Despite his still substantial wealth and positive political image abroad, former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky remains a controversial figure at home.
Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at the opening of the Forum 2000 conference in Prague, Czech Republic, Oct. 12, 2014. Photo: AP
On Dec. 7, The Dublin District Court revoked a decision to freeze €100 million ($107 million) belonging to Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Released after 10 years of imprisonment and a significant number of criminal trials, he went to court again in November to unfreeze his money that was frozen in Ireland. The former billionaire is going to use some of the money to fund his Open Russia movement, which attempts to foster democracy and the rule of law in Russia. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities see the decision of the Dublin District Court as surprising and disappointing.
The €100 million was blocked in 2011 at the request of the bureau of investigation of economic crimes of the Irish financial police following a verdict of the Russian court in 2010. The court then gave Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev additional prison sentences for alleged embezzlement.
“I can’t say that I will not exist without this money, but I am carrying out significant social and civic work. I’m spending quite a lot of money on that work and, of course, I could use those funds,” Khodorkovsky told The Irish Times.
On Dec. 3, he received the Polish Knight of Freedom prize, which is awarded annually for the promotion of democratic values, freedom and justice. Over the past year, he has launched a number of initiatives aimed at bringing those values to Russia. At home, not surprisingly, the attitude towards the oligarch remains controversial. Amidst the never-ending court proceedings over the case of the oil company Yukos, he is hardly likely to return to Russia in the near future.
Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky receives a replica of a sabre from Pulaski's times, after he was awarded with the 'Knight of Freedom' Award in Warsaw, Dec. 03. Photo: EPA
In July 2014, the court of arbitration in The Hague satisfied the claim by the former shareholders of Yukos and obliged Russia to pay them $50 billion. Moscow appealed against that decision but the ex-shareholders went to the courts of a few countries with a demand to seize Russian property. In June 2015, some property was seized in France and Belgium, which the executors considered as belonging to Russia. However, in April 2016, a regional court in the Netherlands’ capital annulled the decision of the local arbitration to demand the $50 billion from Russia, explaining that the case was outside the jurisdiction of The Hague’s arbitration.
On Nov. 23, the general director of the International Center for Legal Defense Andrei Kondakov reported that the appellate court in Paris had unfrozen the French assets, previously arrested on the claims by the former shareholders of Yukos, of three Russian companies.
During the Dublin legal proceedings, a series of hearings took place in Brussels in an attempt to cancel the arrest of several objects of Russian real estate property in Belgium and accounts of Russian companies in the Yukos case. A decision of the Belgian court is expected to be taken by the end of the year.
“The case of the possible laundering of the Yukos money is very important to Russia. Each of Khodorkovsky’s actions is going to be connected to that money. Each event will be scrutinized as to whether any money invested in it was stolen from the Yukos shareholders,” says Alexei Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies.
At the end of October, the Russian side submitted again a request to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to place Khodorkovsky on the international wanted list. The businessman became an accused person again, this time in the case of the murder in 1998 of Nefteyougansk Mayor Vladimir Petukhov.
In February, the INTERPOL General Secretariat decided that the request by the Russian Prosecutor General’s office to place the businessman on the international wanted list was not consistent with the rules of the organization. At the end of April, the Secretariat further explained that the organization was ready to review their refusal to prosecute the former head of Yukos if Moscow provided additional materials. The INTERPOL headquarters stated that no information concerning Khodorkovsky had been requested from the Russian side.
A dissident with no future in Russia?
At the time of his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovsky was the richest person in Russia, with an estimated wealth of $15.2 billion. He has since been sentenced twice to a term in prison on charges related to economic crimes.
He not only denied any guilt but asserted that he was persecuted at the behest of the Russian authorities and President Vladimir Putin in particular. Amnesty International, the international human rights organization, recognized him as a prisoner of conscience. The European Court of Human Rights echoes this view by ruling that Khodorkovsky’s rights had been violated.
In Russia, the consensus opinion is that Khodorkovsky was made a scapegoat as he served terms for all the corrupt oligarchs who had became fabulously wealthy in the 1990s. It is no secret that in that period, the oligarchs were at the country’s helm.
They helped then-President Boris Yeltsin to get re-elected as president and they remained at the top until the arrival of Putin. He replaced them by a team of his own people who had come from the law enforcement agencies or the St. Petersburg City Administration. The arrest of the owner of Yukos was seen as a signal to the rest of oligarchs.
In 2013, having spent over 10 years in prison, Khodorkovsky was granted pardon by Vladimir Putin and left Russia the same day, saying: “I will never return to the country unless I am confident that I can freely leave it.”
In 2016, Khodorkovsky, who now lives in London and promotes the social-political movement Open Russia, again appeared on the Forbes list of Russia’s 200 richest business people. The publication estimated his wealth at $500 million. Meanwhile, the attitude towards Khodorkovsky in Russia remains controversial, at least because of his views on the annexation of Crimea.
"Immediately after the annexation of Crimea I spoke in Ukraine and said that this action was completely illegal, and that it is impossible to behave in this way in the modern world," he told Euronews. "... Yes, it’s a very important problem from Ukraine’s point of view. Yes, it is very important from the world’s point of view. Yes, of course, for Russia this has become a sort of a point of no return."
Public opinion in Russia seems to be divided over the question of Crimea: there are those who believe that it is a Russian territory and there are others who believe that is Ukrainian (or Russian de facto but Ukrainian de jure). Those who support the latter position are seen as unpatriotic outsiders. This is what alienated many voters from the opposition — for example, the electorate in the regions from Yabloko. That's why Khodorkovsky and the opposition have little opportunity to win people's support, says Makarkin.
“Today, Khodorkovsky understands that his prospects are not promising. Still, he invests in the future. Most members of the elites try to predict what is going to happen before the year 2018 when a presidential election will take place in Russia. In contrast, Khodorkovsky does not care about that,” says the expert.
He is establishing contacts in the regions and building ties in Europe. Many economists and political analysts argue that in the times of economic challenges the authorities will have to take very unpopular decisions, with the population expecting the situation to improve, or at least not to worsen. And this could be a chance for Khodorkovski: The society may be divided not over the problem of Crimea, but over these reforms.
“There is yet another argument, and one can find it in history. In 1982, the public opinion about scientist Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents would have been unfavorable. The situation was very similar at that time: one could not criticize the war in Afghanistan or play up to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan — that was unpatriotic. Just a few years later, things changed completely. Thus, Khodorkovsky can hope that he is investing in the future,” Makarkin summarizes.
Update: On Dec. 7 the article was updated with the news about the decision of the Dublin District Court to unfreeze €100 million belonging to Khodorkovsky.