Much has changed in the past 10 years. Oligarchs have been replaced by networks as the real challenge to Vladimir Putin's power.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is giving up everything that once defined his power. He is relinquishing the right to his shares in Yukos, which have been in the hands of the state-owned Rosneft since his imprisonment. He will also stay out of Russian politics. This is what he wrote in the letter that was sent to Vladimir Putin along with his appeal for pardon.
This was not a condition for his release, but it certainly made the decision easier for the Russian president. It remains to be seen whether the man who up until four days ago was the most famous prisoner in his country will return to Russia or whether the Hotel Adlon in Berlin will be the first stop on a long journey of exile.
Russia is a very different country than it was ten years ago. Nothing could make that clearer than the reappearance of this ghost from the past. Until the early 2000s, the power balance in Moscow was highly complex, with oligarchs competing for influence over politics and the media. Nowadays these oligarchs still exist, but they leave politics to the Kremlin and diligently get on with their business. The one exception is Boris Berezovsky, who had been a vocal critic of the Russian government from exile in Britain – he was found hanged at his home in March.
It is as though Khodorkovsky is reappearing after spending 10 years frozen in time. The expectations being placed on him have more to do with his status as the most famous political prisoner in Russia than his achievements before being imprisoned. The only thing that links him to what we will simplistically refer to as “the Russian opposition” is that both have been opposed to and the victims of the Kremlin’s arbitrary wielding of power. Aside from that shared experience, their environments and methods could not be more different.
From the outset, Khodorkovsky’s influence came from a mixture of his proximity to those in power and his economic strength. Now he has lost both. The new generation of government critics come from the middle classes, and their power is based on networks. Many had the opportunity to travel abroad as young adults and observe functioning democracies, something that would have been unheard of for oligarchs who came up under Soviet rule.
Putin more powerful than ever
Germany may well congratulate itself on the effectiveness of its diplomatic attempts to secure Khodorkovsky’s release, but the truth is that these negotiations would have gotten nowhere if Putin himself had not decided that now is the opportune moment. Two months before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia could do with a few positive headlines.
And yet Putin’s recent successes in the management of the Edward Snowden affair, the Syrian chemical weapons dossier and influence in Ukraine also mean that the Russian president feels his position is now strong enough to free himself of this burden.
The reasons for Khodorkovsky’s renunciation of Yukos and politics are twofold. He knows that he cannot win in a direct confrontation with Putin. A new attack would not only damage him, but also numerous colleagues who risk facing trial for alleged gang crime. Khodorkovsky signed the clemency plea for their sake too. And he understands that as a man with Jewish roots and a supposed beneficiary of “predatory privatization,” he cannot hope for much support from Russian voters. He is planning for the long term and hoping that society will change. After all, the last ten years show that it can.