If any Russian business magnate personifies the country's efforts to forge closer political and economic ties with the U.S., it's billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the 39-year-old chairman of Moscow-based Yukos, Russia's second-largest oil company. A frequent visitor to Houston and Washington, Khodorkovsky has hired top American executives to help him manage Yukos and views the U.S. as a crucial source of technology and knowhow for post-Soviet Russia's emerging capitalist economy. He also sees the U.S. as a vital market for Russia's oil and other exports.
So is Khodorkovsky now worried about Moscow's threats to veto a new U.S.-backed U.N. Security Council resolution to pave the way for a war with Iraq? You bet he is. In one stroke, he says, Russia could ruin a historic opportunity for a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S. -- an opportunity that he views as far more important than improved ties with France and Germany, now aligned with Russia on the Iraq question. "It would be really stupid to let this opportunity slip through our fingers," he says.
Then again, Khodorkovsky's bluntness is his trademark. On Mar. 13, amid the whirlwind of global diplomacy on Iraq, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview at his Moscow headquarters with BusinessWeek Moscow Bureau Chief Paul Starobin. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: Why do you view a strategic partnership with the U.S. as such a vital opportunity for Russia?
A: For economic development, Russia needs investment, Russia needs [highly trained] people, Russia needs markets, Russia needs technologies. There are a large number of business areas in which we are behind -- marketing is one of them, and another is business organization in the broadest sense. When we take a look and see who would be the greatest benefit to us in all these directions, the answer is clear: America.
Q: Couldn't Russian look to Europe for these sorts of benefits?
A: Russians are more like Americans than they are like Europeans. We're always trying to push the envelope, to go outside the box. Europeans tend to die the moment they do that. Given a choice, a European would rather work less than earn more.
Then there's the matter of security, which has nothing to do with business. We've got a lot of regional problems. The only realistic ally is America. So if we're going to prioritize things, then we have to say the most important relationship is with America and then, equally important in second place, Europe and China.
Q: And yet some Russian business leaders, along with others in the political elite, see the Iraq issue as a good chance to split the West between America and Europe. Couldn't that be an effective tactic?
A: It's highly unlikely to work because all of the misunderstandings between Western Europe and the U.S. are like little scratches on a mighty oak table. It's not pleasant to see these scratches -- they don't add to the beauty of the table. But the table is no less sturdy for them. We can try to use our fingernails to scratch a little more on this table, but it's an unrealistic thing to do.
Q: Many Russian business and political leaders say President Vladimir Putin has received scant rewards from Washington from his politically risky bid for closer ties. Don't they have a point?
A: Yes. America isn't proposing anything. We are still not too clear on what America's position is on Russia's bid for WTO accession and how America can concretely help on accession. We also aren't sure what role America sees for Russia in postwar Iraq.
The U.S. also says that maybe it can contract with Russia to participate in the building of America's national missile defense program. But this isn't even at a stage of realistic discussion yet. It has stagnated.
Q: If relations between Moscow and Washington get chilly, is that going to have an impact on U.S. investment in Russian companies and markets?
A: I don't think that Americans who have already bought Russian assets are going to unload them. We've lived through tougher times than this already. But the expansion may stop.
Q: Have you conveyed your views to Putin?
A: He knows where I stand. It's not a secret.... I am well known in Russia for my pro-Americanism.