Interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky

'I Believe Putin Is Capable of Change'

Interview Conducted by Christian Esch and Britta Sandberg

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, former Russian oligarch and regime critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky talks about the importance of the World Cup for Moscow's reputation and of a possible end to the Putin era.

Photo Gallery: Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Vision of Russian Democracy

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 55, is Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent in exile. The government arrested the billionaire in 2003 after he sparred publicly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and he spent 10 years in prison. Since receiving a pardon, he has sought to promote democracy in his home country through the Open Russia movement. He lives in London.


DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Khodorkovsky, the World Cup is currently being held in Russia. At the same time, the Kremlin has been the subject of criticism for its actions in Ukraine and Syria and for human rights violations in its own country. Should Western politicians attend the matches?

Khodorkovsky: The World Cup is important for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin wants to show the Russians and the world that they are respected and not isolated. But it is also important for millions of Russians who love football. That's why it is very good that there has not been any boycott. However: The fans coming to the World Cup are guests of the Russians. But the politicians are guests of Putin. And I think it is immoral and politically dangerous for Western politicians to express their respect for the clique in the Kremlin in this way. We don't know what Putin will do next.

DER SPIEGEL: Western politicians could use their visits to help secure the release of political prisoners like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who began a hunger strike in mid-May.

Khodorkovsky: If Putin promised to release hostages in exchange, then, of course -- you'd have to go there and ignore everything else.

DER SPIEGEL: What if politicians were to use the visit exclusively to address the issue?

Khodorkovsky: That's the risk they take. If hostages were to be released after such a trip, then it wil have been justified. If not, it would not have been. But it's not up to me to give advice.

DER SPIEGEL: Putin released you in 2013 before the Olympic Games in Sochi. Sentsov is also a political prisoner, convicted of "terrorism" as an opponent of the annexation of Crimea. Why didn't Putin release him before the World Cup?

Khodorkovsky: Putin has been pursuaded by the people close to him that Sentsov is a terrorist. And Putin has positioned himself as someone who fights terrorism. He considers the intelligence reports that he relies on to be absolutely trustworthy. But that doesn't mean that he can't change his mind. That's evident from my case.

DER SPIEGEL: Has he ever regretted your release?

Khodorkovsky: Whatever the case may be, he has approved the opening of new criminal proceedings against me. He has noticed that, even though I don't pose a threat to him outside prison, I can still make him uncomfortable.

DER SPIEGEL: As a prisoner, you also went on several hunger strikes yourself. Is Sentsov's life in danger?

Khodorkovsky: Feeding tubes are a very dangerous thing. Soviet experience showed that no one can survive it for more than a year. Sentsov is also serving his sentence above the Arctic Circle, in Labytnangi. Only those born there or who are able to adapt to the climate can survive 20 years in the far north. Sentsov is too old for that.

DER SPIEGEL: Your Open Russia movement has been championing his cause. What exactly have you been doing?

Khodorkovsky: We actively supported the rallies in Moscow for Sentsov. For the opening of the World Cup, our people hung a large picture of him next to Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, but it was immediately torn down again.

DER SPIEGEL: You were once considered Russia's richest man and you know many Russian billionaires who have been personally affected by Western sanctions. Are the sanctions hitting the right people?

Khodorkovsky: I wouldn't presume to say whether the right people are being hit from the perspective of Western countries. I don't even know why these people were targeted -- the reasons weren't made public. I think that is a mistake.

DER SPIEGEL: What effect do the sanctions have on Russia's wealthy?

Khodorkovsky: Take a man like Gennady Timchenko, who has a house in Geneva, or Igor Sechin, who has an 80-meter (262-foot) yacht in the Mediterranean. Of course, it's a loss if they are no longer able to use these things. But when Putin is no longer in power, they will lose everything. What is more important to them? Nobody will seek to topple Putin just because they are no longer allowed to travel to the Bavarian Alps.

DER SPIEGEL: You're trying to influence Russian political developments through a foundation. Which young politicians do you consider to be especially promising?

Khodorkovsky: The best-known are, in descending order: Alexei Navalny, the left-wing politician Sergei Udaltsov, Yevgeny Roizman, the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, ex-Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov...

DER SPIEGEL: ... and Ksenia Sobchak, the society reporter who was permitted to run in the last election as Putin's challenger? Many view her as being a puppet of the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky: Sobchak plays the game the Kremlin allows her to play in politics. But that also applies to all politicians in Russia. Anyone who crosses the lines set for them will wind up in prison. Ksenia Sobchak asked for my support before the election. I asked her: Can you guarantee that you will not abandon your political involvement afterward? That you will devote all your time to politics? She said: No, I can't. That's why I didn't give her my vote when I cast my ballot.

DER SPIEGEL: But did then wind up supporting Sobchak. Activists with your Open Russia movement organized Sobchak's election campaign in the regions.

Khodorkovsky: The goal of our movement is the introduction of a parliamentary democracy. To achieve that goal, we support independent politicians. And there was a split among them: About half of the activists founded Nawalny's regional offices, while the other half set up Sobchak's. It was a conflict that I had to mediate. I said: We can support someone if they have a future in a parliamentary democracy. But those who say, "this politician is the only one who embodies our future," they need to look for a different movement.

