THE BLOG
01/15/2014 07:08 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Khodorkovski's Politics and the Challenge of Terrorism in Russia

Mikhail Khodorkovski has provided the most potent alternative to Russian President Vladimir Putin's "vertical" politics. With his brainy liberalism and humanism, he is, in the eyes of Russians and people around the world, the "un-Putin." Yet in some respects, he seems to share the approach of Putin and an apparent majority of Russia's dominant political class concerning unrest in the Northern Caucasus and terrorism--attitudes that do not bode well for a peaceful resolution of these problems.

Since his release from prison on 20 December 2013, Khodorkovski has mainly adopted a measured, thoughtful political persona. He has, first of all, taken a principled stand against the very kind of abuse of power that resulted in his arrest and confinement, which earned him Amnesty International's rare "Prisoner of Conscience" designation. Neither the people of Russia, nor of any other state, can respect a government that manipulates courts of law and electoral processes in order to preserve the power of a governing clique. When governments abuse the Rule of Law, a corrosive cynicism sets in, and citizens, with no model of integrity before them, tend to perpetuate corruption. Khodorkovski warned against subjecting people to injustices, and advocated for tolerating diverse views: "Don't push your fellow citizens into a corner....We have to live in the same country."

Before his arrest in 2003, Khodorkovski had been a vocal opponent of bogus "democratic institutions" by which Russian authorities have tried to deceive the international community, and the Russian people, into believing that Russian citizens enjoy human rights and freedoms. He used his vast wealth to fund youth programs and other civil society initiatives, earning the respect of many in the Russian human rights community.

Building on his image of principled selflessness, Khodorkovski has, in his post-release interviews, discouraged talk of possibly leading an opposition movement. He has maintained that in public life, ideas and moral standards are more important than personalities. Perhaps most intriguingly, Khodorkovski said that the political and social problem in Russia is that Russians "do not understand that they have to be responsible for themselves," and delegate such responsibility to leaders. He thus echoed the views of some of the Soviet Union's most visionary liberal dissidents, such as Valery Chalidze, who wrote that to embrace human rights principles meant "accepting responsibility for one's own behavior and future."

Indeed, Khodorkovski has encouraged association with heroic Soviet dissidents by appearing among their images at his press conference at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin. The international media as well as luminaries like Elie Wiesel and Mario Vargas Llosa have heaped praise on Khodorkovski as a "freedom fighter" opposing authoritarianism.

What international media have largely ignored are statements, made in an interview with the Russian New Times, in which the tone of Khodorkovski's language turned ugly. He vividly denounced separatism by some political movements in Southern Russia, saying the territorial integrity of Russia was inviolable. "This is our land," he said, "because we conquered it." A war of independence by separatists would cost "millions of lives." Khodorkovski went onto declare himself to be a "nationalist."

Nationalism, in the Russian context, has connotations of Slavophil state absolutism and disregard for minorities. Khodorkovsky's statements suggested he has no interest in dialogue with the peoples of the region or giving any credence to their concerns, while threatening another bloody war. The statements do not suggest a new, civic Russian nationalism, but rather a traditional ethnic nationalism. They implied that Khodorkovski was playing the same deadly political card as Putin, in order to build bridges to powerful forces in Russian society who might embrace his liberalism if combined with a hard line.

Khodorkovski is not in power, nor has he promised to solve disputes that have plagued Russia for centuries, but he nevertheless bears the responsibility that goes along with being revered by so many. While going mainly unnoticed abroad, the comments shocked especially human rights activists who have sought individual rights and peace in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia--activists who, generally speaking, do not take political positions about territorial issues but insist on respect for human rights in resolving them. They deeply and unequivocally oppose terrorism, but just as deeply reject the Russian government's historical abuse of the Chechen people and the scorched earth policy that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead after the two Chechen wars. They detest Putin's exploitation of the conflict, which is often cited as having paved the way for his political ascent.

Some in the Russian human rights community view the conflict in Chechnya as being resolved. The highly respected expert on immigration, Svetlana Gannuskina, for example, reacting to Khodorkovski's statements, opined that Russians and the peoples of the North Caucasus have moved beyond the wars of conquest that brought those regions under Russian dominion; that conquered and conquerors see themselves as one people with a common future. The recent spate of bombings, which had killed scores of innocent civilians, suggest otherwise. Such wanton acts serve those who want to create fear--both violent separatists, and those seeking a pretext for police-state methods.

Terrorism is an intractable problem for any government: How should authorities respond in ways that do not inspire others to illegally take up arms? President Putin has vowed the "total annihilation" of terrorists. Some of those terrorists, no doubt, are too steeped in hatred and revanchism ever to change. But neither Putin, nor, evidently, Mikhail Khodorkovski, has found an approach that will inspire confidence and trust among citizens whose families have suffered for generations from Russian power. President Putin has declared Chechnya "cleansed of terrorists." Yet thousands of Chechens seek political asylum in Germany and elsewhere to escape from the puppet regime of Ramzan Kadyrov, where state terrorism reigns with impunity. Russian leaders need to reach out to alienated citizens, denouncing discrimination and undermining the appeal of terrorism with a politics of equality, respect and reconciliation. They need to understand that Russia is a pluralistic state, one in which Russian chauvinism threatens stability.

Aaron Rhodes is a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007.