Khodorkovsky in Berlin 'The Power Struggle Is Not for Me'
One minute he's in a Siberian prison camp, the next he's being swarmed by reporters at a hectic press conference in Berlin. On Sunday, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky opened up about his future plans and his decade behind bars.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky didn't want to do much more than say thank you -- to his friends, his family, to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the 86-year-old former foreign minister who helped secure his freedom, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The list is long, the Kremlin opponent said during his appearance in Berlin, and he wants "to use all channels" to thank them.
A short pause followed. All channels? "For me, many of these sources of information -- Facebook, Twitter -- are new," he said, speaking in Russian. "When I went to prison, all of this did not yet exist." Laughter rippled through the audience.
It was a remarkable appearance in every respect on Sunday afternoon at the Berlin Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charlie, once the German capital's central crossing point between East and West Germany and now its primary symbolic site of East-West confrontation and the Cold War. It was a historical event, no doubt, but a moving one, as well.
For Khodorkovsky himself, the events of the past weekend must all seem somewhat puzzling. It's as if he's traveled via time machine. For 10 years the former oligarch languished in Russian prison camps, cut off from the public. Then, since Friday, when he was officially pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin and allowed to walk free, it has all moved very quickly. A flight on a private jet, Berlin, freedom and then suddenly the world, this very changed world, wants to know everything. What was it like in prison? What does he think of Putin? What does he plan to do with the rest of his life?
Chaos at Checkpoint Charlie
One could say that this press conference at the Berlin Wall Museum was not the easiest way to go about it. It was all a bit excessive. Hundreds of journalists gathered to hear Khodorkovsky speak. Some kneeled in front of him; others wore brightly colored Christmas hats to grab his attention more easily. Those who didn't manage to get close to the stage used their cameras or cell phones to film the screen where the appearance was being simultaneously broadcast. Welcome to the Communications Age.
The hall was bursting at the seams. A constant stream of people pressed at the entrance to get in, but there was simply no more space. Security personnel leaned against the door. "What kind of man are you?" protested one of the late arrivals. At the front of the room, the museum director briefly lost her patience. "If you do not make more space in here, I will kick you all out!" Alexandra Hildebrandt exclaimed into the microphone. It took a bit of time for her threat to have any effect.
In the face of all this pandemonium, Khodorkovsky remained remarkably composed. He patiently answered the questions posed to him -- at least those he was able and inclined to answer. He said he didn't want to get too political, but he didn't have to: His current whereabouts already speak volumes. He said he wasn't particularly enthused by the idea of a Sochi boycott, because the Olympic Games are a "celebration of sport."
He also said he is hopeful that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will soon be released, adding that at least in this one respect, he hopes Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, will take his Russian counterpart as a model. About Vladimir Putin himself, however, Khodorkovsky said very little. Asked how Western governments should behave in relation to the Russian president, he gave no comment.
"It would be presumptuous for me to advise experienced governments on how to deal with such a difficult person," was all he would offer. It sounded almost humble.
Not a Freedom Fighter
Khodorkovsky said his future plans are still vague. But he knows he wants to stay out of the business world. "I've achieved everything I wanted to achieve," he asserted. Politics, as well, hold no appeal for him -- he expressed as much to Putin in a recent letter. "The power struggle is not for me," he said.
There are likely multiple reasons for Khodorkovsky to speak now with such caution, but one probably has something to do with the fact that he doesn't want to overestimate his own importance. He doesn't have the illustrious credentials of a freedom fighter like Nelson Mandela, so this is likely a wise move. His story is remarkable, but the flamboyant businessman hasn't won over everyone in the West. There are people who say that it wasn't until he was in prison that Khodorkovsky realized what advantages democracy could bring.
The 50-year-old also doesn't want to be perceived as a pioneer of democratic change. "There are many people in Russia who are still in a difficult situation, there are many other political prisoners," he said. He now hopes to devote himself and his resources to helping them and improving the situation in Russia.
How does he think he'll accomplish this? "Please give me a little more time," he said at the end of the press conference. It was his favorite phrase of the day.