BERLIN – Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who crossed President Vladimir Putin and ended up in jail for a decade, says he plans to devote his life to securing the freedom of the country’s political prisoners.
At a packed news conference just two days after his surprise release from a Russian jail, Khodorkovsky said Sunday that he wants to pay back all those who had worked so hard for his own release. But he dismissed any suggestion that he might take a leading role in Russian politics, a move that would have catapulted him from being Russia’s most prominent political prisoner to being Putin’s main sparring partner.
“The time that is left for me is time I would like to devote to the activity of paying back my debts to the people … and by that I mean the people who are still in prison,” the 50-year-old former oil tycoon said, naming several business associates who remain behind bars in Russia.
However, Khodorkovsky said he would not be “involved in the struggle for power” in Russia, nor fund opposition parties.
This may come as a relief to Putin, who has introduced a series of laws in recent years aimed at stifling the efforts of his political opponents.
Khodorkovsky’s appearance Sunday at a turbulent news conference before hundreds of journalists near Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie was charged with symbolism. The location was one of the main crossing points from East Berlin to West Berlin during the Cold War.
Calm and composed in a dark blue suit, with only his shaved head betraying his recent incarceration, Khodorkovsky said his release shouldn’t be mistaken as a sign that there are no more political prisoners in Russia.
“You should see me as a symbol of the fact that the efforts of civil society can lead to the release also of those people whose freedom was never expected by anyone,” he said.
Khodorkovsky thanked the media, human rights groups and Western politicians who played a role in securing his release by drawing constant attention to his case. He said they also helped him keep up his spirits during the long ordeal.
“The most important thing for a prison inmate is hope,” he said, speaking in Russian.
It’s not clear when, if ever, Khodorkovsky would return to Russia. Hinting that he may have retained some of his vast fortune, Khodorkovsky also ruled out reviving the business career that once made him Russia’s richest man.
“My financial situation doesn’t require me to work just to earn some more money,” Khodorkovsky said Sunday, explaining his future focus on political prisoners.
Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2003 for tax evasion and money-laundering in cases that were widely criticized as revenge for his political activities. He faced a second trial and prison sentence in 2010, and was not due to be released from prison until next August.
He was serving his sentence at a penitentiary in the northwestern region of Karelia before his surprise release and flight to Berlin in a private jet on Friday.
During his 10-year imprisonment, Khodorkovsky transformed his image in the eyes of many from that of a ruthless oligarch into a prominent voice of dissent in Russia. He bolstered that aura with thoughtful editorials — written by hand, since no computers were allowed him in prison.
On Sunday, he cited the multitude of online media — many of them freer to criticize Putin than traditional Russian newspapers and television stations — as an important achievement for his country.
“For me, many of these sources of information — Facebook, Twitter — are new,” he said.
It is unclear how he intends to use what remains of the $15 billion fortune he is reported once to have amassed.
Six years ago, authorities in Switzerland ordered the release of up to 300 million Swiss francs ($250 million) linked to Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company. The money was part of some $5 billion frozen in Swiss bank accounts at the behest of Russia in the case against Yukos.
Asked about his next move, Khodorkovsky said he wasn’t sure but that he had a one-year visa for Germany.
“For the time being, my family matters are the most important,” he said. His parents Boris and Marina were in the audience, as well as his oldest son Pavel.
A return to Russia isn’t imminent because of the possibility that he could be charged again, Khodorkovsky told journalists.
“At the moment, if I were to go back to Russia, I may not be allowed to leave the country again,” he said.
Some in the West had interpreted Khodorkovsky’s release, along with an amnesty that covers two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk band and the 30-member crew of a Greenpeace protest ship, as being aimed at easing international criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s pet project.
Khodorkovsky said he opposed any boycott of the 2014 Winter Games.
“It’s a celebration of sport, something which millions of people will celebrate,” he said. “Obviously, it should not become a great party for President Putin.”
Jim Heintz in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.