MOSCOW – Mikhail Khodorkovsky has all the time in the world to practice his limbo technique. Remember the limbo? that exotic competition on the nightclub floor when Caribbean dancers would try to outdo each other as they swayed under the limbo bar to choruses of “Limbo! Limbo! How lowww can you gohhhh!”
This week, Khodorkovsky and the finest public relations machine his money can buy demonstrated that, if you sway too low beneath the limbo, you fall — and become a laughingstock. Headed by Khodorkovsky’s PR director and spokesman, Hugo Erikssen, the PR machine is facing credible charges that it plagiarized an article from a Russian website, and published it under Khodorkovsky’s name, with the sententious title “The Indisputable Crisis of Russian Liberalism”. To Khodorkovsky’s supporters and promoters of the Yukos shareholding, like Moscow investment bank Renaissance Capital, the screed is so important it deserves to be republished in full in English. It is, they reason, his mea culpa before President Vladimir Putin; his bid for release on parole. They haven’t seen the joke.
Until Khodorkovsky discovered the indisputable crisis of Russian liberalism, Erikssen spent dozens of millions of dollars feeding thousands of hurrah stories to western journals of record over the past five years. Much was published as the spoken or written gospel as it fell from Khodorkovsky’s lips on everything from the freedom to transfer prices in the oil business to the freedom for US strategy to achieve its objectives in Russia,
Today, officially, Erikssen and his team, like the senior Yukos management headed by Semyon Kukes, should have distanced themselves from Khodorkovsky and other key shareholders, who are facing credible charges of fraud, embezzlement and forgery, and who are either in prison or on the run. Officially, Erikssen ought to be serving the Yukos management, now that the latter is no longer hiding its effort to preserve the company, if necessary at Khodorkovsky’s expense. But Khodorkovsky’s letter from prison places himself again at the head of Yukos, and both together at the head of a movement Khodorkovsky has the chutzpah to identify with “the spirit of Jesus Christ who spoke rightfully, not like the scribes and Pharisees”. Did Erikssen arrange this, and to what end? When asked to clarify the circumstances of his involvement in the publication, Erikssen has declined to respond. He is not denying he had a hand in it. But he is also not claiming credit, nor accepting responsibility. For once the PR machine is opting for a silence that speaks volumes.
Let’s acknowledge that prison cells can be places of genuine inspiration, and also of the Christian redemption for which Khodorkovsky appears to be applying. Some fine philosophical n doctrines and effective political movements have sprung from the pens of political prisoners. In our time, Lenin, Gandhi, Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, Nehru, Ben Bella, Grivas, Papandreou, and Mandela all led national liberation campaigns from jail cells, or on the run. But Khodorkovsky’s liberation campaign is an attack on all those he has funded, for the goal of liberating himself. “We must analyze our tragic mistakes”, Khodorkovsky claims to say, addressing the so-called liberal group who began by selling themselves to him, and who, like Boris Nemtsov — once President Boris Yeltsin’s designated successor — are now selling franchise restaurants to small entrepreneurs and fried chicken to the masses. Nowhere in the screed does Khodorkovsky acknowledge the mistakes that got him where he is today – violations of commercial law, fraud, and an attempt to sell a national asset to a foreign power. It isn’t just political liberalism that is in crisis, but business folly and economic treason. Can a fraudster plead guilty on the strength of admitting guilt for mistakes he has not been charged with? Is the signature of a forger to be trusted?
While Khodorkovsky has admitted to a limited list of ideological mistakes, Erikssen and the PR machine, which have been egging Khodorkovsky on, has not. Yukos first spent millions kicking up a storm of hysteria over the arrests of Lebedev and Khodorkovsky, appealing for Anglo-American help to destroy President Putin. They did that job so well that the anti-Putin, anti-Russian momentum they initiated in Washington and London can no longer be stopped. Moreover, the fact is that neither Erikssen, nor the ghostwriter behind Khodorkovsky’s byline, have tried to stop it. The newspapers in Erikssen’s stable are now paying more attention to the small print of Khodorkovsky’s screed than they did at the detailed evidence contained in the indictments brought against him. Has Renaissance Capital offered investors a full English translation of the charges against Khodorkovsky? Until it does, how can the nanve investor be faulted for believing the Erikssen-funded line that all that Khodorkovsky is suffering from is “political revenge” from “autocrats” and “siloviki”?
Khodorkovsky continues to believe that. That’s why his PR team, funded by the Yukos management, has offered to call his adversary in the Kremlin “liberal number one”, as if that’s a compliment for the recipient, and as if Khodorkovsky has the credentials to confer it. Adding that Putin “is still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of the Russian population” is an insult to his fellow countrymen, especially poignant for a man who claims to have been proseletyzing their goodwill through his “Open Russia” charity. As for the praise for Putin for “bridling our national demons” and “preventing Zhirinovsky and Rogozin from seizing power in Russia,” Khodorkovsky cannot see he has sunk so far beneath the political realities, his words have become ludicrous. The only seizure of power, economic power, that has been attempted was Khodorkovsky’s, when he tried to sell Yukos to ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco. Putin said no. Khodorkovsky asked George Bush for help, but he was locked up before the cavalry could arive. Khodorkovsky’s plea shows he’s still dreaming of mounted chargers outside his cell window.
Khodorkovsky, his managers, and lawyers have now spent five months poring through the tons of evidence against him. Unlike the ace reporters of the Financial Times and Vedomosti, they know that the prosecution’s case is a formidable one. For Erikssen and the spin doctors, it has been difficult to come up with an admission of seeming truth, without pleading guilty as charged. The journalists and media consultants they schmooze with, pay, and entertain lack the sources in the Kremlin to report the truth; they also lack the integrity to recognize it, if someone else does. So how to commission a story that in admitting “our guilt, both moral and historical” also acknowledges that everything that’s been published for a year was lies from the Yukos PR machine.
The Yukos management has already conceded that it has a problem with Khodorkovsky.
It needs to face the problem it has with Erikssen’s PR machine. Khodorkovsky’s screed has missed its big opportunity. It’s now a boomerang upon the Kukes management. If they don’t back Erikssen’s line, now is the time for them to say so, and combat the attacks against Russia and the Russian President appearing daily in the Anglo-American press.
If Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment suits the Yukos management, while they negotiate the restructuring of the company with the Kremlin, then Khodorkovsky’s appeal won’t do any harm, because it won’t do Khodorkovsky any good. That still leaves other shareholders, like Leonid Nevzlin in Israel, who are doing everything they can to fund the anti-R¥ssian drive. If the Yukos management wants to be convincing in its Kremlin negotiations, it’s time for them to demonstrate by action what Khodorkovsky pledged in words, Khodorkovsky is in limbo now; he probably can’t even neutralize Nevzlin if he wanted to. But at the very least, he should take his lamentable PR with him.