By FRANCESCA EBEL and ANGELA CHARLTON
LONDON (AP) — Russian oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky says he’s not interested in replacing Vladimir Putin as president — but he might line up behind TV star Ksenia Sobchak in next month’s presidential election.
In a wide-ranging interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Khodorkovsky said that politically-driven U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia aren’t working, and warned that Putin’s relations with the U.S. aren’t likely to get better anytime soon.
After 10 years in prison seen as punishment for his political ambitions, Khodorkovsky remains deeply angry at Putin and ready to finance alternative leaders. Speaking from his London exile, he said that what he really wants for Russia is a whole new political system.
“Unfortunately no person who wants to come and replace Putin is the solution,” he said, arguing instead for gradual reforms toward parliamentary democracy.
Khodorkovsky is barred from running in the March 18 presidential vote because of his criminal record, and says it’s “not an election” anyway because everyone knows the outcome. Still, he’s urging people to get off their couches and vote.
Khodorkovsky hinted he’s leaning toward choosing Sobchak, but urged her to clarify her positions first. Her candidacy is seen by many as a superficial effort to inject some sense of opposition and glamour into the largely tension-free race.
“I don’t know if I will vote for her or cross everyone out and write ‘I’m sick of Putin,'” Khodorkovsky said.
Many Russians see the former billionaire as a reviled robber baron, and others see him as increasingly isolated and irrelevant. But his money speaks, funding opposition activity.
Khodorkovsky doesn’t see opposition leader Alexei Navalny as the solution, accusing him of trying to be a “good czar” instead of reforming Russia’s political system. Navalny is also barred from challenging Putin in the March election.
Since Putin’s re-election is already guaranteed, opposition forces in Russia are focusing instead on what happens when his six-year term expires. Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was believed to harbor ambitions for 2024.
Asked Thursday if he would run in 2024, Khodorkovsky said, “I am against anyone running to replace Putin. I think it’s a doomed position.”
Khodorkovsky predicted that Putin’s next term would bring new decline to Russia and more tense relations with the U.S. “For him and for those he represents, America is only good as an enemy,” he said.
However he doesn’t think Putin organized hacking interference to ensure Donald Trump’s election: “America is a powerful democratic system and no czar even with loyal hacker armies is capable of deforming such a system.”
Khodorkovsky argued that sector-wide sanctions against Russia aren’t working because they are only fueling Putin’s argument that Russians’ problems are caused by the West.
Khodorkovsky has been living in exile since he was pardoned in December 2013. His Open Russia group provides legal support for victims of rights abuse and runs media projects.