Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the only billionaire jailed by Vladimir Putin, is assembling an army of volunteers to challenge the electoral system that supports his nemesis. Accusations of murder and poisoning are already flying.
Khodorkovsky, freed 18 months ago, has said he hopes to spark a palace coup from self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exploiting what he predicts will be rising discontent with a contracting economy. He’s starting with a project to hunt for violations in the first major elections Putin and his ruling United Russia party will face since the president returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister.
The tycoon, who says his 10-year imprisonment for financial crimes was retribution for funding Putin’s opponents, is teaming up with Golos, a vote monitor whose reports of fraud in the 2011 contest for parliament helped trigger the biggest protests of the Russian leader’s 15-year rule.
“Monitoring elections will be seen as a provocation,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation and Moscow-based Golos plan to dispatch 1,000 observers each to regional polls in September and thousands more for early legislative elections next year, as well as the presidential vote due in 2018 that may give Putin another six years in power. He’s funding his monitoring project with some of the $100 million he says is left from a fortune that once stood at $15 billion.
The Putin era in Russia is drawing to a close, Khodorkovsky said on his website on Thursday. The former KGB agent is “unpredictable, irrational and living in a different reality,” Khodorkovsky said.
Authorities are preemptively pressuring both Golos, or Voice, and Open Russia.
Police this month searched Golos’s headquarters and the homes of four of its leaders as part of a tax case the group says is trumped up. In April, officials raided Open Russia’s Moscow office for allegedly preparing materials urging extremist activity, which the foundation denies.
Putin’s United Russia received 49.3 percent of the vote in the legislative elections in 2011, down from 64.3 percent in 2007 but just enough to retain its majority in the 450-seat State Duma. The party’s approval rating has since slipped to 47 percent, while Putin’s is hovering near a record at 87 percent, polls by the independent Levada Center show.
“It’s hard to launch a coup against someone who enjoys more than 80 percent popularity,” said Masha Lipman, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. Still, Putin has many critics among both free-market adherents unhappy with the rupture in ties with the West and hardliners who think he’s too soft, which is a bigger threat, she said.
With the price of oil, Russia’s main export earner, half of what it was a year ago, and a further decline likely once sanctions on Iran are lifted as part of the new accord curbing its nuclear program, Putin is facing the most difficult test of his political life, said Makarkin of the Center of Political Technologies.
“Soviet experience shows us what happens to oil-dependent countries when the price falls too low,” Makarkin said, referring to the collapse in crude that preceded the breakup of the Soviet Union. “It’s only going to get worse.”
Prosecutors fired a warning shot at Khodorkovsky, 53, last month, saying they have new information that implicates him in the 1998 murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, the Siberian production center of his now-defunct Yukos Oil Co. His former partners in Yukos, which was seized and sold by the state, won a $50 billion ruling against Russia in The Hague in 2014 that nations including France and Belgium started to enforce in June.
Putin said in 2012 that Khodorkovsky had “blood on his hands” and that it was doubtful Yukos’s former security chief, Alexei Pichugin, who is serving a life sentence for the murder, acted “all by himself.”
The chief coordinator for Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was poisoned sometime before May, when he collapsed from acute kidney failure and fell into a coma for a week, according to his father, who’s also named Vladimir Kara-Murza. Russian doctors refused to consider poisoning as the cause of the damage being done to his organs, so he was flown to the U.S., where he’s now recovering.
“Our doctors thought he had taken the wrong pill, but American doctors immediately asked, ‘What was he poisoned with?’” the elder Kara-Murza said by phone, adding that it isn’t safe for his son, 33, to return. “I feel the pressure.”
Putin’s most outspoken foe, Alexei Navalny, has been convicted of embezzlement alongside his brother, placed under house arrest and detained for unlawful assembly several times. While Navalny was given a suspended sentence, his conviction makes him ineligible to stand for election. His brother, Oleg, is serving a term of 3 1/2 years.
The Kremlin, concerned about the popularity of Navalny, who has 1.3 million followers on social media, has banned officials and executives of state companies from giving him any kind of publicity, three people familiar with the matter said.
After Anatoly Chubais, a free-market economist who heads Rusnano, called Navalny a “promising” politician in a televised debate last month, two of Chubais’s allies were detained for allegedly embezzling 220 million rubles ($3.5 million) from the state nanotechnology company in 2007 to 2009. They deny any wrongdoing and Rusnano said it didn’t suffer any losses.
Taking hostages like this “is a ubiquitous practice by the security forces,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Both Chubais and investigators declined to comment on the Rusnano case, while Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, didn’t respond to an e-mail request for comment.
Navalny responded ironically, saying on Friday on his website: “I don’t just demand a ban on publicizing (me) but criminal liability for such an outrageous act.”
Khodorkovsky, who refused to seek clemency during his decade of incarceration, remains defiant.
“I will not stop” even if authorities “invent new criminal cases” and “threaten my supporters,” Khodorkovsky said on his Facebook page.
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