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Khodorkovsky Buries Putin Challenge at Berlin Cold War Relic

By Henry Meyer, Ilya Khrennikov and Rainer Buergin
December 22, 2013 6:01 PM EST 9 Comments
Former Russian Oil Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Former Russian Oil Tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon released after 10 years in Russian prisons, ruled out mounting a political challenge to President Vladimir Putin on his third day of freedom.

Khodorkovsky, pardoned by Putin last week, vowed to campaign for political prisoners at a press conference yesterday in Berlin, where he flew on Dec. 20 upon his release. He said he plans to stay in exile because he fears he wouldn’t be allowed to leave if he returned to Russia.

“The question of politics for me doesn’t exist,” Khodorkovsky said in a museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the iconic former border-crossing that became a symbol of the division of Cold War Berlin. “I’m not interested in a fight for power.”

In tumultuous scenes with hundreds of journalists gathered for his first major public appearance since his release, Khodorkovsky, 50, also ruled out funding opposition groups because it would be “dangerous” for them.

The former inmate, whose jail time included a period in a penal colony in the Chita region near China before his transfer to prison in Karelia close to the Finnish border in 2011, said he doesn’t feel hatred or a desire for revenge against Putin because the authorities hadn’t targeted his family.

Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky on Dec. 19, freeing him a day later and allowing him to leave for Germany. The Russian leader’s decision came two months before Russia is scheduled to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Cold-War Symbol

Khodorkovsky said the president’s decision is “a symbol of the fact that the Russian authorities, including Putin, are concerned about the image of Russia as a democratic state.”

The museum, which has a section devoted to Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment, is close to the point where diplomats, journalists and non-Germans were permitted to enter Soviet-controlled East Berlin. The former border-crossing was also the scene of a face-off between U.S. and Soviet tanks in 1961, the year in which the Berlin Wall was erected, and numerous swaps of spies.

Khodorkovsky traveled to the German capital with the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who arranged for him to fly on a private jet to Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport.

He was reunited with his parents and eldest son Pavel in emotional scenes two days ago and awaits the arrival of his wife Inna and their three children, according to his official website.

Khodorkovsky said he doesn’t know his financial situation but has enough to live on and has no plans to return to business.

Lost Assets

Khodorkovsky said he won’t seek to recover assets lost after he was arrested for fraud and tax evasion. He has a year-long German visa, he said, adding that he hasn’t decided yet where he will live in exile.

The pardon was the result of negotiations between Russia and Germany and was made possible after Putin “personally decided that he doesn’t believe Khodorkovsky will be a threat to him, politically or otherwise,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Khodorkovsky is probably genuine about wanting to leave behind his former life as a business tycoon and political campaigner, Lukyanov said in a phone interview yesterday.

“He spent 10 years in prison and his approach to life changed,” Lukyanov said.

The former owner of Yukos Oil Co., who once had a fortune of $15 billion, funded opposition parties before his arrest and campaigned from prison for Russia to develop a civil society.

Political Prisoners

The West should remember that there are still political prisoners in Russia, said Khodorkovsky. He spoke out against boycotting the Winter Olympics, describing the event as a celebration for “millions of people” and not just for Putin.

World leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to skip the 2014 Games amid criticism of Russia’s plan to enforce a ban on what it calls gay propaganda at the event. Merkel has no plans to attend the competition, Focus magazine reported today, citing unidentified government officials.

German President Joachim Gauck will boycott the games because of Russia’s human rights record, Der Spiegel reported on Dec. 8.

Khodorkovsky’s pardon follows an amnesty of as many as 22,000 people last week as Russia celebrated the 20th anniversary of its post-communist constitution. Among those slated for release are two members of the all-female band Pussy Riot, imprisoned after performing a “punk prayer” protesting Putin in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012.

No Guilt

The pardon didn’t require him to admit his guilt, Khodorkovsky said.

“For me an admission of guilt is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “It is difficult for me to express gratitude to Putin. I am glad of his decision.”

Putin said he granted Khodorkovsky’s release to allow him to visit his ailing mother. The length of time the former tycoon had in prison was “a serious punishment,” Putin said last week.

Looking tired though in reasonable health, Khodorkovsky said he had striven to maintain his physical condition inside the prison camps, giving up smoking as soon as he was jailed.

Woken Up

Upon hearing that Putin that decided to pardon him, he gathered his belongings and within a few hours, at 2.30 a.m. local time, he was woken up and told he was being released, Khodorkovsky said in an interview with Russia’s New Times.

“The power of spirit of this man and his inner strength are phenomenal,” Svetlana Adjoubei, director and founder of London-based Academia Rossica, a non-profit organization that promotes Russian culture in the U.K., said by email. “I am very happy that he is free and we can see and hear him - he can give our world so much.”

Yukos was dismantled and sold at auction, mostly to state-run OAO Rosneft, to cover back taxes. Former Yukos managers have amassed more than $2 billion of assets and cash held in two Dutch entities, which they say is intended for shareholders who lost in the Yukos liquidation. Khodorkovsky transferred his stake in the company to a business partner after his 2003 arrest.

“My financial situation means I don’t need to work to earn money,” Khodorkovsky said. “I would like to use the time I have left for active life to pay my debts to people who are worse off than me, who are still in prison, and to our Russian society which needs to change so that we live better,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at hmeyer4@bloomberg.net; Ilya Khrennikov in Moscow at ikhrennikov@bloomberg.net; Rainer Buergin in Berlin at rbuergin1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Angela Cullen at acullen8@bloomberg.net; Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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