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[Newsmaker] Putin foe’s Kremlin bid sparks hope, jeers

MOSCOW  ― For a project whose end goal might be the removal from power of President Vladimir Putin, it had a very inauspicious start.

During a low-key ceremony broadcast online from Paris, exiled ex-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky announced on Saturday he was re-launching his Open Russia charity to promote civil society in Russia.

Few had expected any political statements, and there was little interest in the event from Russian media and the general public. But then things got interesting.

Khodorkovsky, who vowed to steer clear of politics upon his release from a decade in jail last year, unexpectedly called on pro-European Russians to use his Open Russia platform to work together in the run-up to 2016 parliamentary polls to influence the fate of their country. 
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (Bloomberg)
Mikhail Khodorkovsky. (Bloomberg)

He said Russia was part of Europe, and those who claimed otherwise wanted to cling to power for life.

Then came the real bombshell.

At an event at the Bastille Opera House marking the 70th anniversary of French newspaper Le Monde later that Saturday, the 51-year-old announced he would be ready, if called upon, to lead Russia in times of crisis.

Predictably, most in Russia’s political circles reacted to Khodorkovsky’s plan to challenge Putin’s grip on power with ridicule or disbelief.

The Kremlin indicated that it would not dignify Khodorkovsky’s statement with a proper response.

“There is nothing to comment on here,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP.

Kremlin-friendly commentators rushed to point out that as a former convict Khodorkovsky, who now lives in Switzerland, would not be able to run for political office for the foreseeable future.

Political analyst and senior member of the ruling United Russia party Dmitry Orlov laughed off Khodorkovsky’s words. “He stands no chance of ever carrying out these intentions,” he told AFP.

“His opportunities are rather limited, first and foremost because he does not enjoy significant public support.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta broadsheet cautioned that “the most famous political emigre risked gaining the image of an enemy of the country” by publicly announcing his intention to dismantle Putin’s tightly-controlled “vertical of power.”

Some in the liberal opposition reacted with apparent jealousy, with a leader of the Yabloko party, Sergei Mitrokhin, calling Khodorkovsky’s grass-roots tactics outdated.

But other observers said it would be a mistake to dismiss Khodorkovsky outright, pointing to the Kremlin’s increasing vulnerability as the country’s already battered economy is reeling from biting Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Political commentator Mikhail Rostovsky said Putin, 61, had finally met his match.

“Let the strongest man in the opposition ― Mikhail Khodorkovsky ― openly take on the strongest man in power,” he wrote in mass-circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

“It would be both fair and good for the country.”

He was quick to add however that the charismatic Khodorkovsky would still lose because his support does not extend beyond the liberal intelligentsia.

Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, a respected polling agency, said most Russians did not see Khodorkovsky as a serious threat to Putin.

“They understand that the regime will do everything not to allow him to run,” Gudkov told AFP.

Like other Russian tycoons, Khodorkovsky made his fortune from controversial loans-for-shares auctions to privatise Soviet state assets.

He built his now defunct Yukos oil company into one of Russia’s most transparent and successful firms and financed opposition parties and charities.

He was arrested at gunpoint for financial crimes in 2003 and spent the next 10 years in prison on charges his supporters said were revenge for daring to oppose Putin.

Levada Center’s Gudkov said most Russians still saw Khodorkovsky as “an oligarch and a thief.” But roughly a third believed that the former businessman was a victim of political persecution, he added.

“Middle classes and urban residents, who are unhappy with the current state of affairs and want institutional reforms, could support Khodorkovsky,” Gudkov said.

“In free and competitive elections he could gain 15-18 percent.”

In the eyes of his supporters, during his two prison terms, first in eastern Siberia, then in northwestern Russia, the father-of-four underwent a transformation from robber baron to resilient inmate to a moral authority.

Pro-opposition commentators said he was setting himself up for the long game.

“Khodorkovsky has no mechanisms to participate in elections,” said political commentator and satirist Viktor Shenderovich.

“But when things come to a head, his experience and brain could end up in demand,” he told AFP.

“He has historic ambitions to change Russia’s karma,” Shenderovich added.

“And in the light of his biography, they don’t look ludicrous.”

Khodorkovsky for his part indicated that even the most intransigent regimes could fall quickly, insisting the time had come to think of the country’s future after Putin.

In interviews with Russian and foreign media timed to coincide with the launch of his Open Russia movement, he reeled off a number of policy statements, sharing his opinion on everything from the Kremlin’s foreign policies to the future of Crimea and the erroneous nature of U.S. sanctions. (AFP)