chilly ft. “So I thought, ‘Well, OK – I’ll take over.’”

In entrance of the assembled delegates (and stay TV cameras), Khodorkovsky embarrassed Putin along with his portrait of a Russia that also ran on bribes. He challenged the president on the sale of one other oil firm, Severnaya Neft (Northern Oil), which had been acquired by a senator and former deputy finance minister, Andrey Vavilov, for $25m. Northern Oil had been awarded the licence for one of many nation’s most dear oil fields earlier than being bought to the state-owned Rosneft for $623m.

What Khodorkovsky didn’t realise on the time was that Putin and his allies, he claims, had “already pocketed” a whole bunch of thousands and thousands of {dollars} from such practices. Footage of the assembly, included within the 2019 documentary movie Citizen Ok, exhibits Putin disadvantaged of his typical calm, shifting in his seat, waving a pen as he furiously rebuts Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky’s arrest on 25 October 2003, when he was hauled from a Yukos airplane at gunpoint, was a decisive second for Russia’s enterprise elite. Lots of these not allied to Putin had already fled, together with: certainly one of Yukos’s co-founders, Yuri Golubev, who died all of a sudden at his house in London in 2007; the Georgian oil magnate Arkady Patarkatsishvili, who died all of a sudden at his house in Surrey in 2008; and Boris Berezovsky, who died by strangulation at his house in Berkshire in 2013. Those that retained their cash and energy did so with Putin’s permission, Khodorkovsky claims, granted in trade for his or her ongoing service.

In some circumstances, he says, the wealth of Russia’s enterprise elite is used on to affect political outcomes. His organisation, Open Russia, has proof of Russian cash getting used to agitate and amplify the Catalan independence motion in Spain, the migration disaster in Germany in 2015 and the far proper in France. “I would probably find it difficult to prove it in court,” Khodorkovsky says. “But for me personally, the information was sufficient to think that that was the case.”

Hyperlinks between Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationwide and the Putin regime could have influenced the latest French presidential election, by which Le Pen reached the second spherical however was defeated by Emmanuel Macron the evening earlier than we spoke. When Khodorkovsky, who appears to have an urge for food for uncomfortable conferences, was requested to talk to the European Parliament’s Committee on International Interference in Might 2021, he talked in regards to the Russian connection to Le Pen’s proposed international minister, Thierry Mariani. “The link to the Kremlin was obvious,” he tells me, “and I thought that was a case worth investigating by French law enforcers.” Mariani, sitting within the viewers, provided no remark.

Khodorkovsky argues that in sowing political division, notably inside the EU, the Putin regime, like many giant companies, values market share above all: “It’s much easier to agree with each individual national government, because economically they’re smaller than Russia. He is like a monopoly supplier talking to differentiated buyers.”

In relation to oil and fuel, he says, that is actually the case. “If somebody has a 30 per cent share [of the energy market], and if you cannot replace that 30 per cent with anybody else, they’re already a monopoly supplier.” The anti-monopoly laws of Western nations has been set as much as stop such conditions, Khodorkovsky factors out. However within the aftermath of the 2008 monetary disaster, Western governments had a selection between spending big sums on power safety or retaining their voters heat with low cost Russian gasoline. Exceptions had been made, the cost-of-living disaster was postponed to a different decade, and the West entered “a situation where the supplier can dictate his own terms to the clients… a situation where the West, with its money, is paying for the war that Putin is waging”.

On the identical time, he says, Putin’s oligarchs have made the West extra like Russia, a state of affairs that bolsters help at house. If Russians know that folks with connections to the Kremlin are among the many largest donors to Britain’s ruling occasion, for instance, they’re extra more likely to settle for that the work of corrupt elites inside Russia is “nothing special… these things happen in the West as well”. The trick is to maintain individuals from appreciating the distinction in scale: “One is to scratch your finger, another is to lose your whole arm.”

As a Russian nationwide in Britain – “I am a guest here” – Khodorkovsky argues that it is crucial to not take into account each ethnic Russian an asset of the Putin regime. However there may be, he says, “an easy way of checking” whether or not a Russian businessperson “is a normal person, or whether they are potentially the Kremlin’s agent. You just come up to them and say, ‘What do you think of what Putin is doing today? Is it a war crime? Is he a war criminal? Just tell me, on the record…’ If the person tries to avoid the question, then they have some kind of noose around their neck.”

