Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Gilbert Doctorow is a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow
For those of us monitoring developments in and around Russia, the breaking news over the weekend was Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s interview inLe Mondein which he spoke openly about his political ambitions for the first time since leaving Russia and declared his readiness to serve as President if opportunity knocked.That one-liner was immediately picked up by the news agencies and mainstream media outlets who delivered it to the general public, for the most part without commentary on its immediate context, more commonly with allusions to Khodorkovky’s original vying for power a decade ago leading to his prosecution for tax fraud and imprisonment.
A few mainstream papers, in particularThe GuardianandThe Moscow Timeshave been more responsible and placed the comment in the context of Khodorkovsky’s re-launch of his Open Russia political foundation in Berlin on Saturday, together with the website openrussia.org. There he framed his talk as the start of a campaign to reshape Russian politics by putting together a coalition of Opposition movements to campaign in the 2016 Duma elections.
For his part, the day after the news broke, Khodorkovsky made a public clarification of his widely quoted statement, namely that under the terms of his release from prison and under Russian law with respect to the civil rights of persons sentenced for serious crimes he is unable to stand for president. He went on to say that he was ready to take power only in a crisis situation, which he fears (!) could arise soon under the present conditions of confrontation with the West.
Here we come to the crux of the matter.Khodorkovsky’s announced candidacy fits hand in glove with the scenario of regime change in Russia being stage promoted from Washington.The authors of the sanctions policy firmly believe that if enough pressure is applied to the Russian economy and if the Putin administration can be cast as being solely responsible for this punishment due to its reckless interference in Ukraine, then the Russian elites will split, the people will take to the streets and there will be a vacuum of power that can be seized by a well-organized minority, which is how Khodorkovsky himself characterizes his following in Russia.
As if on cue, Opposition leaders headed by the maverick former Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov yesterday led a demonstration through the streets of Moscow that was promoted in advance as a march for peace but was, yet again, a bait and switch exercise . Banners were unfurled calling for Russia without Putin, calling for a European course for Russia. Between five and twenty-five thousand mostly unsuspecting and well-meaning Muscovites were thus used as extras in a play scripted by Khodorkovsky's new allies in the ever bickering yet opportunistic Opposition.
I conclude that Washington has taken up Khodorkovsky as the new Great White Hope for Russia. In this position he replaces a succession of pitiful losers starting with Gary Kasparov, passing through Boris Nemtsov and lastly leader of the 2011-12 disturbances, non-systemic opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The color revolution program authored in Washington is irresponsible as regards international stability given the economic, political and military might of Russia and it is ignorant of Russian conditions, where all signs are that the US-led pressure has so far resulted in the exact opposite of what was predicted. To quote Dmitry Rogozin from yesterday’s edition ofSunday Night with Vladimir Solovievon Russian state television, Western sanctions have become a test of the national fiber and are bringing out its best qualities. Opinion polls uniformly show a greater than 80% approval rating of President Putin following the onset of the confrontation with the EU-US over the Donbass. Meanwhile the bite of sanctions has made the country’s suffering oligarchs both less offensive to the broad public and personally dependent on government largesse to avoid falling into loss. The country is riding a wave of patriotic fervor which shows up the plans of Khodorkovsky and his Washington handlers as delusional.
I have heard Khodorkovsky’s appeal to his compatriots on live streaming from his website, and I call out.the key falsehood on which his outreach stands:the notion of a European Choice for Russia. This is poisoned bait.
In the fine print, Khodorkovsky explains that this means rule of law, presidents who can be voted out of office instead of serving for life, etc.But no one will read the fine print. And the public expectation of a European Choice is a EuroMaidan for Russia. This illusion is supported by his repeated assertion that Russia is part of Europe. Looking at the map, that is re-statement of the obvious.However, the assertion is meant in political terms and willfully ignores the fact that Europe has no interest whatsoever in Russia joining it, however democratic Russia might be. Russia in Europe would totally change the balance of power within the EU. This is exactly the same situation as within NATO, where for a brief moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the democratic Russian Federation, the US entertained the idea of bringing Russia into the Alliance. Finally Washington decided against Russia in NATO in 1994 because it had no desire to share decision making power in NATO with any other member of the Alliance, least of all with what it considered its defeated Cold War foe.
Another falsehood that came out in the very first words of Khodorkovsky’s address was the assertionthat life in Russia is now worse than at any time in its history.This would be a howler if it were not so cynical and malicious.The genuine facts are totally at variance with this wishful thinking of the Russian Opposition. Plainly Russians have never had it so good.
In closing, and in the interests of full disclosure, I inform the reader that I have had personal and bitter experience with Mikhail Khodorkovsky which makes me view very skeptically his advocacy of democracy and rule of law..In 2002, in my last year as Chairman of the Russian Booker literary prize, I assisted in the transition of sponsorship from my past employer, a British based multinational company, to the incoming sponsor, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia, which then still had a substantial organization supervising its various charitable endeavors.
In picking up the Booker, Khodorkovsky was merely taking a page out of the playbook of fellow oligarch and fighter against the Putin regime, Boris Berezovsky, at the time still a major sponsor of Russian cultural life. Berezovsky had the crème de la crème of stage directors, producers, playwrights and other creative persons eating out of his hand thanks to the modest prizes of the Golden Mask awards which he sponsored.Though I left the Booker that year ahead of the awards ceremony, my former colleagues later told me how Khodorkovsky, now in a prison cell, had dictated to the Booker jury who must be chosen the winner in 2002 in direct violation of everything that was sacred within the traditions of the prize.In a word, he spat on civil society.
In conclusion, I submit that Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not a modern day Alexander Herzen. His openrussia.org isn’tThe Bell. And Russian society today is not asleep, awaiting the White Prince. On the contrary, Russia is a beehive of activity and of free debate.