Khodorkovsky’s release and the end of the Russian opposition
Khodorkovsky’s release from prison, with his ensuing declarations about his intentions, was an event of great importance. In fact, this event signifies Putin’s final victory over the democratic opposition in Russia, and the regime’s entrance into a stage wherein society will function without influential oppositional figures. Khodorkovsky, who looked like a potential leader of the resistance to the authoritarian leader while he was in prison, indirectly endorsed Putin as the legitimate Russian leader. Indeed, as a Moscow journalist said, and as paradoxical as it may sound, his liberation was a pleasant New Year’s gift the Russian president gave to himself.
Look at the conditions under which Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison in December: his immediate departure from Russia and a promise to abandon his oppositional activities. He is permitted to take the innocuous action of working from abroad to release other political prisoners. The Kremlin would hardly consider Khodorkovsky’s naïve New Year’s recommendation to the Kremlin on how to extirpate corruption—which was simply unbelievable for such a famous manager—as a breach of his promise to be out of politics. Khodorkovsky merely suggested they “decimate, or fire, each tenth apparatchik in the so-called Power Ministries.”
Based on the texts he sent from prison, Khodorkovsky had emerged as a political tribune to the Russian people, comparable in Russian history with either prince Andrey Kurbsky, who wrote vitriolic letters to his former boss, the tsar Ivan the Terrible, or with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote his famous “Letter to the Soviet leaders.” What Khodorkovsky said after his release has very little in common with the texts he composed in his prison cell. Such terms as “authoritarianism” or “honest election,” which were key words in any of the extended articles written by him behind bars, were absent in his talks with journalists after his liberation. He said nothing bad about the Russian justice system, whose treatment of him aroused justified anger across the world. From these talks, Putin, Khodorkovsky’s tormentor, almost looked like a decent and compassionate figure. For instance, Khodorkovsky was quick to mention that Putin did not demean himself by hurting his prisoner’s family during his ten-year stint as a prisoner. This reminds me of a famous and gloomy Soviet anecdote that mockingly praised the normally cruel Lenin, who behaved quite unexpectedly when a little girl lost the ball she was playing with, and the great leader lifted the ball and returned it to her, when everybody knew he could easily kill her.
In an interview with Moscow’s newspaper Slon, the former prisoner, who spent 10 years behind bars on false grounds at Putin’s direct request, described the Russian president as a rather positive state leader with whom his victim has many common views about the goals for the country, even if there are some disagreements about the means of their implementation. To Putin’s pleasure, he declared his objections to the boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi. Khodorkovsky even found that he and the president share some moral principles, which demand obeisance not so much to the law as to the norms accepted in their environment. The number of times that Khodorkovsky hailed the Russian president—directly or indirectly—almost suggests that this highly sophisticated individual who startled the world with his philosophical thoughts in his messages from prison had become something of a victim of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological state in which the victim starts to love, or at least respect, his oppressor. (I am sure that Khodorkovsky’s parents are untouched by this syndrome.)
Stanislav Belkovsky, a well-known political analyst, treated Khodorkovsky’s nice words about Putin slightly differently. He ended his article about his meeting in Berlin with the former prisoner in Moskovskii Komsomelets by stating that, “Khodorkovsky and Putin are, today, both victors.” In Kommersant Daily, Andrei Kolesnikov also commented on the deal between Khodorkovsky and Putin, mockingly asserting that it is not clear who endowed clemency to whom—Putin to Khodorkovsky or vice versa.
Khodorkovsky is very pessimistic—not without serious grounds—about the prospect of democracy for Russia in the near future. However, he put the responsibility for it not on the Kremlin, not on “the person of the president,” but on “our citizens who, by a large majority, don’t understand their fate; they have to be responsible for it themselves.” Amazingly, he ignored the political climate, with its psychological pressure through the media and coercion, which was a direct product of Putin’s policies. As Khodorkovsky contends, the paternalism Putin has imposed on Russian society is requested by “60 percent,” a very popular view among people serving Putin’s regime, but also among Russian liberals who, like Boris Nemtsov in an interview with radio Ekho Moskvy, were in hurry to agree with Khodorkovsky. (The reference to “the bad masses” is a perennial justification for the obedience that conformist intellectuals, yearning for safety and benefits, have always given to the rulers of any country).
