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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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

With His Trip To Moscow, Xi Has Sent A Clear Message To The World

China has adopted a stance of pro-Putin neutrality since the start of Russia's invasion. But this is not an alliance of equals. China has the upper-hand and sees the opportunity to present itself as an alternative world leader.

Photo of ​Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping in Moscow during the Chinese leader's state visit to Russia.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping in Moscow during the Chinese leader's state visit to Russia.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — While Russia is mired in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin has become the target of an international arrest warrant, China appeared as a lifeline.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Xi Jinping’s presence in Moscow from Monday to Wednesday was a bit like the "quiet force" visiting a friend in trouble. They offer him "face," as the Chinese expression for showing respect goes, referring to him as "dear friend"...

But reality sets in very quickly: between the couple, Beijing has the upper hand — and Moscow has no choice.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, China has observed what one diplomat astutely calls a "pro-Putin neutrality", a subtle balance that suits Beijing more than Moscow. Putin could have hoped for more active support, especially in the delivery of arms, technological products, or ways to circumvent Western sanctions. But China is helping Russia sparingly, while making sure to not incur sanctions in turn.

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