With Russia’s sole major center-right liberal party, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), having announced that it will disband and merge with two pro-Kremlin parties, the man whose imprisonment has been a cause célèbre of Russia’s opposition liberals, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has given an interview in which he discusses, among other things, the future of Russian liberalism.
After Nikita Belykh stepped down as SPS head last week, saying that he rejected the push by some party leaders to “reach a compromise with the Kremlin” (see EDM, October 1), acting SPS head Leonid Gozman told a news conference on October 2 that the only way to guarantee the party’s existence “in the present system” would be to disband it and form “a new, rightist, democratic party.” The SPS will merge with the Kremlin-connected Democratic Party and Civil Force; and the new party, whose name will be announced on November 16, will be headed by Gozman, Delovaya Rossia business association head Boris Titov, and political commentator Georgy Bovt. As The Moscow Times reported, Titov acknowledged that the new project had official approval, saying the Kremlin had “asked us to back the political competition and a multiparty system” (The Moscow Times, October 3).
As political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin put it, the Kremlin gave the SPS the choice either to “consign itself to extinction as an opposition party” or to “play by Moscow’s rules” (The Moscow Times, October 6). The SPS has apparently chosen the latter.
Meanwhile, in an interview published in the October issue of the Russian edition of Esquire magazine, jailed Yukos oil company founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky put some distance between himself and the opposition liberalism represented by former SPS leader Nikita Belykh and others. Khodorkovsky said in the interview, excerpts of which were published in New Times magazine on October 4 (https://newtimes.ru), that he is not “especially liberal” in the meaning usually given to the term. “I am a supporter of a strong state in Russia, and I have a number of arguments,” he said. “I am a supporter of an active industrial policy, [of] a social state. In general, the Scandinavian model. Russia is an enormous country with difficult climatic conditions, with very difficult geopolitical surroundings. A weak state simply will not be capable of dealing with all of the extreme situations. As to the significance of climatic conditions: the United States has a more liberal economy than Canada where nature is much more severe.”
At the same time, Khodorkovsky said that a strong state must be ruled by law. “On the other hand, so that it does not degenerate into yet another totalitarian deformity, a strong state must not only be balanced by a strong civil society but must have an impeccably working system of checks and balances: separation of powers, public control, a strong opposition,” Khodorkovsky said. “In other words, a strong state must be super-legally based, if one can put it that way.”
Referring to the trials and tribulations that Russia’s liberals are currently going through, Khodorkovsky said that “new liberals” will undoubtedly appear. “If we need democracy, then all of us—left, right, liberal and statists [gosudarstvenniki]—need to fight for it together. Together, for the sake of ourselves and our children, against authoritarianism and corruption, for a law-based state and democratic institutions. And then, in a real parliament, on the airwaves of independent television, in independent courts, we will argue about what taxes there should be, over whether to nationalize or privatize the raw materials sectors, whether there should be private medical care and so on. An absolutely normal debate.”
Khodorkovsky also said that building a civil society from the bottom up would “do no harm” but that it was a “very slow” way to proceed. “There now exists another possibility, [one that is] tough but does not shift the responsibility onto future generations,” he said. “I have in mind the fight against corruption and, as a key part of that fight, independent courts. I am convinced that the fight against corruption in Russia is the fight for democracy. Precisely for that reason, [the issue of] independent, non-corrupt courts is the issue of issues for contemporary Russia. It is today’s task. By uniting the efforts of the entire left-right-liberal-statist intelligentsia, we could achieve joint success.”
At the same time, Khodorkovsky appeared to be closer to SPS leader Leonid Gozman than former SPS leader Nikita Belykh on the issue of cooperating with the Kremlin. “I absolutely do not agree with the appeals to liberal democratic society not to cooperate with the authorities,” he said. “That is the path of the weak. The path of the strong is to stand up in all places for democratic values [and] human rights, to fight corruption defined by the euphemism ‘administrative resources’ and not yield to temptation. Let the government, while it is the government, itself choose with whom it will work, knowing that we will bring into power not only our knowledge, but our ideals.”