Can ex-oligarch Khodorkovsky become Putin's nemesis?

The former Yukos magnate-turned-convict Mikhail Khodorkovsky says he will organize opposition against Putin from abroad. The move, echoing a long tradition of Russian exiles, suggests he sees a weakness in the Kremlin's foundations.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday in New York. The former oligarch said he plans to use his 'Open Russia' movement to push for a constitutional conference that would shift power away from the Russian presidency and toward the legislature and judiciary.

Early in the turbulent year of 1917, USSR-founder Vladimir Lenin wrote a forlorn note from his Swiss exile, remarking on the seemingly indestructible endurance of Russia's Romanov dynasty. "I will not see the Revolution in my lifetime," he lamented.

Yet within weeks, the czarist system imploded, and Lenin launched the political campaign that saw him in charge of Russia before the year was out.

Though he is no Bolshevik, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's newest political exile, has been invoking 1917 and its cataclysmic power shifts to justify his own newly declared drive to replace President Vladimir Putin. The disgraced oil tycoon, who was released after 10 years in prison last December in a Kremlin move to spruce up Russia's image before the Sochi Olympics, probably has even fewer followers in Russia today than then-politician-in-exile Lenin had 100 years ago.

But as he stumps across the US to drum up support for his restarted Open Russia society, Mr. Khodorkovsky explicitly argues that the authoritarian state Mr. Putin has built, with its dependence on a single personality, is doomed. Like its two autocratic predecessors, both of which unexpectedly collapsed within the past century, Russia will soon face an emergency, says Khodorkovsky. And he pledges to step in and save it.

No matter how powerful Putin currently appears to be – his public approval ratings are spiking over 80 percent – it's all a facade, says Khodorkovsky. Putin is fostering the illusion that the country can survive without integrating with the West, the ex-oligarch said in an address to Freedom House in Washington last week.

"I fear that Putin is going to bring the country to a crisis much more quickly than many would like," he told Charlie Rose. Authoritarian leaders such as Putin stifle normal political competition, and drive opponents underground or into exile. When the leader fails, chaos ensues, leading to the kind of revolutionary opportunity that Lenin stepped into in 1917, Khodorkovsky warned.

A Russian tradition

Experts say Khodorkovsky is placing himself within a rich Russian tradition of directing an opposition movement from abroad while awaiting that magic moment when the Kremlin walls crumble and history summons him to put Russia back on the "right path."

Like many famous political exiles of Russia's past, Khodorkovsky had been part of the elite, perhaps even a contender for power, who ran afoul of the boss. Once Russia's richest man and chief of its most profitable oil company, Khodorkovsky made the mistake of announcing his political ambitions and funding opposition political parties through his Open Russia Society at the dawn of the Putin era. He was arrested in 2003, and imprisoned on charges of embezzlement and fraud. His Yukos oil company was broken up and its most profitable parts handed over to the state-owned Rosneft firm.

The former tycoon's supporters have maintained that his two trials were Kremlin-orchestrated. But the European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that there was insufficient evidence to declare them politically motivated.

Khodorkovsky is probably aware that most famous political exiles of the past waited in vain for their moment to arrive.

Prince Andrei Kurbsky was one of Ivan the Terrible's top generals before he fell out with the czar and fled to Poland in the 16th century. He is remembered today for a series of sulfurous letters he later exchanged with Ivan, accusing his former boss of dragging Russia into absolutism, wrecking its prosperity, and subjecting its people to terrible persecutions. Leon Trotsky, a companion of Lenin widely viewed as his natural successor, fled the wrath of Joseph Stalin, only to be assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Prince Kurbsky's name.]

Khodorkovsky retains strong supporters among Russia's disaffected liberal community, and his 10 years in a Siberian penal colony have conferred an aura of martyrdom upon him for many. But opinion polls show most Russians loathe him as one of the original "oligarchs" who enriched themselves in the 1990s by manipulating political connections and staging rigged auctions of state assets.

'A typical, corrupt police state'

Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of Russia's only independent pollster, the Levada Center in Moscow, says the Russian public's overwhelming resentment of the oligarchs has barely eased in recent years, although attitudes toward Khodorkovsky personally have improved a bit. Still, Mr. Grazhdankin says, a recent survey found that if presidential elections had been held last month, Putin would receive 56 percent, and Khodorkovsky would trail with 1.1 percent.

"Khodorkovsky is only the most important and symbolic figure to leave Russia lately. And he's right to say he couldn't conduct open politics here. He would be in danger," says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous Russian TV talk-show host. A stream of other emigrés, including top economist Sergei Guriev and investigative journalist Oleg Kashin, have gone abroad saying they fear the return of Soviet-style repression.

Many Russian experts dispute Khodorkovsky's core idea that Putin has reinvented the traditional Russian autocratic state, with all of its flaws and inherent tendency to eventually self-destruct.

Supporters of the Kremlin argue, with considerable force, that the past 15 years under Putin have been the most free and prosperous time in all of Russian history. They point out that Russians are free to travel, read what they like, and speak freely in private settings. Claims that there is no Soviet-style censorship of the press are also true, though the Kremlin has established control over the media, and uses a variety of methods to hound the few remaining independent outlets. There are also multi-candidate elections in Putin's Russia, but the field is strictly pruned and weeded to ensure few genuine opponents get through.

But Russia has enjoyed relative periods of freedom and prosperity under autocratic governments before. The Kremlin's critics counter that the oil-and-gas fueled period of comparative liberalism under Putin is ending, while the fundamentally authoritarian nature of the state has seen no reform.

"Putin created a typical, corrupt, over-centralized, inefficient police state," Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned Kremlin opponent, says. "It's based on the export of raw materials, and that's an economic dead end. As for the political system, there is no mechanism to change power without revolution. That is the real danger facing us."

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