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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Alagie Conteh or Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

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By Jainaba Bah

In my “Mission to Moscow” as The Gambia’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation, I had given a detailed résumé of my honest and sincere opinion regarding President Vladimir Putin. Nothing has changed in that regard.

The contents of this article have been inspired by events in our country partially captured in a recent Letter to the Editor of The Standard Newspaper: “The ‘price of opposition’ in the Gambia”. In writing this article I want to compare two business leaders (The Gambia’s Alagie Conteh and Russia’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and allow the reader to draw their own conclusion. I hope this article will be a source of continued inspiration for those who believe that “one’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Once Russia’s richest man and now one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critics and Russian dissident voices, Mikhail Khodorkovsky embodies the epitome of unyielding resistance to the Kremlin with unbending resilience. I have been following the fate of Khodorkovsky since his arrest in 2003 and have been fascinated by his story; Russian Oligarch-Turned-Activist. His demeanor when he appears in court, his articles whilst in prison and above all his signature tag; the man who had it all and who lost everything, yet he perseveres and plods on sans vengeance or bitterness. All for the sake of what he calls “to preserve what he saw as most important, his dignity”. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was born on June 26th 1963 in Moscow; former Soviet Union. The Russian oil tycoon fell afoul of the Russian president and was imprisoned in 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He was convicted of those crimes and others before being released in 2013. He insisted that his conviction was politically motivated and many people believed that “Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s real transgression was withholding feudal respect for President Vladimir Putin by funding opposition parties and championing an anti-corruption campaign.” For this, he would spend more than a decade behind bars before being released in 2013 and sent to exile. Mikhail Khodorkovsky lives in London today and continues to be a strong critic of President Vladimir Putin, as recently in BBC’s HARDtalk with Stephen Sackur on the war in Ukraine.

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Both Mikahil Khodorkovsky’s parents were chemical engineers as a result of which he found chemistry alluring. Graduating as a chemical engineer from the Moscow Institute of Chemical Technology, he wanted to pursue further studies in the same field, but ended up opening a small café in 1986 as his first business enterprise. In 1987, at the age of 24, he founded the Youth Centre for Scientific and Technical Development, to provide market research to large manufacturers and introduce them to new technologies. Within a year, he started importing and exporting computers. In 1988 he oversaw the transformation of an assortment of businesses into one single trading company which later transformed and registered as a bank with approximately $8 million in operating capital.  In 1990, the company was named Menatep; one of the first Russian privately owned banks. Mikhail Khodorkovsky made a fortune in 1991 trading in foreign currency and commodities. His biggest successes involved the acquisition of assets formerly owned by the Soviet government. 

Throughout the early years of the 1990s Menatep and Rosprom (a holding company) purchased controlling interest in dozens of industrial concerns across Russia. In 1995 Menatep took ownership of Yukos, Russia’s second largest oil company through a government auction in what is referred to as the “notorious loans for shares” for the sum of $350 million. As head of Yukos, Khodorkovsky became, for a time, the wealthiest person in Russia, and he was one of the most visible members of a group of industrialists and financiers dubbed “the oligarchs.” Khodorkovsky and the other oligarchs had put their political weight behind the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and in return, were protected and accommodated by the Yeltsin government for a decade. As Khodorkovsky later puts it “our company supported those deputies who represented ‘our regions’—and they defended our interests essentially out of a sense of responsibility. We were, however, the largest employer in the region. We financed their electoral campaigns and their philanthropic projects.” 

To this someone had responded “I think that the members of a parliament should represent not companies but parties, and their constituencies, and the common good.” 

With Boris Yeltsin’s sudden resignation in December 1999, this arrangement with the Kremlin was dissolved. The oligarchs including Mikhail Khodorkovsky were left without that earlier safety net. When President Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor ascended the seat of the presidency in 2000, he did not like the powers that the oligarch wielded. He made them an offer – a compromise: —” he would allow them free rein in their respective industries as long as they stayed out of politics”.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky rejected that deal and spent millions financing opposition to President Putin and promoting legislation that was beneficial to his Yukos company. In 2001, he founded Open Russia, an organization whose intention was to “build and strengthen civil society” in Russia.

On February 19th, 2003 in a national televised meeting between President Putin and the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Khodorkovsky gave a presentation about the state of corruption in Russia. He cited numerous statistics showing that corruption cost the Russian economy over $30 billion per year. He said that the administration “must be willing to show its readiness to get rid of some odious figures” in the regime, to prove its readiness and ability to combat corruption. An upset President Putin would have none of it, and replied with clear threats to Khodorkovsky, suddenly questioning the legitimacy of Yukos’s growth. Khodorkovsky had now become a public irritant and powerful opponent of Kremlin policies. 

