With just a week to go until parliamentary elections, a new online project from Mikhail Khodorkovsky is attempting to bring greater awareness to the need for credible opposition candidates in Russia.

Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks during a news conference in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, April 27, 2014. Photo: Reuters

The exiled former head of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has launched an online project aimed at addressing the lack of a serious opposition candidate in Russia who could potentially challenge Vladimir Putin for the leadership of the country by the 2018 Russian presidential election

The “Instead of Putin” website, aimed at identifying the figure of a popular candidate to lead Russia’s opposition, was launched on Sept. 12. So far, it features 11 candidates. The site says that every Russian can offer their presidential candidate. The final candidate will be determined by a vote on the site and the decision of the expert group.

The project’s authors say that the Russians are told there is no alternative to current Russian President Vladimir Putin. The project “is to show that among the more than 145 million Russians, there is a sufficient number of people capable of taking up the post of president of the Russian Federation."

The search for a ‘single, strong opposition candidate’

Currently, the potential presidential candidates are mainly represented on the website by well-known opposition politicians, such as popular blogger Alexei Navalny and the head of the liberal Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky. However, there are also figures who are almost unknown to the general public, such as historian Ivan Kurilla from Volgograd.

The candidates also include the vice president of the Russian branch of Transparency International, Yelena Panfilova. In an interview with RBTH, she said she was unaware that she had become a ‘participant’ in the project.

“Learning about it, especially early on Monday morning, is quite a fascinating experience,” she said. According to her, the potential participants should have been asked in advance about their opinions on the initiative before being included in the list.

Panfilova notes that the platform is unlikely to help identify potential new leaders – so far, the most popular candidates on the website are Navalny and former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. At the same time, in her opinion, the project is civic rather than political in character, and as such it deserves support.

However, opposition politician Vladimir Milov, one of the key figures behind the project points out that the initiative is important politically because it will help find a “single, strong opposition candidate.”

“Khodorkovsky is quite an authoritative man in opposition circles,” Milov told RBTH. “The fact that he is now trying to put forward some candidates at an early stage and to arrange for a discussion is a good thing.” He points out that Khodorkovsky himself cannot stand as a candidate, since he is based abroad.

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 ‘The dismantling of the political system’

Political analysts not affiliated with the project are divided about the initiative, with some seeing it as an attempt to seek a change of the political system in Russia, while others dismiss this as unrealistic.

Alexei Zudin, a political scientist and a member of the expert council of the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, which is believed to have close ties to the Kremlin, sees the initiative as far from innocent, even if it is doomed to failure.

Zudin told RBTH that Khodorkovsky’s project is not so much anti-Putin as it is aimed against the entire political system in the form in which it has existed for the last decade and a half.

According to Zudin, Khodorkovsky’s goal is the “dismantling of the entire political and institutional heritage, which [...] Russia, as a state, has acquired over the time that Vladimir Putin has been in power.”

Khodorkovsky himself has said in an interview with the RBC online newspaper that the idea of his project is not to identify a presidential ‘candidate’ specifically for the upcoming elections. According to him, an opposition candidate will not be able to come to power through elections under the existing rules.

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“He may come to power as a result of sudden changes,” said the former head of Yukos, without elaborating on what kind of changes in the political environment he had in mind.

However, Yury Korgunyuk, the head of the political science department of the INDEM Foundation, which is critical of the authorities, is confident that in the event of any serious political upheaval, it would be impossible to somehow calculate the situation and prepare for it in advance, especially from abroad.

Korgunyuk argues that Khodorovsky, who cannot be suspected of naivety, is engaged in this ‘virtual’ venture just in order to “flex his muscles.”

The article initially appeared at Russia Beyond The Headlines.