Khodorkovsky Is Behind the Times

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of the defunct Russian oil company, YUKOS, gave his first interview after his release from prison to Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the Russian independent newspaper, The New Times. In the interview, Mr Khodorkovsky stated, among other things, that he was ready to go to war to keep the rebellious North Caucasus under Russian control.

Valery Dzutsev, PhD student of political science at Arizona State University and regular contributor to Jamestown Foundation on developments in the North Caucasus, published a stinging commentary to Mr Khodorkovsky’s statements regarding the war in the North Caucasus and Russia’s role in the region. Below, a slightly edited translation of Mr Dzutsev’s blog post.

In his interview with The New Times, Mikhail Khodorkovsky said that Russia had to fight to keep the North Caucasians under its control. This admission should not be a big surprise to those who remember Mr Khodorkovsky’s role in the beginning of the second Russian-Chechen war. In my view, what is interesting is something else. Having been in prison, Mikhail Khodorkovsky seems to have fallen behind the times or, more to the point, has failed to keep up with it.

What I mean is that, in the beginning of the 2000s, the “progressive Russian public” thought that it was necessary to restore order in the affairs of government, reincarnate a strong centralised rule, and that this would solve most of Russia’s problems. The establishment of strong centralised rule meant the violent suppression of the Chechen movement for independence and of any other attempt to separate from the Russian Federation.

The central authorities did reach their goal: at present, no one in Russia is calling for the exit of their region from the Russian Federation. However, over time, and to its surprise, the “progressive Russian public” has learned an interesting lesson. It turns out that when Russians are oppressing other peoples, the Russians themselves cannot count on being able to live in a democratic state where the rule of law would reign supreme. What is more, the oppression of peoples and the overcentralisation of power will, in the end, lead to the deterioration of the business climate and innovation potential of the whole country. The price for maintaining the empire turns out to be not only very high, but undermines the very meaning of the functional state in the modern world.

Mr Khodorkovsky demonstrated that his views on the North Caucasus have remained in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. It is difficult to say what exactly defined his views — personal problems with the Caucasian mafia, antipathy toward Muslims, the Soviet tradition, or something else. Mr Khodorkovsky’s entire political innovativeness consists of his conviction that Russia needs to get rid of a personalistic government and not allow the transformation of Putin’s regime into the regime of, say, [opposition leader Alexey] Navalny.

This aspiration is quite understandable, and it is similar to how, after the death of [Soviet dictator Joseph] Stalin, the members of the then ruling elite did not want a repeat of another cult of personality. In the end, any personalistic regime will begin to squeeze not only the country’s economy, not only the people, but the ruler’s entourage as well. Even the financial and political elites will, in the end, begin to wish for more coherent rules of the game that are less dependent on the personal whims of the ruler and his immediate cohort.

Mr Khodorkovsky voices the opinion of this “national bourgeoisie,” which thinks that it is time to change the rules of the game and make them more transparent and coherent. I think that this is a very commendable aspiration. The problem is that this is an agenda that belongs to the past. In practice, the creation of a new “politburo” that adheres to the Russian imperialist ideology as a guide to action will not lead Russia to any noticeable progress, nor to peace in the country. In fact, Mr Khodorkovsky is talking about the creation of a “collective Putin” that would, in essence, rule the country with the same methods as Putin himself. The problem is that we already have a Putin, and the novelty factor in the opinions of the Russian bourgeoisie is clearly not radical enough to inspire people today.

Please do not get me wrong: I absolutely do not think that Mr Khodorkovsky should have been thrown in jail. Moreover, I think that his release is a very good sign. When a super rich person like Mr Khodorkovsky cannot defend himself in court, it means that all other citizens are totally defenseless in such a country. Therefore, the incarceration of Mr Khodorkovsky, regardless of his personal views on public affairs, was a blow against the society as a whole. His release, obviously, does not signify any “thaw,” at least for now, but it is still better for the society than his continued incarceration.

Valery Dzutsev, 22 December 2013

Original (in Russian):

Translation: Kerkko Paananen

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