On February 26, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Open Russia, presented a lecture called “Russia Under Putin and Beyond” at Chatham House in London. In his address, he dispelled the major myths instilled by Putin’s regime and shared his image of an alternative path for Russia.

 

 

Khodorkovsky started his speech with some historical references to a centuries-long period of active cooperation between Russia and Great Britain, mentioning Peter the Great’s visit to England. After that visit he outlined a plan for a new Russia.

Khodorkovsky then introduced his view of the current situation in Russia. He noted that “Russia is not one thing,” but that today, many in the West view it as solely "Putin’s Russia“—a country that has made a fear-driven choice to move toward becoming a closed society.

“Putin’s Russia” is based on illusions. One of those illusions is the notion that Putin ushered in a period of stability. In reality, the greater part of Putin’s rule took advantage of a favorable economic climate and thriving market institutions that had taken root in the previous decade. The Kremlin proposed an undeclared social contract: “Give up political freedoms in exchange for the good life,” and then gradually took control over state institutions. Eventually, the regime succeeded in destroying political competition and isolated Russia from the rest of the world.

Another illusion dismissed by Khodorkovsky was the idea that Russia is completely dependent on oil. “The state fosters the idea that the entire economic power of our country is based on natural resources, while people aren’t the creators of wealth, they are merely consumers,” he said. In fact, as he pointed out, oil and gas revenues constitute not half, but about one-quarter of the Russian budget, whereas the rest comes from the economic activity of Russian citizens.

Last, Khodorkovsky dispelled the myth that there are simply no alternatives to “Putin’s Russia.” In the past 25 years, Russia has raised an entire generation of people who are talented and well educated. Many of them “are full-measure citizens of the world and are capable of competing equally with the best people in the world in their respective fields.”

These people are dissatisfied with practically everything in Putin’s system. They need competition, government openness and accountability, professionalism within state institutions, and respect for human rights. In an attempt to estimate the percentage of the population these people constitute, some researchers conducted a survey asking Russians their opinion on the statement: “Crimea is ours.” Ten to sixteen percent disagreed with the statement, said Khodorkovsky. However, such a gauge is inaccurate. “Crimea is still mass madness,” he noted. In reality, the people who share “European values—the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of choice, the values of the Enlightenment—these people are actually much larger in number.”

“However large and monolithic, the support for the current regime might seem to you here, even loyal supporters are keeping their eyes out in search of an alternative. I see this alternative clearly; history is opening a window of opportunity for us, which we do not have the right to close.”

Khodorkovsky noted with regret that the West continues to ignore these people, as if there was no real alternative to Putin, and thus deals only with him. However, to be able to negotiate well, the West should understand what Putin wants. Despite his rhetoric about a multipolar world, Putin in fact “dreams that he can negotiate with America about a new/old world order, where the world is divided into zones of influence and interference in your opponent’s zone of influence is forbidden—not to mention, of course, [interference in] internal affairs. You can just forget about even talking about human rights from the start.” Khodorkovsky pointed out that it is unclear what one could agree on, even in the medium term, with a person who holds such a worldview.

Khodorkovsky expressed the belief that the war in Ukraine has “painfully and cruelly exposed these very tendencies” of Putin’s insular system. “The bare-chested Putin is not a strong leader, he’s the emperor without clothes,” said Khodorkovsky. Meanwhile, a political autumn has arrived for Putin, and it could last for quite some time—a situation that may pose risks for others as well: “The death rattle might be very painful for Russian society and dangerous for international security.” Khodorkovsky predicted that while a split within the political elite is imminent, the country at large will undergo “slow social decay accompanied by the collapse of the already-weakened economy and the further destruction of political institutions.”

All that being said, Khodorkovsky appeared optimistic about Russia’s future, because “history is opening a window of opportunity for us,” which could change the current situation dramatically. He outlined his vision of a new Russia that can come about once Putin is gone. Such change is inevitable, he argued, as the regime Putin has built is incapable of tackling the crises that face Russia today.

Khodorkovsky’s vision of a new Russia rests on the following principles. First, it will be a civil society based on “openness and cooperation of people at all levels.” Second, economic reforms will allow it to fully realize the economic potential of the country, to ensure necessary growth and make key areas of industry effective. Third, it will adopt a foreign policy based on “openness, cooperation, and respect.” And last, its internal political architecture will be based on the principles of free political competition.

Khodorkovsky acknowledged that the path toward achievement of these goals will be long and hard. Nevertheless, such goals are attainable once Russians openly share these values and support these ideas, because, as he concluded, “Putin is not the future of Russia. The future of Russia is us.”

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