Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theoretical pyramid which ranks five different categories of human needs. On the bottom are base needs such as food and sleep. Above this come safety and security. Thirdly we look for love and belonging, then esteem in the form of respect and confidence and finally self-actualisation in the form of morality and creativity.
I met Pavel Khodorkovsky on Tuesday after he spoke against the motion ‘This House believes that what happens in Russia stays in Russia’ at the Oxford Union. He took me from Maslow to Moscow by explaining how Vladimir Putin is attempting to jump the Russian state to the fourth ‘esteem’ stage without firstly ensuring the security of individuals and private property required by stage two.
Russia is now a world power with a strong sense of national identity and pride that it lacked a decade ago. However it fails to observe the rule of law, perhaps the most fundamental tenet of a liberal democratic state. The most high profile victim of Eurasia’s ‘managed democracy’ has been the oligarch and anti-Kremlin activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was once Russia’s richest man, but is now languishing in prison until 2017 on fraud charges considered by Amnesty International and Western governments to be politically motivated.
His son Pavel is lobbying internationally to raise awareness of the situation in Russia. He explained that British people should care both because of basic humanitarian empathy and because the powerful geopolitical pull of Russia affects Britain’s national interests in fields such as energy, security and diplomacy. He described how the UK ‘should be interested in having a fair partner. Not someone who uses force in their diplomacy, but someone on the same level’.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky can hardly call himself lucky, but his son recognises that his case at least has international press attention. The same cannot be said for the thousands of other businessmen, journalists and political activists detained in the Russian Federation. After learning of the extent of journalistic repression I had to get Pavel to calm my fears that an apparatchik in a dimly lit office on the outskirts of Moscow might be etching my name onto a new file while you read this.
Khodorkovsky emphasised how middle class democratic disengagement in Russia is due to the powerlessness and the predictability of the system. ‘They have been cheated time and time again and they believe that whatever they do will have no effect on the result.’
The journalist Ed Lucas, another speaker at Tuesday’s debate, told the audience that ‘Russia is the world’s smallest democracy. There are two people in it, and only one of them votes.’ Putin will become Russia’s next President in March after confirming three weeks ago that he rather than the incumbent President Medvedev will be the candidate for the establishment United Russia party.
His last four years as Prime Minister were largely spent behind the scenes, less concerned with public relations than consolidating power. There are also several recent examples where he has clashed with foreign journalists and officials, and Khodorkovsky predicts he will come back a ‘much tougher person to deal with’.
The ‘gangster capitalism’ of Russia stems from the break-up of the USSR two decades ago. Shares in former state owned companies were distributed amongst the Russian people. Rather than this having an equitable effect, a few oligarchs bought up most of the shares.Khodorkovsky highlights that this makes the Russian system perhaps easier to destabilise than other regimes. ‘Anyone found engaging in human rights abuses should be denied visas. Destabilising the mafia-like structure starts with only one to two hundred people – if these fall the whole system will fall.’ He sees the UK as complicit in propping up the oligarchs by allowing them to live and operate financially in London while sending their children to British private schools, and implores us to engage with Russian students in the UK.
The tension which led to the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky stemmed from his attempts to get involved in politics. The essence of the Russian state’s relationship with the super-rich is that they may do what they like so long as they stay out of politics.
Khodorkovsky highlighted that these are uncertain times for Russia economically and demographically. Its budget deficit is projected to continue growing in 2013-2014, and the reserve fund which finances government borrowing is running out. Russia also suffers from declining birth rates; its population is projected to fall 20% by 2050. He sees Putin as having two options. Either he continues to repress, which could lead to disorder nationwide, and even another war in Chechnya or the Caucasus, or he makes significant concessions.
Pavel Khodorkovsky, in an American twang from living in the States for the past eight years, spoke movingly about how his daughter has never met her grandfather. Though this is just one isolated case in the world’s largest country by geography, one must take concern at the egregiously autocratic nature of a state expected by many to simply slide into democracy after the Cold War. Russia’s long term future is entirely unclear, but its short term future looks grim.