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In the same year, Yukos announced plans to acquire the Russian oil firm Sibneft to create what would be one of the world’s largest oil producers and Russia’s largest company. Those plans were blown to smithereens. In the morning of October 25th of the same year, armed Russian commandos stormed a Yukos chartered plane refueling on the tarmac of the Novosibirsk airport. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint and taken to Moscow. He was charged with fraud and tax evasion. That year, he was named Russia’s wealthiest man worth $15 billion (15 000 000 000 dollars) and ranked 16th on Forbes list of billionaires. The government froze shares of Yukos on tax charges. This led to the eventual collapse of the company and a lot of Khodorkovsky’s wealth dissipated.   

His trial continued until 2005, when he was found guilty of six of the seven charges filed against him, and he was sentenced to nine years in prison (this was later reduced to eight years). Just before he would have been eligible for parole in 2007, additional charges of embezzlement and money laundering were brought against Khodorkovsky. Like the first trial, the subsequent trial was widely condemned as being politically motivated. It concluded with a guilty verdict in 2010, and Khodorkovsky’s sentence was extended for an additional seven years. In May 2011 that verdict was upheld on appeal, but Khodorkovsky’s total sentence was reduced by one year, meaning that he would be eligible for release in 2016. In the eyes of President Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is an embodiment of the worst excesses of the era of the oligarchs. Yet, the latter’s imprisonment made him a symbol for proponents of democratic reform in Russia.

When asked about Khodorkovsky’s trials many Russians—politicians and journalists, writers and scientists, businessmen and artists—all said the same thing: they were political trials, acts of revenge against Khodorkovsky. In court Mikhail Khodorkovsky once declared: “I’m proud that, over the course of seven years of harassment, among thousands of Yukos workers, there was no one willing to become a false witness, to sell his soul and conscience. Dozens of people were subjected to threats, separated from their families and loved ones, thrown into the dungeons. Some were tortured. But while losing their health and years of their lives, these people preserved what they saw as most important—their dignity.” 

Throughout Khodorkovsky’s years in prison, there had been many voices raised around the world, about what many believed to be the injustice that had been meted on him. This worldwide campaign for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky took many forms – in parliaments, theatres, opera houses, art exhibitions, on the streets, you name it!

Before his arrest, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was into serious philanthropic work and gained recognition for it. His first project was in 1994 when he founded the Podmoskovye Lyceum, whose aim was to provide quality education to underprivileged children – in particular orphans, victims of terrorism, and children of military servicemen. With a highly qualified staff dedicated to providing the best opportunities for each child. The goal of the lyceum is to ensure that by the end of their time there, the children will be ready and able to qualify for a state grant to attend higher education in Russia.

During his youth, Khodorkovsky had been a member of The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, Komsomol, through which he came to have a strong conviction that he had a responsibility to help develop Russian society at a more fundamental level by improving the lives of ordinary people. His company Yukos, supported schools, hospitals and libraries in communities where the company operated. It helped to fund employee mortgages and offered generous resettlement grants. In 2002, Yukos was recognized by the Russian government as the “Best Company for Compensation and Social Payments Programmes” and for “Implementation of Social Programmes at Enterprises and Organizations.”

In his commitment to Russia’s ties with the rest of the world, Yukos donated to the United States Library of Congress a grant of $1 million, earmarked for a Russian rule of law programme called Open World, to offer fellowships for Russian scholars and students with leadership potential.

In 2001, Khodorkovsky and Yukos shareholders also created the Yukos-funded Open Russia Foundation, with a view towards sustainably building and strengthening civil society in Russia. Funds were disbursed through philanthropic programmes and competitive grant programmes in a wide variety of educational, cultural, and social spheres. Programmes included the Federation for Internet Education, established across the country to teach schoolteachers to use computers and access the internet. This programme was in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications. Support for the modernization of rural libraries through computers, internet access and training. A “New Civilization” programme aimed at young people, based on the values and practices of democracy, civil society, and market economics and funding for a “Russian Booker Prize” for literature. In addition to such programmes, Open Russia was amongst the few domestically-funded organizations that made grants to human rights organizations.

In 2003, Yukos pledged $100 million in support, over the course of a decade, for the Moscow State Humanities University. In the same year, Khodorkovsky also provided a major endowment to support the Khodorkovsky Foundation, a UK-registered charity that provides scholarships for higher education, and makes donations to educational establishments. The Khodorkovsky Foundation’s support Russian students and educational establishments. The Foundation also supports the Oxford-Russia Fund, which has provided financial support and scholarships for Russian students to study at the University of Oxford.

Following Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, the Russian authorities launched a concerted campaign against his philanthropic legacy. Open Russia, by then, one of Russia’s largest foundations, donating approximately $15 million per year to a wide variety of civic and charitable groups and institutions, was closed down by the authorities in 2006. 

In prison, Mikhail Khodorkovsky had on a number of occasions gone on hunger strike. One was on 19th August 2005, when Khodorkovsky announced that he was on a hunger strike in protest against his friend and business associate, Platon Lebedev’s placement in the punishment cell of the jail. According to Khodorkovsky, Lebedev had diabetes mellitus and heart problems. That keeping him in the punishment cell would be equivalent to murder.