Russia is 70 instances the scale of the UK. Its borders comprise greater than 10 per cent of the Earth’s land mass and practically 200 ethnic teams. After sentencing, Khodorkovsky was despatched by prepare to the penal colony of Krasnokamensk, greater than 3,000 miles from Moscow, near the border with China; the journey took every week.

His brief memoir of his life behind bars, My Fellow Prisoners, makes use of ten sketches of his fellow inmates to explain the Russian jail system, which in 2003 held greater than 900,000 individuals. Drug abuse and beatings had been widespread. His face was slashed with a knife as he slept; one other inmate, a 23-year-old man named Kolya, disembowelled himself in protest at being framed for a theft he didn’t commit. 

I ask him if the title of the e book may be addressed extra broadly, to Russians normally. “What I tried to show is that the people in prison are exactly the same as people outside,” he says. “Prison culture in Russia projects itself, in a very significant way, onto the rest of society.”

That is mirrored within the highest reaches of presidency: just a few eyebrows had been raised in Russia in February when the international minister, Sergei Lavrov, described a global settlement with the phrase “patsan skazal, patsan sdelal” – which, as Russian prisoners know, affirms that the phrase of a patsan (actually lad, fella; an accepted member of the jail group) is his bond. “This prison slang shows that there is not much difference between the foreign minister and somebody actually sitting behind bars.”

Khodorkovsky was launched on 20 December 2013, certainly one of quite a few high-profile prisoners to be freed earlier than the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Had been he to return to Russia now, nonetheless, he would instantly be arrested. In 2015 he was accused of getting been related to the homicide of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of a Siberian metropolis who was shot on 26 June 1998 (Khodorkovsky’s birthday). In 2006, whereas Khodorkovsky was in jail, the previous FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko testified that he had seen a video of the hitman being paid a big sum of cash by a member of the safety companies. Litvinenko was himself murdered the identical 12 months, in London, after accusing the Russian authorities of getting assassinated the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot within the carry of her residence constructing on 7 October (Vladimir Putin’s birthday).

Even Putin himself is now trapped by the system by which he has risen to energy, Khodorkovsky says. If Putin’s offensive in Donbas is profitable, he can be compelled to make one other assault on Kyiv; if it fails, he should withdraw, and discover another strategy to declare success. If he commits to utilizing nuclear weapons, it’s doubtless he can be deserted by his allies in China and India, and presumably his personal generals. “This is why he’s so tense at the moment,” Khodorkovsky observes. “He has embarked upon a war he can’t stop.”

Putin is commonly forged as an icily succesful authoritarian, the person who by no means fairly left the KGB, a diplomatic chess participant. However Khodorkovsky says the strongman picture is incidental to a extra elementary fact about how energy is distributed in his nation. In a Russia dominated by Moscow, each chief turns into a tsar.

“I think many Russians, but also a lot of Westerners, make a very serious mistake in trying to look for… a better person” to grow to be president, he says. “They are searching for such a person in [Alexei] Navalny, in myself, but that’s a mistake. Anyone who replaces Putin is going to take Russia along the same imperialist route.”

In his view, Russia’s sheer measurement makes authoritarianism and battle with its neighbours inevitable. “It is a very large and very diverse country, and if you want to manage it from one central spot, you have to have a very strong bureaucratic apparatus. To have such a huge apparatus at the centre has to be explained by having to protect the country from an outside enemy – there is no other explanation that people will accept.”

This, he says, is the important thing to understanding Putin – not as a very robust chief, however as a product of historical past. “It is his office as president that makes him what he is. You need to change the whole system, so that that position doesn’t exist.”

Understanding that is key in the case of predicting what occurs subsequent, Khodorkovsky says. Even when Putin wins in Ukraine, he’ll face a robust resistance motion that he should clarify to Russians because the work of Nato – and to maintain his legitimacy he could be compelled to reply.

“In his head, of course, he is already fighting Nato,” says Khodorkovsky. “Have a look at what the Russian media is writing – that we’re combating Nato. Public opinion has already been educated on that. So if he crosses the Baltic nations or Polish border, that won’t be information to Russian society.

“He will have to go on. In the end he will be defeated. The question is which soil he will be defeated on.”

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