The developments in Ukraine in the last months of 2013, where the people showed their ability and eagerness to defend their views, and boldly confronted the political power, were not perceived by most Russian liberals as evidence of the democratic potential of their own people but rather as new proof that, in their subservience to their rulers, Russians are almost genetically or traditionally different from many other nations. Khodorkovsky’s comments on the developments in Kiev were also stupefying. He used it as a pretext to hail his liberator once again, recommending that Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich take “the president of my country” as a model, and release his No.1 prisoner, Yulia Timoshenko.
In no way can anybody rebuke Khodorkovsky for his political timidity in the aftermath of his release from the jail. He has already made a considerable contribution to the history of the struggle for freedoms in Russia. Instead of fleeing the country when the danger of incarceration was evident, he defied the Kremlin boss and stayed—to the amazement of the whole Russian society, both his followers and his enemies. His articles and letters written behind bars will probably be part of Russia’s intellectual baggage for the next several decades. His behavior in prison was an enviable example of courage and decency, which is something only a few prisoners in Russia or any other country can boast about. Vladimir Bukovsky, a famous dissident with rich experience of prison life in Russia, gave Khodorkovsky the highest grade for his conduct. In any case, Khodorkovsky earned the right to a private life, and to “grow cabbage” (the activity the Roman emperor Diocletian pursued when he voluntarily retired, as opposed to a choosing a political life). However, the people still involved in the fight for democracy in Russian view the deal between Khodorkovsky and Putin with sadness. They cannot be happy about his withdrawal from the battle against the regime. The influential Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta noted that the events surrounding Khodorkovsky’s release can lead to some disintegration of the Russian oppositional movement.
His deal is, in fact, remarkably similar to the contract Putin has imposed on the Russian people—extracting their promise “not to engage in politics.” Putin expects his subjects to: stay out of politics; do not try to threaten his life-long tenure as the leader of the Russian Federation, and he will leave them to live as they wish (among other things, to enrich themselves through corruption, and spend their vacations abroad).
Khodorkovsky’s refusal to participate in political life is only one of several events that have led to the factual disappearance of the opposition in Russia. It was the result of the Kremlin’s sophisticated policy, which effectively combined corruption and coercion against political enemies, real and potential. Yurii Andropov, Putin’s icon, did something like this in the 1970s. Using diverse and mostly subtle methods, after exiling Andrei Sakharov from Moscow to the provinces and Alexander Solzhenitsyn abroad, the head of the KGB fired those who signed the protest letters and forced some dissidents to betray their comrades. Andropov almost exterminated any forms of resistance to the regime, which had no traces of any serious resistance to it by 1985. Putin has achieved just about the same result, amazingly, in the same period of time, 7-10 years. He has practically “cleaned” the country of any potential opposition leader.
Alexei Navalny, seemingly the most serious rival to Putin following his success in the election campaign for Moscow mayor in September 2013, could not use it as a springboard to becoming a true national opposition leader. He continues to have very little popularity in the provinces. In December 2013, no more than 5 percent of Russians were ready to vote for him in a presidential election, compared with 47 percent for Putin. Navalny is still formally a criminal, with a deferred 5-year prison sentence, and he can be re-arrested at any time, even if the new criminal cases will not bring him a new prison term. He does not have the right to take part in any election for the next 15 years. Putin ostensibly has not extended amnesty to him, leaving Navalny completely at the president’s mercy. Putin, in fact, derogated Navalny at a press conference, saying that he is completely “innocuous” to the authorities. The president could not restrain himself from his typical vulgarities, using obscene words to describe the entire oppositional movement as exercises in vanities. By the way, in order to downplay the role of Khodorkovsky in Russia, Putin announced his decision about the clemency—the most important political event in Russia of the whole year—only after his 4-hour press conference had formally ended, while Putin was having a supposedly casual conversation with journalists.
Mikhail Prokhorov, a hope of many liberals who are afraid of Navalny’s flirtation with nationalism, suddenly transferred his formal position as the leader of his “Party of Civic Platform” to his sister in December, imitating Putin’s notorious exchange of power with Medvedev, which had triggered mass public protests. Evidently, whatever his reasons for making this move, Prokhorov’s chances of becoming a serious opposition leader have now dwindled significantly. Another active opposition figure, Sergei Udaltsov, has been totally isolated from society for the last six months, under house arrest. The champion chess master Garry Kasparov, who was very active in political opposition before, has fled the country, fearing arrest. For the same reason, the prominent economist Sergei Guriev, a moderate critic of the regime, also quit the country. A few other figures who were known for their oppositional activity a year ago, such as writer Boris Akunin, journalist Ksenia Sobchak, and politicians Vladimir Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov, have been very passive and, not without reason, are ignored by Putin.
