Khodorkovsky and the freedom agenda

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Until his arrest in October 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and oil executive, was the richest man in Russia. He might have still been the richest man in Russia today if he hadn’t started thinking about politics, and objecting to the fact that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia had abandoned all prospects for democracy.


With his billions, Khodorkovsky had the means to finance a challenge to Putin’s authoritarian rule. His arrest in 2003 and his 10-year imprisonment was ordered and orchestrated by Putin as a means of silencing and destroying the former KGB officer’s only potent challenger for power.


After 10 years behind bars, Khodorkovsky was suddenly released from prison last Friday, immediately after Putin issued him a presidential pardon. He held a press conference in Berlin the next day. There he showed that prison had changed his political thinking. Whereas in 2003, Khodorkovsky thought it was possible to transform Russia into a democracy by simply winning an election, after 10 years behind bars, he recognizes that elections are not enough.


“The Russian problem is not just the president as a person,” he explained. “The problem is that our citizens in the large majority don’t understand that their fate, they have to be responsible for it themselves. They are so happy to delegate it to, say, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and then they will entrust it to somebody else.”

In other words, until the Russian people come to the conclusion that they want liberty, no one can give it to them. They will just replace one dictator with another one. In his words, “If you have a ‘most important person’ in the opposition… you will get another Putin.”


So whereas George Washington was seen as the first among equals, an opposition leader who would succeed Putin, would be more like Robespierre in post-revolutionary France.


Khodorkovsky’s remarks show that you can’t instantly import democracy from abroad. The US defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the Soviet defeat didn’t make the Russians liberal democrats. Until the seeds of democracy are planted in a nation’s hearts and minds, the overthrow of its overlord will make little difference to the aspirations of the people.


Over the past two months, in neighboring Ukraine, we have seen the flipside of Khodorkovsky’s warning. There, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been braving the winter cold to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to ignore the public’s desire to associate with the European Union, rather than with Russia. As the protesters have made clear, they view a closer association with the EU as a means of securing Ukrainian independence from Russia.

For the past two months, Yanukovych has been alternatively assaulting and ignoring the masses rallying in Kiev’s Independence Square. And last week he signed a deal with Russia that paves the way for Ukraine’s incorporation into Russia’s custom’s union, and its effective subordination to the Kremlin.


At this point, the opposition and Yanukovych are deadlocked. According to National Review’s Askold Krushelnyck, the protesters are trying to break the deadlock by turning to the US and the EU for help.

No, they are not asking for military support. They have gathered information about financial crimes carried out by Yanukovych, his relatives and cronies. And they are asking the US and the EU to take legal action against them in accordance with their domestic statutes. They translated their information into English and posted it on a website (, and ask that Western governments freeze their accounts and stop providing financial services to their shell companies.


What Ukraine’s protesters’ actions show is that they understand that when you are dealing with an authoritarian regime – particularly one supported by Putin’s authoritarian regime – it is not enough for a nation to seek democracy and independence. Outside help is also necessary. So far, however, aside from throwing out a few angry condemnations of Yanukovych’s assaults on the protesters, neither the US nor the EU has done anything to indicate that it cares whether or not the Ukrainians live freely or under the Russian jackboot.

Russia, on the other hand, has been actively promoting its interests. And as a result, just as American passivity in the face of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 empowered the regime to pound the Iranian people into submission, so today, American and European passivity in the Ukraine is tantamount to support for Putin.

The same of course is the case in Iraq, where between 2003 and 2012, 4,500 US troops paid the ultimate price to bring freedom to the Iraqi people.


On Christmas Day this week, 38 Christians were massacred in two separate bombings in Baghdad. Their deaths are just the latest in a nearly uninterrupted record of persecution and massacre of Iraq’s Christian minority since the US overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. At the time of the US-led invasion, there were some 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today only 500,000 remain. The rest have fled the country to avoid the fate of the Christmas worshipers on Wednesday.

The Christians are of course not the only ones targeted in Iraq. Since President Barack Obama pulled all US forces out of Iraq in what he claimed was a “responsible end” of the war, Iraq has descended into sectarian warfare.


Al-Qaida forces are resurgent. According to the State Department they are gaining control over territory in western Iraq as well as on the Syrian side of the border. Since the beginning of 2013, 8,000 Iraqis have been killed. Seven thousand of them were civilians.

