Pavel Khodorkovsky speaks about how his father has become a symbol of political repression in Russia and why he poses a threat to Vladimir Putin
Pavel Khodorkovsky is the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – once Russia’s richest man and owner of the world’s fourth largest oil company and now an important political prisoner in Russia and personal enemy of President Vladimir Putin. Pavel, 27, has lived in New York since his father’s arrest, remaining there with his wife and daughter after completing his studies. He upholds the causes promoted by the Open Russia Foundation aimed at developing civil society in Russia. Pavel has founded a company that implements energy-saving electricity meters that are connected to the Internet. He is sympathetic to the opposition and attends every event organized by Strategy 31 in New York. Despite calls urging him to return to Russia, he is staying abroad to avoid becoming another hostage in his father’s case.
U.W.: Mikhail Khodorkovsky is being viewed as a moral authority in Russia today. When he was arrested back in 2003, the majority opinion was “He is an oligarch who has stolen a lot. It’s the right thing to put him behind bars.” Why has public opinion swayed so drastically since then?
I took part in the “NTV Men” programme, and a survey was taken at the end: 63% of the audience said Khodorkovsky should be released immediately, 14% wanted to see him released if he pleaded guilty and 25% said his imprisonment was a fair punishment. This result is the direct opposite of what surveys showed 10 years ago.
It is, above all, a matter of time. A decade later, many people simply cannot remember who Khodorkovsky was before the arrest. They used to say: “Khodorkovsky’s arrest was politically motivated but he is an oligarch, Russia’s richest man.” Khodorkovsky has moved into the category of a political prisoner and, moreover, a prisoner of consciousness recognized by Amnesty International. Public opinion shifted because of the absurdity of the charges presented during the second trial. The incriminating evidence in the first trial did not hold up. “Optimization of fiscal schemes” and “corporate taxation” confused many people. The stupidity of the second trial was obvious.
U.W.: What was this absurdity?
Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were accused of having physically stolen 320 mn tonnes of oil. This is the entire volume of oil produced by Yukos and its subsidiaries over the time period referred to both in the first and second indictment. They were charged with having stolen the same oil on which, the court ruled, they had failed to pay sufficient taxes and thus had served a term in prison. How can one fail to pay taxes on stolen goods? And the volume is unreal. Even a cursory examination of the case makes it clear to anyone that it was a frame-up.
U.W.: When and on what conditions can Mikhail Khodorkovsky be released?
My father has made two important decisions: not to appeal for parole in order to avoid wasting his own time and that of his attorneys and not to give false hope to his family. The administration of the prison colony where he is serving time will bring new charges against him for the smallest of trifles for the express purpose of making him ineligible for parole. The situation in Chita (where Khodorskovsky went on an open-ended hunger strike in May 2010. – Ed.) has proved that it is a matter of principle to keep Khodorkovsky from being released under any circumstances.
However, legislation on economic crimes has changed somewhat, and as a result the term was reduced from 13 to 11 years for my father and his partner Lebedev. So he expects to be released in late 2014. Of course, we demand his immediate release. But there is no reason to hope for this.
U.W.: In your opinion, what was your father imprisoned for?
For financing the opposition and because of a desire to take his company away from him. Someone convinced Putin that Khodorkovsky was dangerous in that he allegedly wanted to buy up the Duma and propel himself into the Prime Minister’s seat. The imprisonment made it simpler to attack Yukos – a forced bankruptcy, sale and merger with Rosneft.
U.W.: How could a tough and pragmatic manager like Khodorkovsky have been so naïve?
He was certain he would win the trial if it was fair. He believed that Russia was beyond the point of no return and that laws were in effect. Now my father admits he was wrong and that he lacked wisdom in a desperate situation.
Regarding those who sided up with his opponents, many can be blamed. The trial was initiated by Igor Sechin (advisor to the president at the time and now president of the government-owned Rosneft oil company. – Ed.) and Putin. The latter was also motivated by his personal dislike for my father that developed after a meeting in which the president personally asked him not to finance the opposition. But my father did not think that the head of state had the right to ask such things. It was about cutting off financing for the Communist Party. My father personally did not give money to Russia’s Communist Party, but one of the Yukos managers did support the communists. So cutting off financing was not up to Khodorkovsky to decide. Putin took this explanation as disobedience, because in his structure subordinates cannot have their own political views.
U.W.: If your father is innocent and has been victimized by the system, how can you explain the fact that the Russian population supported the arrest and had a low opinion of Khodorkovsky?
It was just the first decade of a capitalist system. Post-Soviet people find it hard to believe that someone can earn a fortune purely because of his exceptional entrepreneurial gift. The idea promoted by the state that the oligarch was an enemy from which the population had to be protected resonated, in particular among those who were misfits in the system. It should be recognized that social security payments, welfare and many people’s wages have recently been on the rise in Russia. So the thought that “someone is robbing Russia” has lost its poignancy.