Answering questions about current political figures during his press conference in December, Putin was able to ignore all oppositional politicians, and, in evident defiance of public opinion, named Vladimir Zhirinovsky as his No. 2 politician (after Gennady Ziuganov, the leader of the Communist Party). Zhirinovsky is an admitted political clown and stooge of the Kremlin; his political career was arranged by the KGB, and he always supports the Kremlin.
Khodorkovsky’s release on the eve of the New Year only crowned the Kremlin’s operation, marking the practical extinction of the opposition “of political life,” in the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, a Moscow journalist. Many observers of Russian life made this diagnosis in December. The dismantling of the “Coordination Council of Opposition” in October 2013 was a symbolic event in the sad history of the Russian opposition under Putin.
By all accounts, Putin has managed to convince a considerable part, if not the majority, of the liberal community—it influences between one-fifth and one-third of the population—that any opposition leader who replaced him as president would be a disaster for Russia. Putin is glad to see among his supporters not only those who say that Russia is now in very good shape but also those who depict the country as a morass which would, however, only be exchanged for something worse under different leadership. In December 2013, the liberal newspaper Vedomosti published an article by the famous liberal economist Konstantin Sonin, vice president of the Highest School of Economics, a harsh critic of Putin’s administration in the past. The author tries to convince the readers that it is meaningless to change the leadership in the country because new leaders like Navalny or Khodorkovsky would, first of all, appoint “childhood friends” to the new positions. Even more fatal is that they would be unable to find a sufficient number of honest and competent people in Russia to help transform the country.
Putin, in fact, completely rules the minds of two-thirds of the population, a number of supporters that any leader in the West would envy. A rather liberal and relatively independent political analyst, Fedor Lukianov, could not stop himself from praising Putin in his article in a December issue of Komsomolskaia Pravda. He is convinced that Putin is “more attractive to the world than is Russia as a country”; that Putin looks like “a titan” in a comparison with the leaders of all other Western countries, and that he inspires “reverential fear” in the world.
In the last months, many Russian analysts have started to look at polling data showing the support of Putin with new eyes. They refuse to see these data as approval of the work Putin has done as president. Rather, they view it as a reflection of the fact that the majority of Russians do not see a viable alternative leader out there; one who would be able to prevent the country from gliding into anarchy in the existing political climate in Russia. Now, Putin will be able to persuade this “two-thirds” about practically everything. He can enforce the thought in the minds of the Russians that Khodorkovsky is a criminal but, at the same time, he can easily get the same 60 percent (if only those who responded are taken into account) to endorse his decision to release the man.
Putin fully controls the Russians’ attitudes toward the external world. Many Russians now believe the television program that suggested that the Kiev rebellion was organized by Sweden as revenge for the Poltava battle, where their king, Karl XII, was defeated by Peter the Great in 1709.
Putin’s grip on the power over Russia is as strong as ever. In some ways, Putin has surpassed Stalin in his ability to possess absolute power without having to resort to mass repressions to continue to rule Russia, unrestrained by any institution, even one like the Politburo.
So far, Putin has not resorted to the OMON or the army to protect his power from his potential enemies—who are, thus far, invisible. Neither has he resorted, so far, to the nationalist organizations that would, at the first call of the FSB, attack any population segment targeted by the Kremlin as an enemy of the regime. Putin also has not yet called his vassal, Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnia, who would, at Putin’s call, immediately send hundreds of his thugs, full of hatred for Russians, to exterminate those who endanger his boss.
Even if the economic situation deteriorates, Putin can long rely on the Stockholm syndrome, which most of the population has embraced. The most terrible terrorist acts in Russia, like those in Volgograd on New Year’s Eve, will not shake Putin’s authority in the country; neither would a significant decline in the price of oil. The world will have to deal with the absolute ruler of Russia for many years to come. Fortunately, contemporary Russia is economically weak, and its army is not prepared for any serious military action. Putin, as a shrewd and sly leader, will avoid the serious risk of a confrontation with the West. Ultimately, the “normal” relations with the West, with all of his anti-Western propaganda, are only addressed to a domestic audience, and are very important to Putin and his circle of friends. “The Magnitsky list”—the list banning the access of Russian dignitaries to the West, where they keep their wealth, continues to be the most powerful threat to the Kremlin and the Russian elite.