Iraq is an example of a country that lacks both preconditions for democracy. From the perspective of outside support, under Obama the US is unwilling to take the basic steps necessary to prevent al-Qaida from taking over Iraqi territory.


This month, the White House rushed some primitive drones and missiles to the Iraqi government to fight al-Qaida. But in an interview with The New York Times, Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security issues from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained that the US assistance is grossly insufficient.

At a minimum, he advised, the US needs to begin carrying out Predator drone attacks against al-Qaida forces in Iraq – and in Syria – in the same manner it carries out such attacks against al-Qaida throughout the region. As Knights explained, “There is one place in the world where al-Qaida can run a major affiliate without fear of a US drone or air attack, and that is in Iraq and Syria.”


US forces fought a ferocious, complex and protracted battle against al-Qaida and its Shi’ite counterparts in Iraq for nearly a decade. But during that same period, the US government spent scant resources cultivating Iraqis who seek to build a working, liberal democracy. While Iran lavished resources on its allies, and established more than a hundred newspapers to propagate Tehran’s message to the Shi’ites of Iraq, the US insisted that it didn’t have the “right” to interfere in Iraqi politics. So while Shi’ite chauvinists in bed with Tehran’s mullahs were showered with aid, democratic liberals received no US support.


And yet, for the first six years of the US deployment in Iraq, just the presence of US forces deployed in strength countrywide was enough to keep the worst sectarian passions at bay. Sunni and Shi’ite politicians worked together, if unwillingly. They even began learning to art of political compromise – otherwise known as horse-trading.

All of that began to unravel, however, with Obama’s rise to power. Obama’s promise to withdraw US forces from Iraq meant that the US would soon cease to serve as Iraq’s power broker.


And so, in the final year of the US deployment in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki repositioned himself as an enemy of the US’s military presence in Iraq. He refused to sign a status of forces agreement with the US. And at the end of 2011, just ahead of the US withdrawal, Maliki forced Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to flee to Kurdistan ahead of an arrest warrant issued by the Maliki-controlled Interior Ministry.

The situation in Iraq, and in Ukraine – as well as in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and beyond – makes clear that Obama has killed America’s freedom agenda. And that isn’t all. Obama doesn’t simply neglect democratic forces in favor of authoritarian regimes. In country after country, under his leadership the US sides with anti-American forces of authoritarianism against pro-American forces, whether they are liberals or authoritarians.

Many Americans, who rightly rue Obama’s betrayal of America’s allies, wish to see a reinstatement of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda. For them, Khodorkovsky’s message must serve as a warning.


Bush called the battle in Iraq “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” He called the battle in Afghanistan “Operation Enduring Freedom.” But what the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan make clear is that true promotion of freedom cannot be a simple slogan. A yearning for freedom cannot be imported to an indifferent or hostile society.

Khodorkovsky concluded his remarks with what he considered the most important lesson he learned during his prolonged confinement. “The main lesson that I have drawn [is]: Don’t push your fellow citizens – be they opponents, or in power, or in the opposition – into a corner. No matter what, you have to live in the same country. Tolerance, full stop.”


Supporting the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, and the protesters in Kiev today would have been no-brainers if the Obama administration had the slightest inclination to cultivate US allies and the cause of freedom more generally. Both the Iranian democracy activists then and the Ukrainian protesters today demonstrated through their actions that they do not seek the mere overthrow of unrepresentative, repressive governments. They seek freedom, and are willing to work for it. All the Iranians needed then, and all the Ukrainians ask for today, is assistance from foreign powers, just as George Washington’s Continental Army required French assistance to defeat the British Empire.

While those are easy cases to understand, the lesson of Putin’s Russia and of post-Saddam Iraq is that freedom doesn’t sprout from thin air. The only way to plant democracy in nations unfamiliar with the habits of liberty is to cultivate them, relentlessly and unapologetically, over time.


If you want partners in freedom in countries where neither partners nor freedom is easily found, you have to help people who want both. You have to train them, and finance them, and help them to become significant political forces.


Otherwise, at best you will do nothing more than replace a dictator with a dictator, and at worst, you will empower your worst enemies, as is arguably now happening in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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