DER SPIEGEL: Navalny, in particular, has been accused of not tolerating any competition.

Khodorkovsky: Navalny's model is that of the leader. I know that is consistent with the mentality in today's Russia. He promises to ensure a more democratic form of government if he gets elected. But I think it would end in a new authoritarianism. I have also said that to Navalny. I support him as one of the politicians that a future Russia needs, but not as the sole savior who leads us to democracy. We don't need a benevolent czar, no matter what his name may be.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you satisfied with the results delivered by your political movement?

Khodorkovsky: It's hard to be totally satisfied. If we look at Russia today, there are two independent movements within the democratic spectrum. One is that of Navalny's people, and the other is Open Russia. Everyone else is in decline, even the left-liberal Yabloko Party. It is important for a democratic Russia that there is not just one opposition structure, but two. But only when there are three, or better yet four, will I be confident that we we won't end up in a new authoritarianism after a regime change.

DER SPIEGEL: You aren't the first rich Russian to have confronted Putin and fought from abroad for a change in government. The late oligarch Boris Berezovsky did the same. What differentiates you from him?

Khodorkovsky: Berezovsky saw himself as the man who had brought Putin to power and was then betrayed by Putin. He wanted to create trouble for Putin, not to democratize Russia. My aim is not the overthrow of the president, but the establishment of parliamentary democracy. If Putin is prepared tomorrow to democratize the country himself, then I'm all for it.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you expect changes in the next few years, even before the end of Putin's term of office in 2024?

Khodorkovsky: Realistically speaking, little is likely to change. But I do believe Putin is capable of change, even if the odds are slim.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you think of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's involvement in Russia? He's also now on the supervisory board of Rosneft, the oil company of Putin's confidant Igor Sechin.

Khodorkovsky: I do not approve of Schröder's behavior, but I do understand it. Putin helped him adopt two children, so he feels a deep sense of personal gratitude. The result being that he convinces himself that Putin is not as bad as everyone says. Putin has done a good job at this -- he's a professional when it comes to recruiting. Today, Schröder is a person who has no influence on Putin, but through him, Putin can influence a segment of German society.

DER SPIEGEL: What influence does Vladimir Putin have on Donald Trump? Do you think the Kremlin actually has any compromising material against him?

Khodorkovsky: I don't believe there is material of importance in Moscow. Trump is not the kind of man you could put in jeopardy with stories about women. And as far as financial ties with Russia are concerned, they would have to be at such a high level that the FBI would have noticed.

DER SPIEGEL: Maybe Putin and Trump are just soul mates ...

Khodorkovsky: I don't believe that either. To me, Trump is an extravagant businessman who wants to transfer his experience from the business world to the system of government. When inappropriate methods are transferred to a new object, a conflict arises -- and this is similar to the conflict that arises in Putin's system, where a mafioso group is trying to lead a country. Essentially, they are quite different. The similarities are purely on the surface.

DER SPIEGEL: Russia is in a difficult situation. In contrast to those imposed by the European Union, the U.S. Congress has ensured that American sanctions against Russia are very difficult to lift. What would you do if you were in government?

Khodorkovsky: I would say, I don't care about sanctions in the first place. I can export oil and gas anyway, and the West will not be able to do without them, so these revenues will still be mine. I would also take a calm view toward the ban on importing certain technologies. Russia is so economically ineffective that it is unable to use cutting-edge technology anyway. The slightly older models that we are still able to get suffice for our purposes. What would worry me is the lack of human potential. The most productive people are leaving the country and foreign experts are no longer coming. It's also a question of reputation.

DER SPIEGEL: Can the World Cup bring about change on that front?

Khodorkovsky: In this respect, the World Cup is important, even if it alone does not go far enough. I would also reform the institutions. The people I want to attract can have no impact unless there are independent courts and a parliament that does its work professionally. Reputation and the institutional environment are crucial. Sanctions are of secondary importance.

DER SPIEGEL: You had high hopes for Ukraine when the Euromaidan revolution prevailed there. Are you disappointed today in the face of sluggish reforms?

Khodorkovsky: I had hoped that Ukraine would become a model for Russian society. Unfortunately, Putin has succeeded in preventing this. And, unfortunately, some people in Ukraine helped him to do so -- out of greed. Other than that, though, I'm not disappointed. Ukraine is a large country, and no rapid changes could be expected. If the Ukrainians prevent a relapse into authoritarianism, the country will become a normal democracy after one or two changes of government. The economy will also recover.

DER SPIEGEL: Why do you assume that so much will change once Putin has left office? The system he created could outlast him.

Khodorkovsky: Only for a short time. Putin will push the country to the limits of its resilience. A poll showed that 20 percent of Muscovites want to go abroad. That sends a dangerous message. If we are not talking about Putin himself, but about Putin's regime, then I do not believe it will live to see its 30th anniversary. They'll ruin the country sooner.

DER SPIEGEL: You've lived in London since 2016. Are you watching the World Cup on TV there?

Khodorkovsky: I used to play football, but I have never really become a fan. If the Russian team reaches the quarterfinals, though, I'll watch. Emotionally, I'm still Russian.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Khodorkovsky, we thank you for this interview.

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