In an interview with DW’s Zhanna Nemtsova last week Mikhail Khodorkovsky discussed the current situation in Russia and its implications, the Open Russia mission, Trump’s foreign policies, and Merkel’s current struggles.
Zhanna Nemtsova: You said that some people in the presidential administration believe that [Alexei] Navalny’s presidential bid can raise public interest in the  elections. Do you know the position of Sergei Kiriyenko [first deputy chief of the presidential administration]?
Mikhail Khodorkosvky: You are well aware that I last communicated with Sergei Kiriyenko in the early 2000s. Therefore, I can only assess his position based on circumstantial pointers. But the very fact that there is a discussion about whether it makes sense to raise interest in the elections or if this additional interest can even deliver a result, and so why bother making life difficult, shows that we are dealing not with a democratic process but a staged version. The directors are currently pondering how best to orchestrate this performance.
ZN: You raised an interesting topic: you view Russia’s modern politics as a spectacle. You have been conducting public activity for over three years now, during which time you have initiated various projects in different areas. There is an opinion that [some] of these projects are entirely staged in nature. Do you agree with that?
MBK: My vision of the current situation in Russia boils down to the notion that overall Putin is used up. Therefore, the precise date of his departure is not the crucial question. Whether it’s 2020 or 2024, it’s clear that he won’t do anything new. What can happen, what is happening is the following: the situation is deteriorating in the sense that conflicts inside [Russian] society are growing; the number of people capable of resolving these conflicts is declining. Because the social elevators don’t work.
All of this can lead us back to the early 90s and a replay of the dying days of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet system collapsed, as will the Putin regime, no doubt, it turned out there was no one to restore the country. Everyone understood what needed to be done, but people didn’t know exactly how to do it and were unable to. Therefore, what we are doing now, what I’m focused on right now, is looking for people able to work in [the post-Putin era]. [We are offering] assistance to these people so that they can learn [how to do it] themselves and introduce themselves to the public.
ZN: You are saying that the Putin regime will collapse. But perhaps it is worth leaving the regime alone, as sooner or later it will collapse of its own accord? Or do you think that proactive steps need to be taken inside Russia?
MBK: You know, you are both right and wrong. You are right in the sense that any serious efforts to destroy the Putin regime now would be stupid. It will destroy itself. Efforts in this direction are counterproductive, since we would be spending energy on destroying not just the regime, but the country as well. And this is exactly why Open Russia is not doing it. On the other hand, I think you are also wrong…
ZN: What do you mean by “destroying not just the regime, but the country as well?”
MBK: Remedies that strike just the disease and spare the body are extremely rare. When you take antibiotics, you are certainly fighting the disease, but you are also causing damage to your whole organism. [Thus, by trying to destroy the regime, you are causing damage] to the Russian people who haven’t had all that long living in conditions where they can improve their welfare, at least a little bit. They need to be given a chance to improve it. Because a democratic regime can only strike root in a prosperous country. In a failing country any regime can emerge, save for a democratic one.
ZN: So you agree with the view that the Putin regime needs to be left alone and [one should] only invest in preparing new people, new cadres for the future?
MBK: Since you work for an international audience as well, I cannot say that any actions taken by the Putin regime should be left without a response. There must be some “red lines” on the international arena that no regime, including Putin’s, should be allowed to cross. If he crosses these lines, he should get it in the neck. But these are foreign policy issues.
If we are talking about the domestic situation, then my line is the one I drew for myself: let the regime self-destruct on its own. I have to direct the forces at my disposal to help people—new people, young politicians—to prove themselves, to prepare them to lead the country [in the post-Putin era]. Some people disagree. They think they need to work on other aspects [of the problem]. I’m watching their activities with interest, without any judgement.
ZN: Since you brought up Russia’s foreign policy, I’d like to ask you what would you say to U.S. President Trump about Russia if you had a chance to meet with him?
MBK: I’m not entirely sure that Donald Trump, even though he visited our country many times, knows it well. I could tell him a lot about Russia. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s all that interested. I think that today the U.S. administration’s stance on Russia is to unpick the existing issues, ignore each other where possible, and cooperate on a very narrow playing field.
ZN: Do I understand you correctly that Trump’s presidency essentially gives Russia a free hand, and Russian foreign policy can become even more aggressive towards countries outside Trump’s zone of interest? I mean Ukraine and Belarus.
MBK: Well, we know what Putin and his propaganda are saying on the subject. But we don’t quite understand what Trump’s administration is planning to do about [these issues]. Most likely, we’ll be able to draw some final conclusions after [Trump and Putin] meet in person around June-July. My concern is that the current U.S. administration underestimates (I hope not) the fact that the United States used to be a symbol of freedom for many countries, including Russia. A model for building their own state institutions.
I personally have spent a lot of time studying the work of the U.S. Congress, and it’s a remarkable machine. If America retreats [from the international arena], focusing on domestic issues, it remains to be seen what model will be adopted over the coming decades. Today no one can project the implications for the American people.
So my answer to the question as to whether it is worth preaching certain values and setting an example, beside being focused on pragmatic business politics, is yes, it is worth it. It is an important mission, and it would be regrettable if the United States were to reject that mission.
ZN: Today in Germany Angela Merkel is viewed as Vladimir Putin’s key target. If you met Merkel, what would you advise her, especially in the light of the upcoming Bundestag elections this fall?
MBK: I have great respect for Chancellor Merkel, she played a crucial role in my life and in the life of my family. Naturally, I empathize with her, because she is currently under a lot of pressure, not only from Putin, though from him in particular. She represents a somewhat different, integrative view of the world, which today has lost popularity,—temporarily, it must be stressed.
People have forgotten how much they gained from integration and globalization, and today they are focused only on the problems brought about by [these forces]. But today, no one except Ms Merkel is there to defend this important and historically most forward-looking path of globalization, integration, and international cooperation. No other global player is pointing the way. That is why I wish her the greatest success.
The original interview was published by DW in Russian. This translated version of the interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.