Ten years in jail as a political prisoner makes a man think daily about the future — his own, as well as his country's.
My freedom came unexpectedly in 2013, owing to persistent international support and an effort to soften Russia's image ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Suddenly, I was free — outside Russia's borders, that is — to do whatever I wanted: free to kiss my wife, hug my mother, chat with my now-adult children and my friends, and generally catch up with the world.
Across the globe, I found that new technologies were facilitating cooperation and interaction, accelerating the dissemination of objective information, and setting people free. Yet in my decade behind bars, Russia's leaders had turned their backs on the future and embraced insularity, hyper-centralization, and conformity. State propaganda was deafening, free speech was curtailed. What had happened to the country that I knew?
Democratic and liberal change came to Russia in the last decade of the 20th century. We laid the foundation for a new national economy and witnessed essential political transformations that should have led to the growth of prosperity. Yet it is customary for Russians to revile the 1990s and blame the decade for all of the country's current ills. This happened partly because post-Soviet society was unprepared for radical and painful change — the reformists failed to communicate the transformational significance of the reforms, their duration and outcome. As a result, this period of liberalization and democratization is interpreted by much of Russian society as a dark era of chaos and uncertainty.
Statistics, however, suggest the opposite. As a result of the reforms and institutions begun in the 1990s, Russia's GDP grew by an average of about 7 percent a year in the early 2000s, while the middle class grew to make up as much as 60 percent of the population. Entirely new economic sectors emerged and experienced rapid growth: retail, banking, automotive, telecommunications, media. Not only were several of these sectors capable of competing on the global stage, they became world leaders. Russian internet companies, for example, became the biggest in Europe.
But many people came to associate the improving quality of life with Vladimir Putin's coming to power in 2000. He brought television under state control, exercising a near-monopoly over the nation's screens; independent broadcasting was destroyed while state-run channels explained that the country was enjoying an unprecedented period of prosperity solely on account of the supernatural talents of the new president.
Under Putin, Russians were fed a fairy tale: that they were being looked after by a paternalistic government adept at distributing revenues generated from the export of oil, gas, and other raw materials. In actual fact, the wealth of the country was being created by tens of millions of citizens working in other industries. Meanwhile, the temptation for Putin and his team to meddle in the economy grew each year, as they seized control over major companies and entire branches of industry with the help of the security agencies.
Today, Putin remains at the helm and oil and gas revenues are greater than in the mid-2000s, but economic growth has vanished. Some have blamed this on sanctions and falling oil prices, but even economists loyal to the Kremlin — ex-Minister of Economic Development German Gref is one example — say that there are internal reasons for the slump.
The monopolization of the economy, the destruction of freedoms and civil liberties, the liquidation of democratic institutions — all of this has given Putin immense power, but it has spelled disaster for the economy.
Unlike the Russian president, figures do not lie. Between 2003 and 2008, the transfer of capital and financial assets out of the country totaled a mere $10 billion. Between 2010 and 2014, that figure skyrocketed to $383 billion. Why? Denied any hope of ever being given a set of clear and transparent regulations, independent entrepreneurs began leaving Russia in droves.
If the policies of a truly democratic country had led to this kind of result, its leaders would have been voted out of office and politicians with alternative economic and social programs would have emerged. To prevent this from happening in Russia, Putin's government has systematically destroyed democratic electoral mechanisms, discredited the political opposition, and intervened in Ukraine out of economic desperation. The war helps justify state capitalism under Putin, which can no longer ensure growth.
Russia has been denied a democratic future. But today, many people in Russia and in the West not only fail to see alternative political forces, they fail to see any alternative. Is another Russia really possible — an economically dynamic and forward-looking Russia that can take its place in the world as a reliable partner, not as an unpredictable bully?
The answer is yes. Our Open Russia movement is made up of many Russians who oppose the isolationist and destructive path that the country has been hurtling down of late, and who have a clear picture of an alternative future. Until now, opposition forces have failed to offer a coherent program of national change, but we're now facilitating the discussion of ideas that are capable of bringing about constitutional reforms, overhauling the judiciary, rebooting the economy, and fostering transparency.
Earlier this month, we published "Putin. War," an investigative report that the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was working on at the time of his assassination. (Here it is in English.) Completed after his killing, the report documents the death of at least 220 Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian conflict, and illustrates how Russia's involvement has boosted Putin's approval rating from 45 percent in February 2014 to 74 percent this past March. Russian lives in Ukraine are paying for the loss of freedom and democracy at home.
Ahead of this year's local elections, we will show our fellow citizens that it is in their power to change the situation and reclaim the right to decide things for themselves. Our Open Elections project aims to assemble some 200,000 electoral observers and give them the necessary training to counter fraud. We will also mobilize activists to assist opposition candidates. The regime limits their ability to raise funds for political campaigns, but our organization will encourage ways of countering this.
The demand for political representation in Russia has inaugurated a new era of political crowdfunding, with the potential of thousands of ordinary people pouring millions of dollars to fund opposition campaigns. Russian citizens residing beyond the country's borders are also willing to finance political change in the country. A transparent mechanism for the financing of democratic elections is needed. We call this project Open Money. Donors will decide for themselves which candidate they want to support in a given region. We plan to tag each donation with a unique identifier so that its movement can be tracked directly to a particular election.
I often hear people ask what the victory of a single opposition candidate in a single Russian region would actually achieve. Such an outcome could help to transform everything. A coherent program would secure support for such candidates, quality monitoring would ensure the transparency of the election process, and electoral success would serve as inspiration for future candidates. One victory will spawn others.
The process will take us several steps back — back to a time when ideas of progress were openly discussed and turned into reality. But we'll be moving toward the future, toward the Russia that so many of us want to see.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the founder of Open Russia and the former chairman and CEO of Yukos oil company. Follow him on Twitter:@mbk_center