Khodorkovsky: Putin's betting on Le Pen
Russia will try to help Marine Le Pen win the French election the same way that it helped Donald Trump in the US, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent Kremlin critic, has said.
"After the US, [Russian leader] Putin has decided to bet on another candidate", Khodorkovsky told EUobserver in London last Thursday (30 March).
"Putin saw how you can play with elections in the US, what he did there, and he decided to make another bet, basically to participate in the next elections [in France]", he said.
He said that for the Kremlin, a Le Pen victory "would mean a realistic chance to destroy the European Union".
He underlined that Putin looked at Europe in military terms.
He said Putin viewed Nato as more of an enemy than the EU because the EU was "considered to be weak, something you can practically ignore".
But he said that if France left the EU, as Le Pen wants it to, the EU's authority would diminish further.
"This would mean that the EU had no nuclear weapons left … which would allow the Kremlin to conduct its foreign policy more freely," he said.
"The question of whether Nato can be taken out of Europe, and the EU taken out of Europe - that’s what Putin’s working on".
Khodorkovsky used to own Russia’s largest oil firm, Yukos, but Putin seized it from him and jailed him for 10 years when he tried to enter politics.
He is now based in London, where he runs Open Russia, a pro-reform and anti-Putin political movement.
His warning comes amid revelations that Putin helped Trump, a Russia-friendly candidate, to win last year’s US vote.
Russia’s tricks are said to have included hacking emails, spreading fake news on social media, and stealing Facebook data on US voters so that Trump could micro-target them with campaign messages.
According to polls, Le Pen is expected to win the first round of the presidential election on 23 April.
Germany is also heading into elections in autumn, where a strong result by the far right could damage chancellor Angela Merkel, a Russia hawk.
Asked if Russia would do in Europe what it did in the US, Khodorkovsky said: "I’m convinced that this is the plan for Germany and we [Open Russia] know that preparations are being made for that, steps are being taken to employ those tricks".
He declined to say more on his knowledge of the "preparations".
He said Open Russia had not conducted an investigation in France, but he said the fact that Putin recently met Le Pen in Moscow meant that "he considers the opportunity for himself in France to be quite high".
Richard Burr, the head of the Senate intelligence committee, which is looking into the US election affair, said the same on Friday (31 March).
"What we might assess was a very covert effort in 2016 in the United States, is a very overt effort, as well as covert, in Germany and France", he told reporters in Washington.
"The Russians are actively involved in the French elections", he said.
With Putin himself facing elections in 2018, Khodorkovsky said the West should try to delegitimise his authority.
"The less respect the West shows towards Russian power, while showing respect to Russia and the Russian people, the more it helps in our [Open Russia’s] work", he said.
He said that if Germany "rolled out the red carpet" for Putin, or if he was shown on TV whispering into Trump’s ear "that kind of image strengthens his power".
The French and German business lobbies are among Putin’s biggest friends in Europe, but Khodorkovsky said foreign investors should beware of Russia.
He said if Putin personally gave you his word that he would protect your investment, then he would keep it.
"In business, when he says something, he means it, not in politics - that’s an important difference", Khodorkovsky said.
But your firm would still have to pay bribes and would risk its reputation, he added. "You still pay bribes. If someone says they don’t pay, that’s a lie", he said.
He said another way to protect your business was to ensure that your debts to Russian banks were larger than the value of your capital and assets in Russia.
"You’re safe if you don’t have money in Russia, only debt. That’s the reality," he said.
Khodorkovsky said last month’s anti-corruption protests in Russia showed "most Russian people don’t want trouble in Europe" and that Russian society was "awakening from its apathy".
He voiced surprise at how many Russians, including older people, were registering to join Open Russia as activists.
He also said if Putin managed to get no more than 40 million out of the 105 million Russian votes available in 2018, it would weaken his grip on power.
"His circle would start rethinking its support," Khodorkovsky said.
"I’m not talking about a palace coup … but it’d make it harder to manage the people who serve him and that’s already important," he said.
"If police don’t try very hard to control protesters - that’s important".