From Exile In Switzerland, Ex-Tycoon Relaunches Open Russia

Oct 6, 2014
Originally published on October 6, 2014 12:32 pm
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has not suffered a political hit at home because of the crisis in Ukraine. In fact, the whole thing has boosted his popularity. But there is still a small minority of Russians who want a different future, one that's more open, democratic and less corrupt. And one former Russian tycoon wants them to know they are not alone. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: During his 10 years in a Siberian labor camp, Mikhail Khodorkovsky had a lot of time to think about his country, where he once made a fortune, only to see his oil company dismantled after he was convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement. Khodorkovsky now lives in exile in Switzerland, but he's trying to tap into what he calls the democratic, pro-European minority in Russia. He's re-launched his movement, Open Russia, hoping to get Russians thinking about a rules-based country again, rather than cheerleading Putin's aggression in Ukraine. He spoke to us through an interpreter at the Newseum.

MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) Over 80 percent of our fellow citizens have temporarily forgotten about their problems and are rejoicing with the problems of their neighbors. But this is a passing phenomenon.

KELEMEN: It sounds like you're thinking about reentering politics.

KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) I'm not hiding from the fact that the tasks that we've set ourselves are political tasks. But it's also clear that in the conditions that exist today, where we have some rather severe authoritarian system in place already, to be able to actually succeed at winning elections is something that's highly unlikely.

KELEMEN: So how can you be influential living abroad? Do you have plans to go back? And do you think there's any room in Putin's Russia for the kind of political movement you're talking about?

KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) I'm always rather surprised that in today's era, in which we are saturated with information technologies, that the question of where a person is physically located can have any sort of bearing whatsoever on his ability to influence.

KELEMEN: Even with the restrictions that Putin is putting on the Internet and civil society groups in Russia?

KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) It's a lot harder to turn off the Internet or to shut down whatever groups than it is to arrest all of the individuals that present an opposition threat. We're not choosing between good and very good opportunities to engage in civic activity in Russia. We're choosing between bad and very bad.

KELEMEN: Khodorkovsky is not an easy character to lead such a movement, with many still leery of the oligarch's past. He's always said that the case against him was political, and he sees similarities in a new crackdown on another oil magnet and the company Bashneft.

KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) These two stories coincide in only one area. When a close member of Putin's inner circle wants to solve a problem, he does so by plunder and theft.

KELEMEN: While Khodorkovsky was in prison, his company, Yukos, was dismantled. But the 51-year-old says prison didn't change him.

KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) I don't think that prison is that multi-faceted a tool for affecting the human psyche. Either a person has the desire to make changes in his country or he doesn't.

KELEMEN: And you obviously do?

KHODORKOVSKY: (Through translator) Me? Yes.

KELEMEN: Russian-oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky spoke to us at the Newseum, here in Washington, in a conference room overlooking the U.S. Capitol. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.