The Khodorkovsky who returned to active public life in September 2014 was much the same Khodorkovsky who had been arrested in October 2003. He hasn’t changed, but has Russian political life changed over the past decade?

Former imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky listens to a question after he delivered a speech to students at the Polytechnic University in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, March 10, 2014. Photo: AP

This is proving to be a difficult period for the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is facing unprecedented hostility from its former ‘partners’ in the European Union and from the United States, and the economy is slowing down and facing elements of stagflation: minimal economic growth accompanied by stubbornly high inflation.

The attempt at an internal political ‘reset’ – advocated by then-President Dmitry Medvedev at the time of the protests in 2011-12 – was intended to begin the processes of controlled political decompression by allowing a degree of political competitiveness in local elections and a more vibrant party system. That process has run into the Ukrainian sands. External threats are typically accompanied by internal consolidation.

As if this were not enough, Russia's former imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky has returned to active engagement in Russian public affairs. In the negotiations that preceded his release in December 2013, he agreed that he would not engage in public affairs until the technical expiration of his sentence: August 24, 2014. He kept his word, but always stated that from September 2014 on, he would consider himself free from any moral or other constraints negotiated as part of the amnesty.

Upon his release, Khodorkovsky stated that he reserved the right to engage in public affairs, although not directly in party politics. As the crisis unfolded in Ukraine, on March 3, 2014 he issued the following ringing statement:

“As a result of the incompetent actions of politicians, we find ourselves on the brink of being involved in a civil war in Ukraine. That means many tragedies, including for millions of Russian-Ukrainian families, and extremely grave consequences for our nation’s domestic situation and international standing. No one will remain unaffected.”

He noted that he had family and friends in Ukraine, “Just as it is for others, for me this is a family affair.” He then went on to announce:

“I declare that I am ready to travel to any location in Ukraine at any time at the invitation of any responsible actor in order to help prevent bloodshed. I believe that the presence of independent and internationally known individuals in Ukraine at this time could help prevent the escalation of conflict.”

Khodorkovsky expressed his willingness to act as an honest broker in the extremely dangerous confrontation. The ‘civil war’ within Ukraine had reached a dangerous point with President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight on February 21 and with it the collapse of the EU-brokered peace deal envisioning a presidential election by the end of the year and the demobilization of confrontation. The demonstrators gathered on the Maidan rejected the deal.

On March 9, Khodorkovsky spoke in Ukraine, joining the assembled crowds on the Maidan to celebrate the anniversary of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko. His tone was strident and reflected the patriotic fervor of the occasion. The next day he delivered an important speech to the Kiev Polytechnic, which was more balanced, and shortly afterwards he hosted the Ukraine-Russia Dialogue in Kiev and some other cities.

With his highly political intervention in the Ukrainian crisis, including oblique but critical comments about Putin himself, Khodorkovsky placed himself firmly in the ‘European’ camp. Such an unmediated choice, however, does not exist, despite the genuine and heartfelt aspirations of the Maidan protesters and their analogues in Russia.

Those who looked to Khodorkovsky to provide a path to transcend the conflict, based on a demonstrably inclusive vision of Ukrainian statehood developing in partnership with Russia and the Western allies, were disappointed. Instead, Khodorkovsky allied himself with the ‘dissident’ tradition within Russia, the hard-line opposition who are the counterpart of the hard-liners within the regime.

Khodorkovsky knows all of this, but the longer he spends abroad, the more his judgment will be shaped by irreconcilables, and thus the Khodorkovsky option of reconciling democracy and patriotism will be jeopardized. His recent statements acknowledge the danger of becoming an instrument in the political agendas of others.

His return to active engagement in September 2014 comes at a time when the contradictions in the Russian political system are becoming evident. These tensions were vividly in evidence in the attack on Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the head of the Sistema conglomerate that owns the Bashneft oil company. Yevtushenkov was always an independent spirit, although notably cautious, and his arrest is a clear signal that loyalty is once again at a premium, as it was at the time of Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003.

Khodorkovsky’s return to active engagement needs to be seen in this light. There are two aspects to this work. The first is the revival of his Open Russia foundation, which wound up the first era of its activities in March 2006. The re-launch began with an extended videoconference on Sept. 20, which debated its aims and purposes by engaging with activists from ten Russian cities. The key focus, as it was in its first manifestation, is the revival of independent civic activism, or as Khodorkovsky likes to say, the development of civil society.

Funding will come from Khodorkovsky’s personal resources, although there is the expectation that projects in due course will find their own funding, and will support a range of activities. Khodorkovsky stressed how traditional parties were inadequate vehicles for public activity, and instead he sought to create a networked structure. Elections retained their legitimating functions, and hence, civic activism could compel the authorities to listen to popular demands.

Second, in a wide-ranging interview published in Vedomosti on Sept. 22, Khodorkovsky outlined his views on the political situation in Russia. As in so many of his prison letters, he stressed that for him, money was only a means to a larger end - and that end now meant engagement with public affairs. He warned that the authorities “for perfectly understandable reasons” were destroying the class of society that thinks “beyond its short-term personal interests.”

Even as a networked body with no single center, Open Russia could act as a genuine opposition force, although it would not be ‘political’ to the extent that it was, unlike a party, directly fighting for office. Instead, the aim was the transformation of society.

His initiatives could be interpreted as ‘political activity’ by the authorities, but as far as he was concerned, this was ‘public activity.’ He noted that he remained a ‘statist,’ but when asked about Crimea, he regretted that the events would estrange the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. The reunification represented “an archaic paradigm of building up territories,” whereas today, success is measured in the attractive power of a polity. He warned that the break with the West was driving Russia into the arms of China, where it would become little more than a supplier of raw materials, at disadvantageous terms for Russia.

Overall, it was clear that the Khodorkovsky who returned to active public life in September 2014 was much the same Khodorkovsky who had been arrested in October 2003. He still spoke in the same enigmatic way when it came to the authorities, although his meaning was clear both then and now: Democratic change was required, from the bottom up.

In normal circumstances, Khodorkovsky said, he would not be fighting for the presidency, for both legal and personal reasons, but when the present regime pushed the country into crisis, which he considered inevitable, and ”if people want to change the system of power for a more modern system (and not just replace Putin himself) then I am prepared to do the work at this stage (stabilization, constitutional conference, reallocation of a substantial proportion of presidential powers to parliament, the courts, civil society).”

While Khodorkovsky has not changed, the question is whether the regime itself has changed. Does it remain the same insecure and expansive power that it was a decade ago, or could it now accept that the work of bodies such as Open Russia could contribute to the solution of the problems facing the country?

Richard Sakwa is the author of Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky  Yukos Affair (London & New York, I. B. Tauris, 2014).

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.