As the Kremlin stokes the conflict in Ukraine and ratchets up tensions with NATO, there’s lots of talk about a Cold War redux.
So it was fascinating to hear Mikhail Khodorkovsky — the billionaire oil magnate whom Russian President Vladimir Putin imprisoned for a decade — describe a Russia that could be a democratic ally of America and Europe 10 or 20 years from now.
“Sooner or later, the system will collapse,” Khodorkovsky told the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington last week, adding, “After Putin, the situation will change.”
Freed by Putin just before the Sochi Olympics and now living in exile in Switzerland, the 51-year-old dissident urged Western nations to prepare for that future. “The West must establish close relations with the European-oriented part of Russia and (plan for) rapid re-integration into the global system after the regime changes,” he warned, because “we’re not going to have a big window of opportunity.”
With Putin firmly ensconced in power and cracking down on any opposition, this does sound like a pipe dream. The ease with which Putin restored authoritarian rule and the huge domestic support for his seizure of Crimea seem to offer scant hope for a democratic Russia. Yet there is good reason to ponder Khodorkovsky’s advice.
For one thing, the former magnate’s own biography puts him in a unique position to raise these issues. Khodorkovsky was one of the so-called oligarchs who bought chunks of Russia’s natural resources for a song during the wild 1990s, when Russia was making the transition from communism to capitalism. Khodorkovsky’s early reputation was not too savory; when I interviewed him at the World Economic Forum more than a dozen years ago, he seemed hard and cold.
But unlike other oligarchs, Khodorkovsky transformed his oil company, Yukos, into a giant ready to play by international standards and rules. He also contributed funds to Russian opposition groups, which is why the Kremlin trumped up tax-evasion charges against him, seized his company, and sent him to Siberia.
Now, in exile, he funds the Open Russia Foundation, which helps struggling Russian civil-society groups.
Khodorkovsky unofficially represents the urban, educated Russians who demonstrated by the tens of thousands in Moscow and other cities in 2012, calling for a more open and less corrupt political system. They are the main hope for Russia’s future, even though they don’t yet have a leader. (It’s not clear whether Khodorkovsky seeks that role.)
Moreover, as Khodorkovsky points out, the Russian population is geographically oriented toward Europe. Although the vast Russian landmass lies mostly in Asia, “out of 140 million (people), 120 million live in the European part,” he said. “And that part is increasing. After people figure that out, the question of whether Russia is or isn’t a European country won’t exist.”
Indeed, it is bizarre that the Russian economy is still so dependent on oil, gas, and other natural resources, many of which have been re-nationalized and are run in an opaque, third-world fashion, with large sums reportedly siphoned off to serve the political interests of Kremlin cronies.
With its educated population, rich in engineering and other technical skills, post-Soviet Russia should be leading the way in high-tech innovation, on par with Europe and the United States. Instead, mafia-style corruption and heavy-handed government regulations thwart such development.
Rather than catching up with the West, Putin relies on energy income as if he were an oil despot in a developing country. And his much-touted turn to Asia depends heavily on disadvantageous energy deals with China, which threaten to put Russia in thrall to Beijing.
At some point Putin’s economic mismanagement may boomerang.
Khodorkovsky said the current confrontation between Russia and the West is “absolutely artificial,” promoted by Putin and Russian elites to help them hold on to power.
“They desperately need an enemy which will distract the populace from all the corruption,” he said, “and inflaming them (against the West) is the only effective mechanism for the survival of the regime.” That’s why he believes there is no hope that Putin will abide by any strategic agreement with the West on Ukraine.
Meantime, the Russian president has been able to convince his own people that the West is a huge threat to Russia. The Kremlin maintains near-total control of national electronic and print media, which tell the Russian people the war in Ukraine is all America’s fault.
Khodorkovsky does not say how he thinks a post-Putin reality could evolve. (Some Russian analysts believe it can happen only after Putin dies.) But he makes a couple of essential points.
First, many Russians actually want what democracy offers, even though they reject the concept. They associate democracy with the economic disaster caused by the failed transitional period of the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed. But if you ask them whether they want an independent judiciary, fair local elections, and other elements of democratic life, they will say yes.
Second, the Russian dissident insists that countries can change their political culture and that Russians are not doomed by their history to despotism. Germany, he points out, became a democracy, albeit under Allied occupation.
Third, U.S. and European officials should think now about how to integrate a post-Putin Russia no matter how far off it is. “In the end, this will entail accession to NATO and the European Union,” he argued.
Of course, repeated efforts after 1991 to link Russia to the European Union and NATO failed, for reasons far more complex than the eastward expansion of NATO. It’s not clear what formula would work in the future.
Yet Khodorkovsky is correct to prod U.S. and European leaders to exercise more imagination, and not to give up on future generations of Russians. As Putin tries to provoke fears of a new Cold War, it’s not too soon for them to start brainstorming about what now seems inconceivable: a Russia in tune with the West.