Khodorkovsky happy and hopeful after 10 years as Putin's top prisoner
|Author: the guardians Date: 23 Dec 2013 11:16:32|
For a man who has spent ten years in a Russian prison camp, Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks in remarkably good shape.
He laughs, jokes and deflects questions about his nemesis Vladimir Putin – the man who put him behind bars only to pardon him last week – with a gentle irony. The former tycoon is modest, good-humoured, and strikingly lacking in vengefulness.
Some 36 hours after his dramatic exit from Russia, Khodorkovsky made his first public appearance on Sunday, at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It was a symbolic choice – the place where Soviet and American tanks once stood a few metres apart from each other during the Cold War; the boundary between a free West and a fettered East.
Wearing a tie and blue suit – and pursued by frantic cameramen – Khodorkovsky toured the museum room by room. He inspected a memorial to the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. He grinned at everybody.
In conversation afterwards with a group of western journalists, including the Guardian, Khodorkovsky gave some answers to the obvious question: what next? Once Russia's richest man, then its most famous political prisoner, many had expected the powerful former oligarch might lead the country's opposition movement and even some day become president.
But Khodorkovsky immediately quickly does not intend to challenge President Putin, or "wrestle for power", as he put it. Nor, for the time being, will he return to Russia. He also ruled out going back into business, something that made him a billionaire many times over and one of the world's richest men.
Instead, he said, he will engage in "public activity", campaigning for the release of other Russian political prisoners who remain behind bars, including a group of young activists rounded up and jailed following anti-Putin protests last year. He had not had a chance to discuss with his wife Inna where they might live, but said he had a one-year visa for Germany.
Asked if he felt gratitude to Putin, who pardoned him weeks before the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the country's most important sporting event since the 1980 Moscow Games, he said: "It's very hard for me to say I'm grateful to him. I've thought for a long time about what words I should use. I'm glad of his decision."
He said he didn't support a boycott of the Games but nor should they be a "Putin pageant".
Sochi may have been a "factor" in his release, he told the Guardian. More broadly, he added: "I think it [my release] is a symbol that the Russian government and Putin personally are seriously worried about the country's image." But his freedom didn't – in his view – signify Russia was heading for "deep reforms" or a more liberal trajectory.
One of the original oligarchs from the 1990s, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 after financing opposition political parties. His imprisonment was widely seen as a political punishment by the Kremlin and Putin personally. He was convicted twice on fraud and tax evasion charges.
His oil company Yukos was broken up and given to the state oil company Rosneft, headed by Putin's ally Igor Sechin. Khodorkovsky said on Sunday he wouldn't try to get his Yukos assets back but described the charges against him by state prosecutors as "phantasmagoric".
The most remarkable thing about Khodorkovsky is his almost superhuman ability to stay optimistic . Asked how he had changed in prison, he replied dryly: "The biggest change is that I'm ten years older." Khodorkovsky said he didn't know how much money he still had, joking: "I won't be buying a football club."
He acknowledged that many of his friends and colleagues from Yukos had paid a heavy price for their association with him. His co-defendant Platon Lebedev is still in jail. He said the death of Yukos lawyer Vasily Alexanyan in 2011, following imprisonment, would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Russia's supreme court has yet to overturn a multi-million dollar legal suit arising from his first trial. Until this was resolved he wouldn't go back to Russia, he said, fearing that he might be re-imprisoned.
The details of Khodorkovsky's release read like something from a spy thriller. The oil tycoon said the idea of a pardon was first floated back in 2008 by the then president, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's temporary successor. But he refused to apply for one because this would have meant admitting his guilt – potentially implicating his Yukos colleagues, who might then face extradition from abroad, he said.
Then – suddenly – on 12 November his lawyer brought a proposal from the former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who had been holding secret talks with Putin. He said Khodorkovsky should write to the president asking for a pardon. "I looked at it. There was no demand I recognise my guilt," Khodorkovsky said. He wrote a letter.
Nothing happened. Then last Friday at 2am the prison governor woke him and asked if he wanted to leave for Germany. "They didn't offer me an alternative," he said. Khodorkovsky knew his mother was receiving hospital treatment in Berlin. He was flown to St Petersburg in a helicopter then whisked out of the country by private German jet. He was reunited with his parents Boris and Marina on Saturday, and with his son Pavel, and other family members. His wife Inna will come soon.
His exit from Russia was "in the best tradition of the 1970s", Khodorkovsky said on Sunday, a reference to the practice of bundling Soviet opponents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn out of the country and into exile.
Khodorkovsky said conditions in prison were not "like in the gulag". Early on, he said, he gave up smoking. But without the support of his family he couldn't have survived ten years in jail: "I was only allowed family visits for four years out of the ten, and then only for a few minutes once a month," he said.
All his meetings with loved ones and his lawyers were watched. He said he was unable to answer some questions – for example, should foreigners invest in Russia? – because he didn't have enough information.
What are Russia's prospects now? The tycoon believes there isn't likely to be a change in Russia's leadership anytime soon – though he hopes Putin sticks to his promise "not to be president-for-life". "Putin is healthy", he observed. "He could carry on for a long time." Russia's opposition remained weak, he said.
The core problem was that political consciousness within Russian society was feeble, he said – though better than ten years ago when he was first sent to jail in Siberia.
For now, Khordorkovsky's priorities are closer to home: "I have not seen my family for ten years. I have not been free for ten years. Let me have a little private life."