François Zimeray, French ambassador for human rights said “I was in court during the second trial [of Mikhail Khodorkovsky] and I was struck by the strange atmosphere of the trial, with Khodorkovsky dismantling point by point the accusations but no one listening: not the prosecutor, not even the judge.”

After spending more than a decade behind bars, Khodorkovsky was released by presidential pardon on December 20th, 2013. His pardon came as part of a larger amnesty in advance of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. In total, he had served 3,709 days in prison (a little over 10 years), and had gone through two separate trials.

Upon his release from jail and leaving Russia, it was alleged that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, pledged not to get involved in politics, but soon he ended up sponsoring civil initiatives and opposition candidates. In an interview in December 2014, Khodorkovsky stated that he was not violating his promise to President Putin to avoid politics, but was only engaged in “civil society work… politics is in essence a battle to get yourself elected, personally. I’m not interested in this. But to the question, are you ready to go through to the very end: yes, I am. I see this as my civic duty… I am offering myself as a crisis manager. Because that’s what I am.”

He continues to be a leading critic of president Vladimir Putin and once said:

“I’m sure Putin has regretted his decision to let me go, many times!” 

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney covered Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s life story in his film Citizen K. 

Today Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s net worth is a fraction of his former fortune. A recent 2022 estimate was at $100 million. That’s exactly what you call pittance for someone who had $15 billion in assets.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky does not like posing for photo shoots. He does not want to comes across as a hero or martyr. Yet no one can take away from him that he is a clever man, indomitable and an unyielding opposition figure. “This is a result of undervaluing my life,” he explains. “In prison, your own life is not worth much….?I would suggest that people look after their lives and value them. But if circumstances demand, there is no point in being afraid, because when you’re afraid, you die all the time.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s unbending attitude in prison and during his trials, his refusal to capitulate; the fact that he never considers revenge, habours no hatred or contempt is what makes him and his words so powerful.

He has courage and determination, clarity in his thinking and exudes a great sense of dignity and freedom. There is no exaggeration in his experience, no excessive emotion, and no lament. Writing a letter to Khodorkovsky in prison, Polish journalist Adam Michnik had this to say: “The great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert used to say that truth is where there are contradictions. You, Misha [a pet name for Mikhail], are a perfect contradiction: that is your life’s path, from Komsomol activist to billionaire to political prisoner to the conscience of your country”. Michnik continued: “You are one of those people who change the world instead of adapting to it. That is why I am certain that you have already entered the pantheon of the most eminent figures in Russian history. Happy is the nation who has such people in its pantheon.”

In an interview with HARDtalk, upon Khodorkovsky’s release, his son Pavel who was with him at the time had this to say about his father: “Experiences of the last 10 years [in prison] have made him a much more sensitive emotional person. Before imprisonment, as a business leader, he was ruthless, he ignored emotions.”

These words echo Khodorkovsky’s own much earlier in his autobiography “Putin’s Prisoner” co-authored with Natalia Gevorkian, where he wrote: “I am ashamed that until 1998 I didn’t notice people.” He was regarded by some as an oligarch, who by nature, “is interested only in money, in stock-market results, in corridors of power. A cynical sybarite who wishes constantly to increase his wealth — aggressive, greedy, power-hungry.”

In the same interview, Mikhail Khodorkovsky underscores his indebtedness to his family – He always says he along the way built a huge debt to his family and the only way to repay that debt is “by taking care… families are always a group of soulmates. So, if I should fight, then I would count on my family’s support and that’s how it turned out.”  

When asked if he had changed, Khodorkovsky answered in the affirmative. “Da – Yes! In different ways I became older. Ten years ago, I probably thought to win or to lose. Today, I understand that it’s better if both parties felt that they won.” 

When it was put to him that people in Russia see him as the man with the experience, legacy, recognition and name to challenge president Vladimir Putin, Khodorkovsky’s response was: “Undoubtedly, I will be one of those people who will try to change Russia. However, changing Russia is not about replacing the current regime with someone else. This would contradict my view. I’m convinced we do not need a new Putin. We need a democratic country and that’s a completely different task.”  Stephen Sackur continued with: “But you will fight for that?” and Mikhail Khodorkovsky answered: “Of course!”.

On the 20th of September 2014, Mikhail Khodorkovsky launched his civil society movement Open Russia with a live event in Berlin and an online forum attended by thousands from across the world. 

Some quotes by Mikhail Khodorkovsky 

o          “I have always defended my convictions and what I believed to be the truth.” 

o          “To admit guilt for nonexistent crimes is unacceptable to me.”

o          “Putin regards me as the most dangerous person, and when they were releasing me from jail, the only condition was that I leave the country. And when they did push me out of the country, to make sure that I wouldn’t come back, they opened up a criminal case against me – a new one.”  

o          “Fortunes are made, and disappear, over the lifetime of a single generation. Today, a person in essence takes his wealth from society just the duration of his or her lifetime. The next generation has to create it anew.”

(To be continued…)

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