A century after Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin plotted revolution from Zurich, Russia’s most famous ex-prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, harbors similar ambitions from self-chosen exile in the Swiss city.
Almost a year into his freedom, Khodorkovsky insists the tide is turning against President Vladimir Putin as the Russian economy heads into recession. Government revenue has been squeezed and the ruble has tumbled to record lows because of a collapse in oil prices and sanctions imposed over the Ukraine conflict.
“Putin has far less room to maneuver financially, which creates difficulties for him, and as a result the cost of any mistakes he may make could be critical,” Khodorkovsky, 51, said in an interview in Zurich, dressed casually in a sweater, jeans and sneakers. “For Putin, even $120 a barrel for oil is a problem because, with his system of rule, he can’t survive without the revenue from raw materials growing every year.”
Once Russia’s richest man with a fortune of $15 billion at the time of his imprisonment in 2003, the former Yukos Oil Co. tycoon is seeking to galvanize the faltering opposition to Putin’s 15-year-rule. Khodorkovsky says he’s undeterred by the president’s ratings of more than 80 percent after months of standoff with the U.S. and European Union.
Sleeping just six hours a night because he’s so busy with his new political role, the businessman spends his time crisscrossing Europe, maintaining offices in London and Prague as well as Zurich. He’s been twice to the U.S., where his oldest son Pavel lives.
Khodorkovsky says the euphoria provoked by Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March will evaporate in the coming five years as the population feels the impact of the economic slowdown. Oil, Russia’s main export earner, slumped to the lowest in 5 1/2 years yesterday and extended losses today. West Texas Intermediate futures fell as much as 1.9 percent in New York to $58.80 a barrel.
There’s at least a 50 percent chance that Putin won’t last the next decade, according to the former tycoon, who pins his hope on a coup by the Russian leader’s inner circle because in his view elections won’t bring about any transfer of power.
“I believe that the problem for Putin will come from within his own entourage,” he told Bloomberg yesterday. “For my country, it would be better if things happened this way than through clashes on the streets, as a palace coup would spill less blood.”
In a scenario that Khodorkovsky acknowledges isn’t more than an outside possibility, this could open the chance for him to come back to Russia to head a transitional government that would steer the country for two-to-three years before stepping down after a free and democratic vote.
In Switzerland, where he has taken up residence with his family in a suburb of Zurich, Khodorkovsky has his office in the historic center, a short walk from the house where Lenin lived for a year before Germany sent him to Russia in a sealed train in February 1917.
“The same countries are playing the same role as they did 100 years ago,” Khodorkovsky, who was flown immediately after his release to Berlin under a deal brokered by former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, said of the historic parallels. “I hope that the methods that Vladimir Ilyich used are firmly in the past,” he added, referring to Lenin by his patronymic.
Khodorkovsky was freed on Dec. 20 by presidential pardon after spending 10 years in prison for fraud, tax evasion and money-laundering. He says the charges were retribution for his financing opposition parties, which the Kremlin denies.
The former tycoon, who says he’s now worth $100 million, is planning to use his money to finance his Prague-based Open Russia, which aims to promote civil society in Russia mainly through the use of Internet tools, rather than opposition activity inside the country.
Parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2016 offer the first chance to rob Putin of legitimacy, he says, because the authorities will likely seek to exclude any opponents from the ballot. Yet something more is needed to tip the balance, he says, which is hard to predict.
“I wouldn’t count on the regime being toppled only as the result of mistakes in the economy, or the fall in oil prices or sanctions, you need something more,” he said. “You need a Black Swan moment.”
A year ago, interviewed just days after leaving his prison camp in the unfamiliar surroundings of a five-star Berlin hotel, the former Yukos owner said he didn’t bear a grudge against Putin. Now, Khodorkovsky is openly advising the Russian leader to voluntarily cede power.
“This is a lesser risk for him, if he wants to live a long life,” he said. “And it’s a lesser risk for the country.”
At the same time, Khodorkovsky, who doesn’t have any bodyguards, says he’s aware that his increasing political role represents a danger for himself and that the Russian leader may be regretting his decision to let him go.
“I understand very well that I am a personal opponent, or even an enemy, for Putin,” he said. “No one without his order will touch me. But if there will be such an order, it won't be easy for me to ensure my security, in Switzerland or any other country.”