By publishing his “Crisis of Liberalism in Russia” article in Vedomosti, Mikhail Khodorkovsky clearly intended to stir up some debate. And heated discussion did indeed ensue, though not so much about the fate of liberalism as about whether Khodorkovsky had written the text himself or not, how he had managed to get it out of prison and whether the publication was an attempt to make peace with the Kremlin.
However, Khodorkovsky’s position remains diametrically opposed to that of the authorities. The out-of-favor oligarch says that business generally is guilty before the people of dishonest privatization; the Kremlin, for its part, is convinced that privatization was quite all right, with the exception of a few transgressors such as Khodorkovsky. Matrosskaya Tishina’s famous inmate says he did not evade taxes, but that he’s willing to pay more taxes; the Kremlin, on the contrary, believes that the tax burden on businesses should be reduced and that Khodorkovsky did engage in tax evasion.
The former Yukos CEO believes that by paying higher taxes, business can atone for its sins before society. However, it is not clear that the public is prepared to accept such an apology. If property was taken from the people in an underhand manner, logically it should be returned. Perhaps not in its entirety, but on the basis of some compromise (after all, Khodorkovsky exploited the nation’s property temporarily entrusted to him with care, increased production and invested money in social projects). There is plenty of property redistribution going on these days, but it does not benefit the public in any way.
The more guilty business is before society, the less inclined it is to repent. The fact that the majority of business supported President Vladimir Putin and not Khodorkovsky is quite natural.
Khodorkovsky is convinced that liberalism is first and foremost an ideology of freedom, but freedom slogans are to be found on the banners of anarchists, socialists and even conservatives. The real issue is what one understands by freedom. The essence of liberalism is that freedom and property are inseparable, that is why the liberal regimes of the 19th century always linked civil and property rights. Liberalism and democracy have always been in conflict with one another.
And it took progressive and labor movement about a century to force liberal ruling classes to accept universal suffrage. This was also the beginning of decline of classical liberalism in economics. Now it is coming back under the name of Neoliberalism, and the consequence is crisis of democracy everywhere, not just in Russia.
The lack of trust in democracy as a regime based on strict implementation of the wishes of the majority is characteristic of liberal ideologues. They prefer to hide behind words such as “freedom” and “civil society.”
The duality of Khodorkovsky’s own position can be explained by the contradictions within liberal ideology. He offers the people repentance, while seeking a compromise with the authorities. Yet the interests of the authorities and the people are diametrically opposed. The administration seeks to foist a liberal model on the country, while the people passively, but doggedly, resist. It appears that Khodorkovsky feels more kinship with those that put him behind bars than with the majority of his compatriots.
In his article, Khodorkovsky rightly points out that Putin is more liberal than 70 percent of the population. And that is precisely what makes authoritarianism in Russia unavoidable. The political schizophrenia of liberalism manifests itself in the persistent demand that reforms be conducted which the majority opposes, while promising to preserve and uphold the very same people’s freedom. It is quite obvious that the people would use that freedom, first and foremost, to fight those reforms.
This contradiction makes the crisis of Russian liberalism impossible to resolve. In this context, secret police operatives are just about the only effective liberals. In order to force liberal values upon a resistant public, you have to abandon democratic niceties; you have to pressurize, imprison and perhaps even execute some people. There’s no other way, unless you are prepared to acknowledge that your overarching goal is wrong.
After the publication of the article, people have started to compare Khodorkovsky with Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, this comparison does not stand up to scrutiny, because Mandela, while being of aristocratic lineage, went into politics not to defend his own privileges, but to uphold the rights of the majority. If Khodorkovsky seeks to become society’s spokesman, he has to look at things not from the viewpoint of the liberal elite, but from the perspective of the 70 percent of the people that he accuses of having no interest in liberal ideas. In short, he has to stop being a liberal and become a democrat.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.