Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time oil tycoon who spent a decade in President Vladimir Putin’s prisons, staked a claim to the leadership of Russia’s opposition as it staged its biggest demonstration in years.
Khodorkovsky, 51, living in exile in Switzerland since his release in December, called on supporters to help influence the nation’s 2016 parliamentary elections as he restarted his Open Russia movement. In interviews with European media including France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El Pais and Germany’s Der Spiegel, he made the case that Putin may hasten his own departure.
Russia’s opposition yesterday staged its biggest event since 2012, when Putin returned to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister. His popularity has rebounded since then as the conflict in neighboring Ukraine intensified. Even so, the government has been making errors that cost Russia, and people will eventually realize that, Khodorkovsky told El Pais.
“Khodorkovsky has changed his mind about politics, deciding that the situation turned more favorable for him after the Kremlin had allegedly made mistakes over Ukraine,” said Igor Bunin, head of Center for Political Technologies. “Still, a serious political crisis is needed for him to unite the opposition and bring his adherents to power.”
The “peace march” in Moscow drew about 26,000 people yesterday, according to Dmitry Nesterov, a coordinator for the Union of Observers for Russia. Assessments of the crowd size range between 5,000, as estimated by police, and as much as 100,000 according to Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man with a fortune of $15 billion, was freed by a presidential pardon in December. Imprisoned after convictions for tax evasion, money-laundering and oil embezzlement, Khodorkovsky maintained his innocence, saying the cases against him were retribution for financing opposition parties. The Kremlin has denied that.
The former tycoon said he’s ready to lead Russia in a crisis situation, according to France’s Le Monde newspaper, which published a video interview with the former main owner of Yukos Oil Co.
Putin’s regime may last 20 more years or end in as few as two if he makes more mistakes, Khodorkovsky told El Pais.
Russia, hit by U.S. and European sanctions over Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, is heading into recession and will post zero or negative growth for the next two to three years, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said last week.
Capital flight, running at the highest level since the 2008 global financial crisis, is set to accelerate after billionaire Vladimir Evtushenkov was placed under house arrest Sept. 16 and charged with money laundering, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said two days later.
Evtushenkov’s real crime is most likely refusing to sell his oil company, OAO Bashneft, to state-run OAO Rosneft under terms dictated by its chief executive officer, long-time Putin ally Igor Sechin, according to Khodorkovsky. The exiled businessman lost the bulk of Yukos to Rosneft in a series of forced auctions. Rosneft, the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer by output, has denied an interest in acquiring Bashneft.
The longer Putin stays in power, the higher the probability of Russia disintegrating in bloodshed, Khodorkovsky told Der Spiegel. The U.S. and its allies encouraged the Russian leader’s aggression by putting business before political principles, he said.
Russia’s disintegration “won’t be as peaceful as the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the Cold War,” he said, according to the German newspaper. Khodorkovsky said that he values Russia’s territorial integrity and that the country needs to be strong, Der Spiegel reported.
“The main goal of resistance is elections of all levels,” he said on his website, singling out the 2016 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. The opposition needs infrastructure “to support any candidate in elections of any level who adheres in practice to the European choice and who is prepared to fight the cancerous tumor that has consumed Russia.”
Khodorkovsky said he’s got enough money to finance support for opposition to Putin without setting up a political party, estimating his costs at millions of dollars, according to an interview published today in Vedomosti.
“Practically the only weak point of the regime in a political sense is its legitimization,” Khodorkovsky said. “The authorities can’t allow people to believe the elections are a pure fiction, so the opposition has a chance.”
Putin’s approval rating was at 84 percent in an Aug. 22-25 survey by the polling company Levada Center. That compares with 65 percent in January and a peak of 88 percent in 2008, Levada said Aug. 27. The poll of 1,600 people in 46 regions had a margin of error of no more than 3.4 percentage points.
The ruling United Russia party won countrywide regional elections held Sept. 15, in a ballot showing that the opposition has been fragmented and incapable of co-operation, according to Bunin at the Center for Political Technologies.
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, an opposition figure, said Khodorkovsky’s involvement would bolster Putin’s opponents.
“I welcome the decision of Mikhail Khodorkovsky to get involved in politics,” Kasyanov, who served as premier under Putin in 2000-2004, said by phone today. “There are not many of us and that will be additional support for our democratic movement to fight with the current regime in Russia.”
Source: BLOOMBERG / Sept. 22, 2014