Khodorkovsky launches movement to challenge Putin
Defying strongman Vladimir Putin from his self-imposed exile, ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Saturday launched an ambitious movement to unite pro-European Russians in a bid to challenge the Kremlin's grip on power.
Once Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky promised to stay out of politics after he was released from prison late last year following a decade behind bars. But his public attempt to bring together opposition-minded Russians appears to betray his political ambitions.
"A minority will be influential if it is organised," he said during a ceremony broadcast online from Paris as he unveiled his new "Open Russia" movement.
Khodorkovsky stressed that the project -- named after his eponymous charity that was shut down after his imprisonment -- would be an online "platform" for like-minded people, not a political party.
The Kremlin will still likely find the project unsavoury, said the photogenic 51-year-old sporting closely-cropped hair and a casual shirt.
"I expect him to be upset," Khodorkovsky said, referring to his nemesis Putin.
Russian activists and prominent emigres including Paris-based economist Sergei Guriyev and London-based businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin -- both of whom fled the country under pressure from security services -- joined the three-hour online ceremony.
Khodorkovsky's allies said that even though Putin's grip on power was firm, his rule would one day end. They insisted the time had come to think of Russia's future after Putin.
Khodorkovsky, who lives in Switzerland with his family, openly supported a Ukrainian uprising that ousted a Moscow-backed president in February, but indicated he did not want a bloody revolt for Russia.
The soft-spoken former head of the defunct Yukos oil firm -- who according to his allies was jailed for opposing the Kremlin -- said all those supporting a pro-European course for Russia should unite ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2016.
-'Russia is Europe'-
The launch of the group comes as Kremlin critics say the country, locked in a confrontation with the West over Ukraine, is hurtling toward political and economic catastrophe.
The West and Kiev accuse the Kremlin of invading Ukraine and threatening the stability of Europe.
Russia's economy, already on the brink of recession, is reeling from several rounds of Western sanctions.
All main television stations in Russia are under state control and few at home can seriously challenge the Kremlin.
With prominent activist Alexei Navalny, 38, under house arrest, Russia's beleaguered opposition has been left rudderless.
Opposition lawmaker Lev Shlosberg, who last month was assaulted after probing the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, said society was paying for "big state mistakes".
But Khodorkovsky said everyday Russians can still influence the fate of their country.
"We support what they call the European choice or a state governed by the rule of law," he said.
"We believe that the statement 'Russia is not Europe' is a lie that is being imposed on society on purpose.
"This is being done by those who want to rule the country for life, those who want to spit upon law and justice," Khodorkovsky said in a thinly veiled reference to Putin, the former KGB operative who came to power in 1999.
"We are Europe, both in terms of geography and culture.
"We are not simply Russian Europeans. We are patriots. And true patriots even during pitch-dark reactionary times should serve their country and their people."
Putin, by comparison, has sought to promote Russia as an antithesis of the West and claimed isolation would be a boon for the country.
-'Long and dangerous path'-
Khodorkovsky's supporters expressed hopes his project would raise awareness among Russians and help them see through state propaganda.
"It is time to open our mouths," said Chichvarkin.
"We are ahead of a long, hard and dangerous path," added former deputy finance minister and economist Sergei Aleksashenko.
State media appeared to enforce a blackout on news coverage of Khodorkovky's online project.
His spokeswoman Olga Pispanen said the project's website, openrussia.org, became the target of distributed denial of service attacks.
Attempts to prevent activists from joining the ceremony were reported in the central Russian cities of Nizhny Novgorod and Yaroslavl.
While many scoffed at Khodorkovsky's effort to rally Russians from exile, some said the project could pay off in the long run.
"Such a project is sorely needed," political analyst Mark Urnov said, calling it an "antidote" for the country's grim reality.
© 2014 AFP