MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY ON THE CRISIS OF RUSSIAN LIBERALISM

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MOSCOW (RIA Novosti). On March 29, the newspaper Vedomosti published an article by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former CEO and largest co-owner of Yukos, who is now being held in custody, about the right-wing parties in Russia.

Russian liberalism is apparently in crisis, writes Khodorkovsky. If somebody told me a year ago that the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko would not negotiate the 5% barrier at the December parliamentary elections, I would have questioned this person's analytical and forecasting skills. But today we see that the SPS and Yabloko have all but collapsed. In fact, we see the capitulation of the liberals, which is both their guilt and their problem. It is their fear before Russia's thousand-year history seasoned with the strong liking for everyday comforts they developed in the 1990s. It is genetically rooted servility. It is their readiness to forget about the constitution for a plate of sturgeon with horseradish. This is the Russian liberals, then and now.

The reason for the crisis of Russian liberalism is not in the ideals of freedom, even if interpreted in a variety of ways, writes Khodorkovsky. Those whom fate and history entrusted with keeping the liberal values in Russia failed in their task. The SPS and Yabloko lost the elections not because the Kremlin discredited them but because the presidential staff, for the first time did not help them. Instead, it put them on a level footing with the other opposition forces. Irina Khakamada won a record-breaking 3.84% of the vote at the presidential elections not despite the regime but largely because the Kremlin needed the turnout.

I don't mean that Chubais, Gaidar and their comrades wanted to cheat Russia. Many liberals of the first, Yeltsin's, period sincerely believed in liberalism and the need for a "liberal revolution" in the tired country that had seen few pleasant sides of freedom. But the attitude of the liberals, who unexpectedly gained power, to the revolution was too shallow, if not light-hearted. They thought about the living and working standards for 10% of the people who were ready for radical change and rejection of state paternalism. But they forgot about the other 90%.

They covered the tragic failures of their policy with lies. They closed their eyes to social reality when they made the sweeping brushes of privatisation, ignoring its negative social consequences and coquettishly describing it as painless, honest and fair. Everyone knows what the people think about that "big-time" privatisation. Nobody bothered with the reform of education, healthcare, housing and communal services, or addressee support for the low-income sections of the population in the 1990s. I mean the problems on whose solution the life of a vast majority of the people in Russia has always depended. The time of reckoning has come. The people said a firm and merciless "Good bye" to official liberals at the 2003 elections. Even the young people who, we were absolutely sure, shared the SPS ideas unquestionably and would support Chubais, voted for the LDPR and Rodina (Homeland). It was the spit in the veritable precipice that formed between the liberals in power and the country.

And where was big business at the time? It was standing side by side with the liberal rulers. We helped them make mistakes and lie. We never admired the authorities - but then, we did not contradict them either, so as not to risk our bread and butter.

What we can and must do today? Here are a few priority tasks, writes Khodorkovsky:

- to learn to search for the truth in Russia and not in the West;

- to give up senseless attempts to question the legitimacy of the president;

- to stop lying to oneself and to society;

- to admit that the liberal project can only succeed in Russia if it is rooted in national interests;

- to legalise privatisation and force big business to share with the people;

- to invest money and brains in the creation of fundamentally new public institutions that will not be tarnished with past lies.

To change the country, we must change ourselves. To convince Russia of the necessity and inevitability of the liberal vector of development, we must get rid of the complexes and phobias of the past decade and the entire troubled history of Russian liberalism, concludes the author.

Note from RIA Novosti: Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on October 25, 2003 and charged under seven articles of the Criminal Code of Russia (including fraud as part of an organised group, gross refusal to comply with a court ruling, and gross tax evasion). On March 19, Moscow's Basmanny Court ruled he could be kept in custody until May 25. Khodorkovsky refuses to admit his guilt. On November 3 he resigned as Yukos CEO.

RIA Novosti commentary:

A VOICE FROM MATROSSKAYA TISHINA PRISON

MOSCOW, March 29 (RIA Novosti's Raisa Zubova). At first glance, Khodorkovsky's article, The Crisis of Liberalism in Russia, does not explain why he wrote it. It is not a breakthrough into the future or a new word in the analysis of the political situation in Russia. He simply enumerates our problems and fiercely denounces the wrong policy of the previous liberal-market governments. But he is too late and secondary in his attempt though he has a good turn of the phrase sometimes.

The Russian liberals' defeat was long ago analysed many times, including immediately after the December 7 parliamentary elections and the March 14 presidential vote. It was analysed by the best political minds of Russia and by the losers themselves. Khodorkovsky's contribution has not added anything new to this analysis. Coming from him, some especially rancorous criticism of the Russian right sounds unfair and not very ethical. Of the whole of Russian society, only the right dared to raise their voice (even though it was not very loud) in defence of the arrested Yukos head.