U.W.: Doesn’t it seem to you that people in Russia, and in Ukraine for that matter, have plenty of reasons to believe that oligarchs have indeed robbed their countries? Those who earned their first millions in the 1990s say they did not break any laws, but there were simply no laws in effect at the time. Was your father’s business absolutely clean?
The biggest charge against Yukos was that it was purchased for next to nothing – the amount paid was far below the company’s capitalization. You need to understand the risk my father and his partners were taking as they entered the oil business. In 1996, they bought Yukos for US $350mn at an auction. At the time, the company had debts amounting to US $2bn, including US $900mn in wage arrears. The state was bankrupt and could not offer any guarantees. Yukos could have been sold to foreigners, but Russia was reluctant to grant access to its natural resources to any foreigners. On their part, foreign companies were wary of taking risks in a politically unstable country. My father had the guts to do it and pulled the company out of debt. Considering that Yukos became the world’s fourth richest oil company, its starting price was indeed small.
U.W.: Do you think that Putin is afraid of your father?
Of course he is. Otherwise he would not be keeping him behind bars. Putin has two equally big fear factors regarding Khodorkovsky. He believes that Khodorkovsky, if released, will become a unifying figure for the opposition. Even though my father is in prison, he spends most of his time maintaining dialogue with all the opposition leaders and tries to formulate and describe an acceptable path of development for Russia so that it can cease to be a backward autocracy. Moreover, people involved in the case, such as Sechin and his team, who got their hands on Yukos are afraid that, if released, Khodorkovsky could affect the outcome of cases that involve other shareholders of the company and which are now in European courts. These are cases in the Energy Charter and the European Court of Human Rights. This also pertains to multimillion and multibillion suits against Rosneft and the Russian Federation in other institutions.
U.W.: 2013 marks 10 years since your father’s arrest. The West continually speaks about his unfair verdict and the political motivation behind it, but this evidently has no effect. Doesn’t it seem that even the toughest stance taken by the West does not mean a thing to the Russian authorities both in the case of your father and in other high-profile political cases, such as the one with Pussy Riot?
There are certain results. There is media and diplomatic pressure. The issue of Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and other political prisoners is constantly raised during all negotiations. The Yukos case is repeatedly mentioned by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The European Parliament and the U.S. Department of State often raise it, too. The Russian side is again and again given to understand that the Yukos case is still a problem for both Russia’s Foreign Ministry and Putin personally – it is an irritant. Of course, the West’s reaction alone will not change the situation fundamentally. What matters more to the Presidential Administration is the image inside the country.
Another pressure factor is the Magnitsky Act, which also helps our cause. The Russian pro-government system is based on loyalty: bureaucrats consciously break laws and sign corrupt deals because as long as you are loyal, the state will cover you, and you can calmly purchase real estate abroad. As soon as these people are denied entrance to the United States and Great Britain and find themselves unable to open bank accounts, their motivation will be affected. Is it really worthwhile to participate in corrupt schemes? Another factor is linking the issues of specific people to diplomatic negotiations. If Russia needs to be forced to do anything, it can be told: we’re cancelling our support for your anti-ballistic missile system (even if the USA is going to do it anyway) unless you review the Lebedev-Khodorkovsky case.
U.W.: What was the role of your father in increasing protest sentiments in Russia after the Duma election in December 2011?
The protests have a direct connection to the situation with political prisoners. The case of my father and Lebedev was a precedent. The government used the pattern of destroying Yukos to make further corporate raids. This practice soon expanded from large businesses to medium and small ones, and now it affects a great number of people. The Russians have experienced themselves – or through their acquaintances and close ones – how the system uses its justice system for its own benefit and how competing businesses take advantage of this. It has become clear how corruption and a lack of the rule of law make business inefficient. This is precisely the reason why people demand at rallies that political prisoners be released. Meanwhile, the number of arrests is growing.
U.W.: Can Khodorkovsky become a unifying figure for the opposition, and does he want to?
The best answer to this question was given in my father’s book. Until his arrest he was building, as he put it, the necessary “blocks” for efficient democracy through his Open Russia programme. These blocks include civil society, independent journalism, educating a class of professional judges and providing education to help young people understand how a democracy functions. So if my father were free, I don’t think he would pursue personal leadership. He would rather continue developing civil society. Khodorkovsky does not have an ambition to lead people to barricades. He had an offer to be elected to the Opposition Coordination Council. He turned it down because he cannot be truly useful there.
U.W.: Meanwhile, a lot of people mention Vaclav Havel, who also did not choose to be a leader. What he chose was, perhaps, the responsibility of a leader faced with a question: If not you, then who?
I view it differently. Russian society tends to uphold paternalistic values and believes in a good tsar. This is our biggest problem. A good tsar may easily turn into a bad one. Moreover, the operation of the entire state should not depend on one person. Our society has repeatedly made this mistake: we are looking for a leader with a positive programme. When we fail to find one, we lift our hands in dismay and complain that the opposition is not ready. In contrast, my father and I believe that progress must begin with efficient institutions.