Don't follow the ex-oligarch.

Photographer: Gianluca Colla

Russian Liberals Won't Lead the Revolution

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

What Russia will be like after Vladimir Putin is probably the most important question for everyone with a stake in the country's future. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and now a political exile, is optimistic he'll have a role to play. But his plans may put him on the same path toward political irrelevance that another Russian billionaire, Boris Berezovsky, followed after leaving Russia.

Yesterday, Khodorkovsky delivered a lecture at the prestigious London think tank, Chatham House. A little more than a year since his release from a Russian prison after 10 years behind bars, and his forced emigration to Switzerland, the former owner of the Yukos oil company is beginning to outline his strategy for a triumphant return to his homeland. Though Khodorkovsky stressed during the question and answer session after the speech that he was not after any government office, the audience got a strong sense the speech was outlining a political program for an eventual bid for power. One person in attendance, journalist Ben Judah, tweeted:

Khodorkovsky appears to think it might be too early for that. "We can see that autumn has arrived for Putin, when all the fruits that have fallen from his tree have turned out to be rotten," he said. "But this could be a very long autumn." 

Meanwhile, according to Khodorkovsky, the West is missing a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new, post-Putin Russia. There is, he says, "a whole generation of people that has formed over the past twenty-five years who are talented and well educated, many of them are citizens of the world," but the corrupt Putin regime is depriving them of opportunities they crave and deserve. "But Western society, it seems, does not see these people, and continues to deal with Putin, as if there is no, and never will be, an alternative," the former oilman lamented.

Khodorkovsky's plan is to build that alternative out of those "different" Russians -- the 10 to 16 percent he claims are immune to Putin's charms -- with himself at the center. He described leading a brain trust, complete with a think tank to develop a reform program for Russia and media outlets to spread the word. 

As I read Khodorkovsky's speech, I couldn't help but compare him with Berezovsky, a man who helped Putin get elected as president in 2000 but soon broke with him and fled persecution, settling in London in 2001. He, too, started out by seeking people in Russia who could present a credible alternative to Putin. That was a chaotic but lavishly financed quest, with a colorful array of characters passing through London in hopes of a donation and either disgracing themselves or falling prey to relentless hounding by Putin's intelligence services. Ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, was close to Berezovsky, and so were liberal legislator Sergei Yushenkov, murdered in 2003, soon after falling out with the exiled oligarch, and former parliament speaker Ivan Rybkin, who mounted a comically unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004.

Despite his failures, countless journalists and political analysts buzzed around Berezovsky, who presented himself as a center of resistance to Putin. In 2012, 11 years after his emigration, Berezovsky still appeared to be full of fighting spirit. In an interview before Putin was elected for his current term as president, he predicted that "the street will carry Putin out feet first." But a year later, Berezovsky was found dead on his bathroom floor -- later ruled a suicide, given he'd been suffering from depression and growing money problems. Before he died, he wrote a letter to Putin, admitting "mistakes" and asking for permission to come home to Russia.

Khodorkovsky, of course, is a very different person, not given to Berezovsky's wild mood swings and bouts of chaotic creativity. "He is much more practical and pragmatic, a realist without political fantasies," says Natalya Gevorkyan, a Paris-based writer who has known both men well. "And he counts his money."

That has been reflected in Khodorkovsky's moves so far. He hasn't lavished millions on any political force in Russia or assembled an entourage of favor-seekers. The only platform he has created for his political ambitions so far is a website called Open Russia, meant to become a center of an anti-Putin web community. A modestly-funded TV channel meant to counter Kremlin propaganda is in the works. There is no air of wild excess, typical of Berezovsky's projects, about these ventures. 

They are, however, still only projects aimed at Russia's anti-Putin minority, funded from overseas because few people inside the country would have the courage to invest in the kind of future Khodorkovsky is talking about. It's tempting for me to see the educated liberal minority as the nucleus of a new, open Russia: my friends and I belong to this relatively small group.

Yet I also remember that the leader who brought down the Soviet Union and founded modern Russia was a Communist Party functionary named Boris Yeltsin, who was not an intellectual and who had a gift for speaking to the majority. Yeltsin displayed the anger and emotion that convinced Russians to rise against an oppressive regime. Khodorkovsky doesn't seem to have that elusive quality that would allow him to reach a wider public.

Putin, with his vast political experience, knows that. During his year-end press conference last December, a journalist asked the Russian leader what he thought of Khodorkovsky's putative presidential ambitions. "Where exactly would he run for president?" Putin asked, and the audience snickered.

The dissident ex-oligarch points out that the anti-Putin minority numbers at least 11 million to 17 million people, enough to "build a successful European country, and far from the smallest." Yet Russia is much bigger than that, and Khodorkovsky expects too much of Western leaders if he thinks they would invest in his "country within a country" concept while Putin is still firmly in power. Even Khodorkovsky himself is finding it hard to look beyond Putin: That proper name came up 31 times in his speech, more often than any other word except "Russia."

It was this kind of Putin obsession that ultimately made Berezovsky an irrelevant voice. Given his lack of alternatives, we'll probably soon know what it does for Khodorkovsky.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net