20 years under Putin: a timeline

On October 6, Mikhail Khodorkovsky met with a group of Russian policy experts at the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. CFR’s senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies Stephen Sestanovich moderated the discussion.



On October 6, Russia’s former number-one political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky paid a visit to the Council for Foreign Relations, a leading U.S. think tank. The reason for the meeting was clear: it followed on the heels of Khodorkovsky’s September 20 re-launch of Open Russia, a movement and foundation started by Khodorkovsky in 2001 and closed in 2006, when Russian authorities froze its bank accounts. At the meeting, Khodorkovsky discussed the goals of Open Russia and the state of Russian politics today. 

According to Khodorkovsky, a significant number of Russian citizens hold a different view of Russia’s political situation than the one presented by the authorities. Many Russians advocate for a law-based state, separation of powers, and regular turnover of authorities (through elections). “The authorities [have] succeeded in dividing these citizens in[to] smaller, disconnected segments,” Khodorkovsky pointed out, noting that one of the key goals of Open Russia is to establish communication between these segments of society. “People have to realize that they have common political goals; they have to get an instrument that would allow them an opportunity to work together in particular situations.” The short-term goal of the Open Russia movement is to provide assistance to independent candidates in the 2016 Duma elections. 

Commenting on Russia’s development and prospects for a power handover in Russia’s government, Khodorkovsky argued that in light of Putin’s return to the presidency, “Everyone understands that it would be difficult for him to leave peacefully. It’s hard to imagine a strong presidential successor who would not be forced to get rid of Putin; if it’s not done, the public would continue to think that [it] was [again] just a temporary situation.” He also noted that “Russia’s problem is not just Putin”—the Russian president is primarily a symbol of the underlying problem, which is the absence of a law-based state. This situation can be changed only with the assistance of a constitutional assembly, which would have the capacity to determine the power structure for the transition period “from a totalitarian figure of the president to the system of separation of powers among the president, empowered parliament, and the court.” 

“We used to see the West as a moral example for ourselves. And this is where the West’s strength lies. To my deep regret, this view has become blurry in the last ten to twenty years.”

According to Khodorkovsky, inadequate quality of government personnel (especially at the regional level), arbitrary application of law, and the adoption of legislation aimed at resolving specific problems for incumbent authorities are among the main problems facing the Russian legal and judicial systems. Ten to fifteen percent of cases “have been considered by the courts in a different way than they should have been considered,” because the courts are controlled by the executive branch. In addition, 2 percent of political cases have been opened at the direct order of the authorities. “These 2 percent of cases demoralize the entire judicial system,” Khodorkovsky stated. The recent law that limits foreign ownership of Russian media to 20 percent is the most recent example of how legislative acts are being used by the authorities; in this case it primarily targets independent publications with foreign participation, such as Forbes Russia and Vedomosti

Khodorkovsky also spoke about the Western sanctions imposed on Russia in reaction to Russia’s military activity in Ukraine: “I believe that the West is unprepared to incur costs that would bring about really influential sanctions that would have an impact on the Russian economy. At the same time, I am not sure if such influential sanctions are even possible in the short-term.” He also pointed out that while the West has historically influenced Russia through its value system, in recent years, this has changed: “We used to see the West as a moral example for ourselves. And this is where the West’s strength lies. To my deep regret, this view has become blurry in the last ten to twenty years.” 

Many Russians believe that the West has long turned a blind eye as members of Putin’s circle embezzled from the Russian budget and moved capital abroad, but that as soon as Russia took an independent stance in the international arena, the West “started punishing Russia.” “In other words,” Khodorkovsky said, summarizing how this looks to Russians, “you do not punish [Russia] for holding an amoral position while it benefits you, but you do punish it for an independent international stance, apparently, because it does not benefit you.”

In concluding his talk on Russian politics, Khodorkovsky gave his assessment of the changes in Putin’s political behavior: “Has pragmatism remained or has his policy become [one of] short-term reflex? It is a big question for me…” He noted that many of the authorities’ current actions can be viewed as part of a “short-term reflex paradigm,” and that as a result, there appear to be few in the government interested in talking about long-term strategies to benefit Russia.