Opinion: Khodorkovsky’s speech in Vilnius or prudence vs. clatter of dreamers

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Vilnius
DELFI / Mindaugas Ažušilis

What was he supposed to say? “Well, you know, as president, my first job would be to return Crimea to Ukraine and the Kuril Islands to Japan. I will offer Kaliningrad to Lithuania. And please, kick me in the liver for being Russian. Thank you.” It seems that this is exactly the statement that most Lithuanian intellectuals and politicians, who criticized Khodorkovsky, would have wanted to hear.

Two flaws in reasoning

If all the criticism for Khodorkovsky had come from idealist dreamers in their 20s, imagining themselves at the vanguard of the army of good, one would have been less surprised. Alas, it came from people with decades of experience in practical politics and political analysis who demonstrated incredible political ineptitude and callousness to rhetoric.

One has to be completely out of touch with reality – and common sense – to expect a man who has ambitions to come to power in Russia to make public pledges about giving back Crimea. Can anyone earnestly believe that a politician after that could hope to be elected president or parliament member?

In general, most actors in Lithuania’s public discourse suffer from two basic flaws in their reasoning. First, there is their political idealism which is utterly out of touch with reality and makes them reject moderate and prudent positions for the sake of lofty posing that might be completely ineffective politically, but looks great and keeps one’s spirits up.

The second problem is their ineptitude to read political statements: to see the forest rather than the trees, to use the author’s context to interpret them rather than their own, to be sensitive to qualifications and nuances, to grasp the meaning of contradictions, and to bear in mind that public statements are intended for different audiences and different ends.

Politics of bohemians

These two flaws came to the surface during last week’s Vilnius Intellectuals’ Forum, where some participants and commentators were offended by Khodorkovsky’s moderation and prudence, but applauded the fantasies of Russia’s liberals. These “analysts” would much rather spend ten years listening about how “Putin’s regime is doomed” without giving the slightest thought to the fact that these predictions have completely failed to materialize.

They enjoy listening to politicians like one of Russia’s opposition leaders, a gem of western liberalism, who declared that his party could easily win 25 percent or even more of the vote in Russia’s parliamentary elections. BUT on the condition that electoral panels are made up of honest people, that the rule of law works in Russia and Putin’s regime does not use the media to smear the opposition.

Quite a condition! Who will unroll this red carpet for him to stroll into power? God almighty? Deus ex machina? The said gem of western liberalism refuses to give an answer to this question. I’ve a feeling that his goals have less to do with participating in Russia’s political realities than toasting with Western intellectuals and politicians. Just like in Vilnius, where he is applauded, while Khodorkovsky – who is concerned less with posing and more with prudence of his actions and words – is attacked.

Those Lithuanian intellectuals who only care for keeping their spirits up with talks about imminent victory instead of using their reason – not emotion – to analyse grey-shaded reality are, if you will, political bohemians. They are the new hippies, flower children who have forgotten the old ideas but kept their political naivete and propensity for getting high.

This is what binds them to the liberal speakers of the Russian opposition who, upon closer inspection, turn out to be artists disguised as political experts. Like historian Andrey Zubov or Artemy Troitsky, an actual artist. Or Mikhail Kasyanov, who is not an artist, but serves as a piece of fine art for the political bohemians in Lithuania, so hungry for “Western Russia” poses.

Inept readers of political text

The second flaw in the reasoning of those who reacted completely inadequately to Khodorkovsky’s statements in VIlnius is their awkward reading of political text. Khodorkovsky’s critics failed to listen properly to his words, to dwell on them and grasp what was said and why.

In keeping with their political bohemianism, what they expected to hear was probably optimistic uplifting responses and simplistically idealist views on current problems: “we will win”, “Putin is ***”, “we will win elections on the slogan Крым-не-наш” (Crimea is not ours). Instead, they heard reserved statements by a man who lives in the real world, unlike the political bohemians and their heroes who are completely devoid of prudence or sense of responsibility.

When answering hostile questions in Vilnius, Khodorkovsky himself briefly shone some light on the assumptions that these idealistic political artists base their reasoning on: “I understand that people would prefer simpler answers, but there aren’t any. Those who say that complicated situations can be solved in simple ways do not take responsibility for their words.”

A true statesman, unlike most of Russian liberals with their radical clatter, thinks of responsibility first and, unlike a simple manager, does not assume that political life follows the algorithm “a clear problem warrants a simple solution”. Moreover, he is talking to different audiences at the same time, as [Lithuanian political observer] Nerijus Maliukevičius rightly noted.

Commenting on Western sanctions, Khodorkovsky stressed that what mattered was not so much their negligible effect on the Russian economy (according to him, no more that 2 percent of the country’s consolidated budget), but the way they are presented to the public. He said we need to break the perception that the sanctions are targeting Russia rather than Putin’s regime, because such a framing is what helps rally support for Putin. Western countries should not just emphasize that the sanctions are directed at the regime, but support their words with actions.

Is Khodorkovsky wrong in saying so? Have the sanctions indeed affected Putin himself, directly and painfully, and his entourage? Have all Kremlin oligarchs had their bank accounts in the West frozen? Are they all and their family members barred from travelling to the West? Has information about Putin’s true assets been made public and effort made to inform Russian voters about them?

Khodorkovsky’s remarks about the sanctions are by no means the same thing that is being pushed through by EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini, representing the majority position in EU states. For some reason, however, many of our politicians and observers fail to draw attention to Mogherini’s political prostitution, but instead attack Khodorkovsky, whose position – unlike that of the Italian politician – is almost in tune with Lithuania’s interests.

True, some Russian experts showed as little common sense in Vilnius as our own indignant observers. For instance, Andrey Illarionov‘s reproach to Khodorkovsky that he said “Ukraine crisis” rather than “Russian aggression” is extremely far-fetched.

Khodorkovsky does not deny Russia’s aggression. Simply, the Kremlin’s aggressive actions do not negate the fact that Ukraine is going through a crisis, especially in its eastern regions. After all, Viktor Yanukovych was not elected to power by aliens but by Ukrainians themselves. Ukraine’s legendary corruption and unreformed Soviet heritage are part of this Ukrainian crisis, nothing else.

So why was Illarionov so vitriolic? Perhaps he was hoping to win the applause of Western political bohemians? It is his business. Whereas Lithuania would project a more grave image if our critics listened well and reflected on what they heard before speaking.

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