The ex-Russian oligarch taking on Irish authorities

Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsy speaks out as he attempts to unfreeze €100m

Mikhail Khodorkovsky seems more puzzled than outraged when he talks about the €100 million which has been put beyond his reach by the Irish authorities for the past five years.

When the money was frozen in 2011, he was still in prison in Russia, serving time on various economic charges he says were trumped up by Vladimir Putin's regime.

“If this was happening in Russia, I would say there is something bureaucratic underlying the whole story. Because I know that in Russia, officials don’t like to take responsibility for making a decision, even if this decision is quite obvious,” he says.

"But because this is all happening in Ireland, I can't offer an opinion because I've only been in Ireland once and it was in Shannon."

Khodorkovsky now lives in London, from where he funds opposition politicians, independent journalism and other civic society activities in Russia.

As the majority shareholder in the oil company Yukos, he was Russia’s richest man, and although he remains wealthy, €100 million represents a considerable part of his fortune.

“I can’t say that I will not exist without this money, but I am carrying out significant social and civic work. I’m spending quite a lot of money on that work and, of course, I could use those funds,” he says.

When we meet at his headquarters in Mayfair, Khodorkovsky is dressed casually in jeans and a zip-up sweater, with a phone, a tablet and a leather-bound diary the only objects on his boardroom table.

He smiles easily and keeps eye contact as he speaks in Russian, with the conversation translated by one of his staff.

Factory workers

Born in Moscow in 1963, Khodorkovsky was deputy head of Komsomol, the communist youth league, at university, where he studied chemical engineering.

His father was Jewish, and both his parents were factory workers who were sceptical about the Soviet Union, although they did not share their views with him as he was growing up.

By the time he left university in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms were under way, and Khodorkovsky soon got involved in business, importing computers and brandy before setting up a bank called Menatep.

By the mid-1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s government was running out of money, Khodorkovsky and his friends were loaning the government money, secured against shares in state-owned oil, gas and metal companies.

Other young oligarchs made a killing too, with Roman Abramovich and his mentor Boris Berezovsky buying half of the oil company Sibneft.

Khodorkovsky became the majority shareholder in Yukos, one of the country’s biggest oil companies, and the value of his $350 million (€330 million) stake multiplied by 20 within two years.

A strong supporter of Yeltsin, Khodorkovsky says he regrets focusing so single-mindedly on business, rather than on how democracy was developing in Russia.

“I always thought that democracy was something less important, and that other people should be dealing with that,” he says.

“When, in 1996, a decision was made that Yeltsin should be pushed through the next presidential period, I thought it was right because I thought, if Yeltsin is making this decision, he must be right.

“And my deep regret was that I had to see how a new authoritarianism grew from this in the person of Putin.”

Money laundering

Putin agreed a tacit deal with the oligarchs whereby, if they stayed out of politics, he would stay out of their business affairs.

Most complied but Khodorkovsky remained outspoken, challenging Putin about corruption in government during a televised meeting in 2003.

In October of that year, he was arrested at an airport in Siberia, taken to Moscow and charged first with tax evasion and later with money laundering and embezzlement.

He served 10 years in Russian prisons, during which time he started writing about politics, as the businessman transformed into a political dissident.

On his release in 2013, Khodorkovsky moved first to Switzerland and now lives in London, from where he directs his Open Russia movement. He supported independent candidates in the most recent parliamentary elections in Russia, and funds independent media and various NGOs.

In exile, he has become the de facto leader of the opposition to Putin, but he acknowledges that the Russian president’s position remains strong.

“But this strong position is based not on the fact that he is liked as a president but because he has created a situation whereby people cannot see any alternative figures,” he says.

“People are lost and they are naturally voting for him. That’s why we’re trying to show the society that there are other figures who could become legislators, who could be elected as president of the country.”

International sanctions

Khodorkovsky believes that international sanctions against Russia, particularly those targeting individuals, are effective, although he says the fall in the price of oil is likely to be much more important in determining Putin’s fate.

Donald Trump’s election as US president has raised fears that Washington could take a more indulgent approach to Putin, but Khodorkovsky suggests that the danger could be quite the opposite.

“Putin made it clear in Russia in a way that Trump is his hand in Washington. But because we both understand how the American system works, it’s hard to believe it,” he says.

“I’m more concerned about the situation whereby Mr Trump, being a much less patient person than President Obama, may not tolerate what President Obama thought possible to tolerate from President Putin.

“In such a case, either President Putin will have to retreat or we will have to witness quite an unpleasant development of events.”

Some of Khodorkovsky’s former business partners continue to invest part of his wealth, but he says he lost his appetite for business while in prison, dismissing it as “just a game” compared with his support for civil society in Russia.

In London, his life is that of an old-fashioned political exile, surrounded by Russians, speaking only Russian and fully preoccupied with life in the country to which he cannot return.

“I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve been given the opportunity to stay in this country, for my family to stay here, while we can’t go back to Russia, and that I’ve been given this opportunity to carry out the work I believe in.

“I don’t know, something may change in some unforeseen future but as of today, all my life is about Russia,” he says.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times

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