Khodorkovsky and the Freedom Agenda

Jailed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands in the defendants' cage before the start of a court session in MoscowOriginally published by the Jerusalem Post

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.

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  • Milty C
  • Nixys

    Ukrainians actually understand, respect, and desire Western European values. Iraqis for the most part do not. Russians have a somewhat solid understanding of Western values with a few holes here and there, they just choose to reject them, believing in propaganda and Russian exceptionalism and clinging to their post-superpower status.

    • wildjew

      Islamic societies begin with an unfortunate premise; “submission.” Americans (not all) chose submission over freedom when they elected Barack Obama.

    • efraim mackellar

      The “Western European values” that the Ukrainians value must include the EU ones of same sex marriage, abortion as social engineering, and the demographic submission to Islam, and all the dire consequences which those “values” entail. Putin apparently opposes all of these. Putin has his totalitarian downside but so has the EU. The Ukraine will be out of the frying pan into the fire if it joins the truly dreadful EU, or, as some call it, the EUSSR.

  • wildjew

    Caroline Glick wrote: “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….”

    Freedom must to be earned. It must be cherished and fought for. “The desire for freedom (does not necessarily) reside in every human heart.” The American people turned away from freedom when they elected and then re-elected Barack Obama. Time will tell if they will right that terrible wrong.

    • Milty C

      America’s freedom agenda ? Do you still believe the myth that America ever had a freedom agenda. Even after Iraq and Syria. This bogus “freedom agenda” is nothing but a cover for war. The US attacked Iraq only because it suited there geopolitical agenda it had nothing to do with freedom and lead to the loss of thousands of lives. Is supporting muslim extremists to kill people in Syria your freedom agenda ? This is criminal and genocidal and not supporting freedom. Supporting criminals is just as immoral as doing the killing yourself.

    • darioqqo948

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  • Farmer Hill

    I like this article, it is informative. I agree with the article’s premise. I would add, as a caution to those who desire freedom, that the Iraqi constitution, which US advisors helped create, is more along the lines of the Soviet-style than that of the US Constitution; among other differences, it has no right to bear arms and it’s freedom of expression is able to be altered according to the law. Such rights guarantee our other rights. A people must desire freedom to truly be free, but their constitutions must also support that freedom.

  • Carroll

    Will we Americans ever learn. Our politicians do not serve Americans when they go into foreign lands and occupy them. Who made the US the World’s keeper? Is there anyone out there that would like to tell the families of the 4500 loss in Iraq what GOOD came of the loss? Was Vietnam that far removed from our memories? How about the thousands more who wounded or mentally scarred? Putting a yellow ribbon on your car to support the troops also supports that irresponsible Leader who took us to War! If we do not learn from history we will continue to make the same mistakes.

    • reasder

      Why so selective? Didn’t you forget that US troops occupied France and a bunch of other European countries, parts of North Africa and a whole host of places in the Pacific during both world wars – with much higher loss of life than that in the mentioned by you conflicts. It does not seem to bother you. Is it because you are a commie?

  • Bernie28

    Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle East is probably the most popular move that he has made. I think that the American people are tired of trying to export
    democracy with zero result. I don’t see how we have protected our national interests either. Waging perpetual war for perpetual peace doesn’t seem to be a good idea either.

    • Milty C

      Exactly i cant believe this article’s author wanted the US to remain in Iraq. The mistake was invading Iraq in the first place, but that cant be undone now.

    • reader

      Where exactly did he withdraw from? He has his nose up everybody’s arse, including Lybia, Egypt and Syria. Only change is that he picks up the wrong side every time he does anything.

  • Dave John

    LOL so you are supporting a man who, along with the rest of his contemporaries, robbed a nation of its wealth (through means of severe corruption) thereby preventing an ex communist state from having the same chance at a successful transition enjoyed by countries such as Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland. This is a man who conned honest businessman out of shares and money and who is rumored to have had people killed. A man who only entered politics in order to attempt to undo the regulation Putin had tried to enforce upon the Oligarchs and their wild west capitalism. Yet this is a man whom you are trying to promote as some sort of freedom fighter or political prisoner why?! Because in your muddled, poisonous simplified childlike view of politics you view him as an enemy of putin and therefore the “left/liberals” whatever those terms actually mean (considering your beloved free market economics are rooted in classical LIBERAL theory)

    • Milty C

      Well said. For this author any critic of Putin is good guy regardless of facts. Russia and Israel are great rivals if not enemies so you cant really trust someone from the Jerusalem Post to be impartial when it comes to russian politics

    • reader

      “undo the regulation Putin had tried to enforce upon the Oligarchs and their wild west capitalism.”

      Really? The regulation being his one party system, sole control of executive, judiciary and legislative power, sole control of media and cult of personality? Khodorkovsky may have or may not have kept his nose clean, but to laud his selective prosecution as lawful is ludicrous.

  • Milty C

    In the last 100 years the US has been hijacked by a tiny minority of globalists who now control nearly half of the worlds economy. The globalists want to create a tyrannical one world government which they control and where liberty is extremely limited and critics are silenced. (eg Obama’s war on journalism)

    Whether you support russian political ideologies or not Russia is one of the very few countries outside of direct globalist control so it is under constant attack by US sponsored opposition groups, NGOs, etc who are trying to undermine it. So under these circumstances cant blame Russia for its authoritarian rule. The US was strict on communists during the cold war, yet when Russian does the same its now terrible.

  • Milty C

    Actually the Ukranian uprising is mostly based on racism and bigotry towards Russians.The EU elite and their minions are exploiting this racism to push their agenda and are financing this uprising. Who in their right mind would want more trade relations with the undemocratic and austerity riduled EU. Many of these trade deals come with strings attached that infringe on the sovereign rights of nations.

    The EU are unelected authoritarians & socialists who continue to steal the sovereignty of european nations. Greece and Cyprus now depend on on the EU to approve some their national decisions. The Ukraine rejected the deal because it was a bad deal and they dont want to end up like Greece and Cyrus a poor slave to the EU.

  • papa jack

    Russians, Ukranians or Iranians libe in a paradise of Freedom compared to the millions of Arabs locked away since decades under Israeli occupation. Clean up at your own doorstep before pointing fingers at others Glick.

    • PAthena

      Israel is the only country in the Middle East which is a democracy, with liberty. Arabs in Israel have equal rights with all Israeli citizens.

  • slhancock

    Our present administration is in the process of taking away our own freedoms, so why would he care one whit if another country was requesting help to gain them? Obama is in the process of destabilizing America. He cannot be bothered with what is going on outside, other than supporting dictators around the world so that presumably he’ll have their blessing when the chaos truly hits here. I believe that chaos is the plan he intends to use to bring America prostrate. Not just to its knees, but prostrate. For those who would give him the benefit of the doubt, they are the very ones he depends on for success. Americans have been very tolerant of a lot of bad presidents, relying on the electoral system to do its job for them, but increasingly, the left has ramped up ways to extort and prevent their power being taken away.

    Too many today have no idea of true freedom. They THINK they are free, but have no concept of what America once was…not so long ago, but before they were born. In school they are told they live in the freest nation on earth. They believe that. They equate what we have today with freedom, having never experienced anything else.

  • danshanteal

    I often wonder how al-Malaki is doing? Once the military won the war, our state dept took over with Bremmer and the rest running the show. It’s been downhill ever since. So al-Malaki now comes visiting like a poor cousin and gets the droppings from the table. It’s too late to really go back in (even though we have a huge embassy there) so you stand to one side and watch the quick unraveling of most everything we accomplished in ten years. Shades of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Are we stupid or what?