Exiled Russian Oligarch Launches Contest to Find Putin Alternative

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's 'Instead of Putin' website lets users vote on 12 possible challengers to the president in the 2018 Russian election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hangzhou, China, September 4, 2016.
Alexei Druzhinin, AP

Russia’s next presidential election isn’t expected for another 18 months, but speculation is already mounting that President Vladimir Putin might not be leading the country after March 2018. On Monday, the exiled oligarch and Putin rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky announced a contest to find a viable alternative to Putin.

On a new website whose name translates as “Instead of Putin,” Russians can vote for one of 12 Russian political figures. Khodorkovsky promised to support the winner’s presidential campaign.

A video on the site explains that the project is designed to refute the conventional wisdom that no one in Russia could step into Putin’s shoes.

The site’s current front-runner is Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and charismatic anti-corruption activist who is considered a central opposition figure. In 2013, after leading demonstrations against Putin, he was convicted of embezzlement in a trial that was widely condemned outside Russia as political persecution. A five-year term in a prison camp was reduced on appeal to a suspended sentence of the same duration.

Navalny continues to publish investigative reports on corruption at the highest levels that reach millions of Russians, including one last year on the family of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. As part of his conviction, however, Navalny is barred from him running in presidential elections until 2033. In August he asked the Supreme Court to revisit his case, precisely so he can contend in the 2018 election.

In the No. 2 spot is Alexei Kudrin, who served as finance minister from 2000 to 2011. Russian pundits view Kudrin as more moderate then Putin, a statesman who had been close to the throne and who could be acceptable to Putin cronies who fear persecution or probes in the event of a regime change. Kudrin’s experience in economics is touted as an advantage, because of Russia’s parlous economic state.

Moreover, Kudrin never joined the ruling United Russia party and has been critical of political persecution, including Navalny’s trial. That said, Kudrin’s acquaintance with Putin goes back to their days in the St. Petersburg’s mayor’s office, where both men held various positions; at one point each was a deputy mayor. In April, Putin remarked that Kudrin was still one of his advisers. “He’s a very good specialist, a brilliant expert. And if he wants to contribute to resolving the problems facing the nation, why not?

Next on Khodorkovsky’s list are Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, whose claim to fame is battling his city’s drug problems, and Lev Shlosberg, a leader of the liberal opposition party Yabloko. In 2014 Shlosberg, who was investigating the deaths in Ukraine of Russian soldiers from his hometown, Pskov, was assaulted by three unknown men. He was hospitalized with severe head injuries, but recovered and resumed his political activities.

Shlosberg is among the site’s top vote-getters, but many of the reader comments below his name contain anti-Semitic slurs and protestations that Russia cannot be led by a Jew.

Among the other candidates is Tatyana Dyachenko, a daughter of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The Kremlin does not appreciate Khodorkovsky’s challenge, according to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He told journalists on Monday that the online project “has been outlined by people who are irrevocably cut off from Russia ... and Russian agenda,” adding that the Kremlin saw nothing interesting in the project.

Some of the candidates put up by Khodorkovsky as alternatives to Putin are also not thrilled with the idea, whether because they don’t want to be seen as potential rivals to the president or because they don’t want to be associated with the exiled oligarch. Navalny, for example, refused to comment. Another candidate told a reporter who called him from Russia’s RBC news website, “You think I don’t have enough problems? Pretend you couldn’t track me down.”

Meanwhile, speculation has been rife in Russian media circles, after Putin told Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait that he has not decided whether to run in 2018.

Asked whether his successor should be from the younger generation, Putin said: “Yes, of course, I think the future leader has to be a fairly young person. ... But also a mature person. ... in any case we already need to start thinking about how we — and when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, the members of my team, the government, the presidential administration — how we see the future development of the country. Both the political and the economic processes.”

The full interview was broadcast on September 6 and the text, in Russian, was published on the Kremlin website, provoking a wave of speculation in the Russian media that Putin and his cronies are grooming a successor. They just haven’t said who it is.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky speaking in London, November 2015.
Reuters
Reuters