Geopolitics

Exclusive: A Prison Call For Reform In Russia From Kremlin Foe Khodorkovsky

Serving a 13-year sentence for fraud, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a symbol for Russians seeking real democratic reforms. In this open letter from his prison cell published by Kommersant, the former oil tycoon lays out his vision for a lasting overhaul of the

Khodorkovsky during his trial
Khodorkovsky during his trial

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Russia violated the rights of the now defunct oil giant Yukos. In an open letter written from his cell, Yukos' former head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is calling on Dmitry Medvedev to carry out real reform of the country's political system.

When the attack on Yukos began in 2003, some accused my business partner and I of secretly planning to transform Russia into a Parliamentary republic and to restrict Vladimir Putin's powers.

In fact, the raid on Yukos had nothing to do with Parliamentary democracy. Those who laid the charges against my colleagues and me simply wanted to take over the country's most profitable oil company, for free.

Before 2003, we supported research into revamping the Russian political system with Open Russia, a non-profit organization. It involved high-ranking officials, deputies and senators, but after my arrest in October 2003, these influential people preferred to forget it all. May God be their judge.

Our idea of political reform did not involve a pure Parliamentary republic. It was more of a presidential/Parliamentary model in which a popularly elected president guaranteed the constitution and ensured the unity and integrity of the state. The government would answer to the newly elected Parliament, rather than the re-elected president.

Of course, such a constitutional reform, even if started in the middle of the last decade, would not have been completed until 2008, because restricting presidential powers was just not an option.

Back then, I felt that such a concept was the correct one. The 1993 Constitution practically created a super-presidential system on a federal level. The reason for that was obvious at the time. First of all, Boris Yeltsin wanted to avoid a repeat of the 1993 constitutional crisis, when a standoff between then President Yeltsin and the Parliament led to deadly street-fighting. Building the foundations of a new state also required a high concentration of power in one person's hands.

The chemistry of post-revolutionary politics

But at the start of the new millennium, the situation in the country had changed. The political chaos of the revolutionary 1990s, with all its ups and downs, had taken away any chance for traditional post-revolutionary stability.

As a trained chemist, I would describe this transfer as akin to going from a liquid to a solid state.

The shortcomings of a super-presidential system started becoming painfully obvious. It caused the spreading and deepening of serious corruption that now afflicts Russia from top to bottom.

Russia needs a new political model - a presidential and Parliamentary one.

Since 2003, when I was put behind bars, presidential power in our country has become more monstrous. The president has the right to appoint governors, the head of the chamber and even representatives of the constitutional court. The presidential term was extended to six years. A truly massive web of power was created, though current President Dmitry Medvedev has yet to use a significant part of these powers.

Presidential elections in Russia are a zero-sum game - the winner takes all, the loser, gets nothing. The whole country's fate depends on one person, the president who is virtually unaccountable. That's why the closer the next elections get, the louder and more vehement the debate gets, along the lines of "it's either this candidate, or disaster!"

We constantly hear how: "if A is elected president, then we will stay in Russia, if it's B, we will leave." A normal, modern democratic state cannot function like that. The super-presidential system has led to the atrophy of other important political institutions, such as the Parliament, which is devoid of any real authority.

Recently there have been cases where important laws were initiated either by the Kremlin or the government within a few days, not giving Parliament members or senators time to figure out what they were.

The degradation of the federal assembly, in turn, is leading to the atrophy of political parties, with their role within the political system virtually at zero. Parties cannot develop and strengthen if they are not allowed to fight for real power.

The Russian federalism is on the brink of extinction. Governors, once political figures with local interests at heart, have been transformed into regional managers. Locals do not have a say in who governs them. The very meaning of municipal authority is undermined. Practically all political responsibilities lie in the president's hands.

This may work for some time through inertia, but it cannot effectively deal with large-scale contingencies or emergency situations. If President Medvedev wants to go down in Russian history as making a positive contribution, then he should use the next six years (some sources believe the current president will remain in power after the 2012 elections) to introduce fundamental political reforms.

Russia is too dependent on its head of state and is in dire need of political reform. This needs to include a revival of the State Duma (the lower house) and the federal council (the upper house). Senators and governors alike need to be elected, without interference.

By 2018, Russia must no longer be a super-presidential republic. As a citizen of Russia, I do not want to pin all my hopes on one all-powerful leader. It is essential to ensure the country is managed by a transparent team of professionals, who are just as prepared to take power as they are to give it up.

If that happens, then Yukos would have been a worthwhile sacrifice.

*This is an abbreviated version of the original Russian article

photo - video image from Khodorkovsky, the documentary.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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