Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch and an opposition activist, continues to look for support within Europe for his Open Russia movement, which offers an alternative to the regime of Vladimir Putin.
Pictured: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company, attends his first news conference after his release in Berlin, December 22, 2013.
Last week oligarch and opposition campaigner Mikhail Khodorkovsky organized a second European forum in honor of the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Despite an almost total lack of coverage of this event in the Russian media, it received a fair amount of attention in Europe and took place in the building of the European Parliament.
Khodorkovsky is trying not only to unite the liberal wing of the Russian opposition but also to enlist the support of European politicians in case he really gets a chance to launch a credible bid for power in Russia.
In the late 1990s, Khodorkovsky belonged to the circle of oligarchs who determined the country’s government agenda. In 2003, he was arrested, sentenced for fraud, and spent 10 years in detention, after which he was granted a pardon by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Once out of prison, he left Russia at once with a comment that he was not going to come back unless he was certain that he could leave the country again without hindrance.
Abroad, the businessman declared that his interests were limited to social activity and did not extend to political activity. Yet, he eventually ended up getting involved in politics once again. His organization, Open Russia, even supported some candidates for the State Duma. Moreover, Khodorkovsky declared openly that he was in search of his own presidential candidate.
At this event in Brussels, the Khodorkovsky Foundation acted for the first time as the main organizer. The preceding conference, held on Oct. 9-10 in Berlin, had been prepared by the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom established by the daughter of the assassinated politician, Deutsche Welle journalist Zhanna Nemtsova, and the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Also read Russia Direct's report: "Russia's political drama heading into 2018"
The theme of the second forum was “a return to a normal regime.” As stated on the official site of Open Russia, the objective of the event was to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between representatives of the civil societies of Russia and the European Union.
On the whole, the forum participants’ message boiled down to the slogan, “Russia is Europe” which is considered to be extremely unpopular among the country’s “patriotic” population: many Russians believe that it is exactly European values that led to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013. Chairman of the European Parliament Martin Schultz spoke at the opening of the forum, and the session was held in the building of the chamber itself.
“This is a difficult time for our relations with Russia," Schultz said. "The parliamentary links have been frozen, contacts on the civil society level have been disrupted because of the persecutions by the law of independent NGOs, which are called foreign agents in Russia. But a dialogue still exists, and it must be continued. Russia needs the European Union, and the European Union needs Russia. Obviously, we are stronger together.”
Belgium’s former Prime Minister and Head of the Liberal group in the European parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, believes even that the borders of the European Union must be opened to ordinary Russians to build contacts in the areas of science, business and culture.
“If we build as many of those ties as possible, then even Putin will not be able to call each association a foreign agent,” said Executive Director of the European Foundation for Democracy Jerzy Pomianowski.
Khodorkovsky also stressed that Russia “should not be isolated, but it would be highly imprudent not to deter the Kremlin, which imposesits own so-called values on Europe: contempt and distrust of people, systemic corruption, disregard of the rules and agreements.” “The Russians are tired of confrontation and military hysteria,” said Khodorkovsky.
At the same time, the delegates from the Russian side committed themselves to working out a “roadmap” on the ways of developing relations between Russia and the EU in the times of tension.
“Europe needs a strategy for its relations with Russia, and it is the absence of such a strategy that has already affected the outcome of the EU’s decision on the sanctions, which are perceived in Russia not as sanctions against the [Russian] authorities, but as sanctions against Russia,” Khodorkovsky said, highlighting that he was a consistent opponent of sanctions against Russia, including personal sanctions.
In fact, the sanctions comprised one of the most hotly debated topics at the forum. A deputy of the Pskov legislature from the Yabloko party, Lev Shlosberg, reported that the sanctions were used by the Kremlin to bring together the population around the authorities, which portray the country as a “besieged fortress.”
Irina Prokhorova, the sister of another oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov, who was once Putin’s rival in elections, added that “if the ordinary people that watch Russian TV were told that the sanctions were not aimed against the ordinary people, they would be greatly surprised.”
Meanwhile, Khodorkovsky admits that changes are not going to come soon, but “we must get prepared for them as of now.” Among his candidates, there are people between the ages of 20 and 30. Khodorkovsky points out that he invests in human resources in an attempt to nurture new politicians.
“When the regime collapses, the country will be left with a totally incapacitated elite," said Khodorkovsky earlier to the business daily Kommersant. "To avoid that, we must get busy preparing people, giving them a chance to present themselves and their programs to the society. We must get them acquainted with their potential foreign policy partners, our neighbors, while getting our partners and neighbors acquainted with the future political players.”
One of the main reasons of the liberal opposition’s failure at the latest elections, which is recognized by both the expert community and the oppositionists themselves, was the lack of consolidation and the absence of distinct leaders.
The Democratic Coalition established a year ago fell apart when the supporters of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny left it as a result of a conflict with other opposition figure Mikhail Kasyanov. Now the People's Freedom Party (PARNAS) itself, the only one that had a right to stand for election without collecting signatures, will most likely cease to exist in January. This is due to a split with the pro-Nemtsov group, which is opposed to drawing nationalists into the party.
Today, two personalities remain at the forefront: Navalny and Khodorkovsky. The former’s Anti-Corruption Foundation is, of course, more popular than Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia. Last summer, he declared openly his presidential ambitions but was not able to stand for election because he had been convicted two years ago.
In February, the European Court of Human Rights found the verdict wrongful and this week, Russia’ Supreme Court directed the case to review. In theory, Navalny has a chance to stand for election in 2018. However, so far it is more like an “illusory chance and hope” rather than a real opportunity, as said Mikhail Vinogradov, the chairman of the Petersburg Politics Foundation, in an interview to Russia Direct.
Meanwhile, today Khodorkovsky has little support in Russia itself: People have a deeply entrenched negative attitude towards rich people, especially those who act from abroad. For that reason, Khodorkovsky’s chances of becoming the leader of the country himself are zero, the expert argues. It is noteworthy that the forum was visited by opposition campaigners from different political forces: in fact, the name of Boris Nemtsov brings them together.
“Open Russia is ready to support Alexei Navalny at the elections of 2018,” Khodorkovsky said in an interview to the TV channel Dozhd this week. Navalny has not commented on that statement so far.
Thus, for Khodorkovsky, an attempt to communicate with the European politicians has been an attempt to enlist their support for the future, in case a real chance of struggling for power presents itself.