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Mikhail Khodorkovsky in office in central London, England on Sept. 5, 2019.The Globe and Mail

Sunday’s city council election in Moscow should have been a dreary affair. Such contests usually come and go with little attention; the winning candidates are almost always Vladimir Putin loyalists, hand-picked by the Kremlin.

But this year’s vote has become an unexpected rallying point for Russia’s opposition, with tens of thousands of Muscovites joining a succession of summer protests demanding fair elections – with another demonstration expected on Sunday. One of Mr. Putin’s most prominent critics says the unrest has happened because both the opposition and the Kremlin see the city council election as a test run for the bigger struggles ahead, as Mr. Putin enters what should be his last years in power.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Mikhail Khodorkovsky – who was Russia’s richest man before he spent a decade in jail on charges viewed as punishment for his opposition to Mr. Putin – said that both the opposition and the Kremlin are trying out tactics that might be used again in 2021, when Russia will elect a new parliament, or Duma.

The makeup of the next Duma will be crucial as Mr. Putin’s presidential term comes to an end in 2024. The Kremlin boss, who has ruled the country for 20 years as either president or prime minster – but who is constitutionally barred from another term in office – is expected to try to find a way to cling to power.

“The elections in 2021 will be key to the future of the country, in some respects,” said the 56-year-old Mr. Khodorkovsky, who moved to London shortly after his release from prison in 2013. “The authorities are taking great pains to work on and develop the methods they will use in 2021.”

The oligarch-turned-democracy activist – whose life story is the subject of a documentary film, Citizen K, that will have its North American premiere Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival – said he has been watching with interest as anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have won a series of concessions from the local government through staging weeks of demonstrations that have at times paralyzed the city’s key institutions.

Electoral strategies

One condition of Mr. Khodorkovsky’s release was that he promised to stay out of Russian politics. It’s a vow he’s now brazenly ignoring – his Open Russia foundation funds independent media and pro-democracy groups inside the country. He has also used his personal website to call on his supporters to express their demands for change “out on the streets” on Sunday.

Mr. Khodorkovsky said the run-up to Moscow’s city council vote has seen the Kremlin “experimenting” with new methods of controlling the opposition, such as barring dozens of Kremlin critics from taking part in the election, a tactic that backfired when it was announced in June, provoking an angry summer of protest. The Kremlin’s next step – detaining hundreds of protesters – only fed the outrage.

Both sides are now manoeuvring ahead of Sunday, with the opposition hoping that tactical voting will result in the defeat of pro-Kremlin candidates, while the Kremlin has moved to disguise its favoured candidates by having them run as independents, rather than under the banner of Mr. Putin’s deeply unpopular United Russia party.

Polls now show that only about one in five Muscovites supports the pro-Kremlin party, although Mr. Putin’s personal popularity rating remains over 60 per cent across the country.

More protests, and more arrests are expected in the days ahead. And while the standard punishment for taking part in an unsanctioned protest was 15 days, this summer saw the authorities start to use a new “mass unrest” charge, which carries a maximum punishment of eight years in jail.

Russia’s opposition has also been damaged by internal divisions, with Mr. Khodorkovsky publicly squabbling with Alexey Navalny – the most prominent opposition politician still inside Russia – over whether and how Russians should vote in Sunday’s election.

Mr. Khodorkovsky has called on his supporters to vote for only “genuine” opposition candidates, if they have one in their district, and to spoil their ballots otherwise.

Mr. Navalny, who has mobilized the most serious street challenges to Mr. Putin’s rule, says his followers should vote tactically and support whichever candidate – even if it’s the Communist Party – that has the best chance of defeating Mr. Putin’s United Russia party. Supporters of Mr. Navalny who have registered using a website will get a text message on Sunday with a recommendation about whom to vote for in their district.

The latter tactic appears to have irritated someone in power. On Thursday, masked police officers raided the Moscow headquarters of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, seizing computers, as well as the contents of several safes.

Mr. Khodorkovsky says his disagreement with Mr. Navalny isn’t acrimonious, but he is scathing about the idea of supporting political parties such as the Communists and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which Mr. Khodorkovsky says are both de facto tools of the Kremlin. Mr. Khodorkovsky says his own baseline test is whether a party or a politician opposes – or acquiesces in – the jailing of political dissidents.

“I firmly stand for what we call moral voting. I’m not ready to support those people who, due to their beliefs or because they’re scared, are not ready to support political prisoners.”

It is a deeply personal issue for Mr. Khodorkovsky, who split his decade in incarceration between Moscow’s notoriously harsh Matrosskaya Tishina prison, often in solitary confinement, and a Siberian labour camp where he was forced to make mittens. At one point, he was attacked by a fellow inmate who attempted to take out Mr. Khodorkovsky’s eye with a knife.

Life in exile

Mr. Khodorkovsky, who accumulated a fortune estimated at US$15-billion during Russia’s chaotic 1990s transition from communism to capitalism, was seen at the time of his arrest as one of the country’s hated oligarchs – a class of businessmen reviled for making fortunes while the rest of the country went through a wrenching economic change. As a result, the then-oil tycoon was something of an easy target for Mr. Putin, who told the Russian public that his crackdown on Mr. Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs was part of an effort to restore law and order in the country.

Nonetheless, Mr. Khodorkovsky’s arrest in October, 2003, was seen as a key moment in Russia’s slide back toward authoritarianism. Western governments were immediately convinced that Mr. Khodorkovsky had been targeted because Open Russia had been financing political parties opposed to Mr. Putin.

By the time he was freed from prison in December of 2013 – just ahead of Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics – Mr. Khodorkovsky’s image had been transformed into that of a principled freedom fighter, albeit one who went into exile as a condition of his release.

Mr. Khodorkovsky lived briefly in Germany and then Switzerland before settling on London as a base where he could liaise with the city’s large Russian diaspora.

Although he hasn’t been back to Russia since his release from prison, the country and its future still occupy most of his time and energy. During a 90-minute conversation with The Globe and Mail, he twice sprang up from his chair to pace a sparsely decorated boardroom as he thought aloud about his country’s future, and what might follow the end of Mr. Putin’s long reign.

“It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in 10 years,” he says about the end of the Putin era. The biggest question, Mr. Khodorkovsky says, is what will rise in Mr. Putin’s place – another czar-like figure, or a genuine parliamentary democracy.

This, he says, is the subject of another “conceptual disagreement” within the opposition. “The general model at the moment is that we’ll take out the bad czar and replace him with a good one, and then we’ll build democracy. I don’t think this will work. It didn’t work with Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, and he was a good czar.”

There’s no obvious security around Mr. Khodorkovsky, but he acknowledges that a series of high-profile attacks targeting British-based opponents of the Kremlin – including the 2006 murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, using radioactive polonium-210, and the 2017 chemical weapons attack on Sergei Skripal, another ex-KGB member – has made it impossible for a Russian dissident to feel completely safe in London.

Still Mr. Khodorkovsky, who has used courts across Europe to recover some of his former wealth, and now lives in a multimillion-dollar residence in the centre of London, has been through much worse.

“There is no such thing as absolute security,” he says. Then he launches into a retelling of the knife attack he survived in prison. “After all that, living in London seems pretty safe.”

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