And then, I wonder why has the oligarch "seen the truth" now? He took an active part and benefited from the unfair privatisation, "reforms for the top 10,000" and many other things that happened during the "wild" 1990s. One is hard put to believe that oligarch Khodorkovsky, whom Forbes has recently cited as Russia's richest man, did not know what was going on in the country in the 1990s. The bitter truth is that Russian society and the West have forgotten about businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is getting bored in prison. The right saw Russia's immediate future differently in October 2003. It seemed that Khodorkovsky's arrest would explode the stock markets, put a check on foreign investments, and create tensions in Russia-West relations. Some especially daring people predicted that Khodorkovsky would become the common candidate of the right at the presidential elections.

But none of this came true. Russia's economy grew stronger, its market is becoming ever more attractive to foreign investors, Putin has reinforced his position, and the West, who has more important problems than the feelings of Russian oligarchs, does not remind the Kremlin about Khodorkovsky's suffering in prison too often.

Russian society has many other problems and interests, too, with parliamentary, presidential and other elections, one government fired and a new one installed, and a new reform programme. After the elections, some parties are enjoying the fruit of victory while others are busy analysing their defeat. As for the Yukos case and imprisoned oligarchs, they are old news.

Khodorkovsky's letter reminds me of a penitent letter, where one can read between the lines, "I have seen my guilt and promise to reform." The conclusions made in his article are clever and the country's leaders should see their worth. I mean his idea that we should stop looking up at the West (in particular Europe) and start relying on our own traditions and national interests, stop the brain drain, legalise the results of privatisation (even if this may entail some losses for the capital), and stop the attempts to discredit Putin.

I do not discern any political claims of the oligarch, though the situation - a letter from the prison published in a pro-Western newspaper - conditions the reader for protest and "the struggle against tyrants." There is not a hint in the letter of a new political agenda for the right or Khodorkovsky's desire to take up "the banner of freedom" that has fallen from the hands of liberals. In a word, the general tone of the article is not arrogant with regard to Putin. He recommends the West to accept President Putin as he is.

Why has Khodorkovsky written this article? Cynics will say that he is tired of sitting behind bars, forgotten by everyone, and that he wants out. The idealists will say that he had much time to think and suffer and wants to share the fruit of his painful thoughts, and that he cares for the future of the country. I would say that time will show.

Deputies of the State Duma and Federation Council comment on Mikhail Khodorokovsky's article at the request of RIA Novosti

Yuri Sharandin, chairman of the Federation Council's constitutional committee:

The ex-Yukos head has changed his stand and is demonstrating he is ready for dialogue. His article does not call on business to change the rules of the game but the need for changing relations between business and power is palpable. Khodorkovsky clearly states that big business should share with the people, which I view as the businessman's unequivocal agreement with the president.

The article creates the impression that it was written by a new man. Mikhail Khodorkovsky still believes that making money is the main task of business but now he thinks that business can be done in Russia only if Russia survives. It is important that Khodorkovsky decided to make his views public. After reading the article, it becomes clear that serious changes have taken place in the world outlook of this major businessman.

The article has no relation to the legal case against the ex-Yukos head, yet it can change relations between the authorities and business. If the authorities and business - especially business - seriously study the article, they will find many things to think about.

Valery Draganov, chairman of the State Duma committee for the economic policy, enterprise and tourism:

The new statement by Khodorkovsky is the last nail in the coffin of Russian liberalism, a Frankenstein that had been forced on Russia against its will. The article has embarrassed me, as Khodorkovsky writes in it what I have been telling my electorate for years, and I spoke about the collapse of liberalism and the Bolshevik methods it had been using long before this article.

I wonder if Khodorkovsky's ideas dawned on him in prison or he had thought about them before? I am sure the latter is true but then, why did he not take a stand sooner? Instead, for a long time he thought the so-called liberals were smarter and had a clearer vision than others and that reforming Russia was their mission.

However, reforms should be tackled carefully and major economic change cannot be effected within months. Thank God we won the approval of the current form of the economic, social and political reforms in 1999, though it was a bit late after what the bull did in the china shop in the early 1990s.

Dmitry Rogozin, leader of the Rodina faction in the State Duma:

The article is an interesting claim to a political life. Judging by it, if Khodorkovsky gets fewer than four years in prison, he will run for the presidency in 2008. The ways towards liberalism offered in the article constitute the ex-oligarch's plan of creating a liberal party of a new type. However, I don't think liberal ideology has a chance to rule. But it can win the hearts of 7-8% of the electorate.

To me, the seven ways suggested by Khodorkovsky are the minefield through which cows have passed, with telltale consequences. But I accept his idea of renouncing the senseless attempts to question the legitimacy of the president. It was an interesting thing to say, as the March 14 elections showed that there is no real opposition and no alternative to Putin today.

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