Can Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky replace Putin?

Most of the world is focused on the war in Ukraine, which has created political unrest in most western countries. Although it feels as though Russia is under a microscope, there is a lot of Russian politics that the media has not discussed. One of these things is that there are rivals to Putin, one of whom is Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The Munich Security Conference took place two weeks ago. Although Russian officials are usually invited, this year that changed.

Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, organizers decided to invite Russian politicians pushing to replace Putin. Those guests included multiple Russian exiles, including the ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov; Zhanna Nemtsova, the daughter of the slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov; and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the lapsed oligarch who towers over the rest, primarily due to his being singled out as one of the potential new leaders of Russia should Putin fall.

Once Russia’s richest man and the head of the now-defunct oil giant Yukos, Khodorkovsky has become one of Russia’s biggest political whistleblowers. In 2003, he was arrested for alleged financial fraud after funding opposition leaders and independent media in Russia and spent a decade in prison before Putin finally pardoned him. (He was also formally accused of murdering the mayor of the city where Yuko, was headquartered, although that charge went nowhere.)

After Putin’s pardon saw him released from prison, Khodorkovsky initially vowed to stay out of politics. However, he has since publicly criticized Putin.

Image: Mikhail Khodorkovsky. YouTube screen grab.

A couple of years before the 2018 elections, when Vladimir Putin was once again voted in as the President of Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky launched the online project “Instead of Putin,” which received significant media coverage. However, he failed to attract a significant audience within Russia and, in the end, offered no real alternative to the ubiquitous image of a topless Russian president riding a horse.

When the site put up a list of potential candidates—a list that did not include Khodorkovsky—Alexei Navalny won. Putin then quickly barred him from running as a candidate. Navalny later ended up in prison after being found guilty of large-scale fraud (do you see the pattern here yet?). Some believe that Navalny’s challenge to Putin’s political power cost him his freedom.

Currently, the “Instead of Putin” site provides free and anonymous legal advice. Unfortunately, it’s not a very popular service, considering that, over the last nine years, lawyers have won only around ten million rubles, or $130,000, for their clients.

Former Yukos partner Leonid Nevzlin calls Khodorkovsky his friend but, on his personal Russian-language Telegram channel, out of 740 messages, only 14 mention Khodorkovsky. Such meager support for a friend with political ambitions indicates that even Nevzlin is distancing himself from Khodorkovsky’s activities. Russian Telegram groups distribute independent media, and Russian authorities have tried to block them. However, these efforts have mostly failed.

Despite losing most of his $15 billion fortune while in prison, Khodorkovsky, working with his ex-partners and managers, has managed to make many profitable investments to finance his activities against Putin. Because he uses his wealth to fight against Putin, the West sees his activities as a form of atonement for the former business oligarch.

Unlike his former Yukos associates, Khodorkovsky is the only one who uses his wealth to undermine Putin’s power in Russia. Indeed, he funds most free-speech media and investigative projects in Russia today. It’s dangerous for those working on these projects. A trio of Russian journalists was assassinated in the Central African Republic while investigating Wagner, a Russian paramilitary organization.

Khodorkovsky is said to be a tough businessman, willing to push to get those media projects a good audience and to ensure that they are well funded. This is why these are so effective in Russia.

Regarding the war in Ukraine, Khodorkovsky has been unwavering in his support for Ukraine, urging the West to supply Ukraine with more weapons in its fight against Russia. If and when Ukraine prevails in the war against Russia, observers expect a power struggle in Moscow. Many consider Khodorkovsky to be a likely successor to Putin.

Khodorkovsky continues to promise stability and democracy for Russia. It helps that he has support from many other exiled politicians who work with him to support Ukraine.

The people within Russia are very aware of him. Although they might not openly support his efforts to become president, he has already positioned himself as a frontrunner. He is already building a network within Russia, ready to strike when the iron is hot for the seat of power.

What helps is that Khodorkovsky has something that no other Russian oppositionist has: the ability to attract the best people and manage large structures. He has a proven talent for business leadership. He continues to show that he is a good strategist and tactician as he navigates these political waters.

Still, despite his abilities, he must enlist the support of a significant part of the national elite if he is to win. So far, though, it seems that the charismatic Khodorkovsky has more supporters in Washington, London, and Brussels than in Moscow. Putin has effectively cut off most of Khodorkovsky’s contacts within Russia.

Some of what’s standing in Khodorkovsky’s way is that his close circle, made up of former Yukos founders, has almost no political capital in Moscow. Leonid Nevzlin, who lives in Israel, manages litigation and watches the investments. Alexey Golubovich, who lives between Italy and Great Britain, has earned an indulgence in Russia thanks to his controversial testimony against Yukos. He only occasionally visits Russia to ensure a direct connection between Khodorkovsky and current officials, a silent network that even includes some generals.

The only people around Khodorkovsky who have political capital are human rights defenders in Russia, and the politicians the former oligarch once funded. However, new Russian laws are censoring these people, which once again puts Khodorkovsky’s effective support outside Russian borders. It’s hard to build a political team under these circumstances.

However, even with the odds stacked against him, Khodorkovsky has proven his ability to navigate politics. His business skills and network make him a person of value in reintegrating the Russian economy into the greater world economy.

Putin cannot last forever. Once his rule ends, Khodorkovsky will undoubtedly occupy one of the political positions, whether president or prime minister.

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