Once-Jailed Oligarch 'Ready' to Challenge Putin for Presidency

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is organizing Russian opposition groups.

ByKirit Radia
September 21, 2014, 5:19 PM

MOSCOW— -- The last Russian oligarch to challenge President Vladimir Putin politically -- and pay dearly for it -- says he's ready to try again.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man and the head of Russian energy giant Yukos. But after he made political moves against Putin, he was quickly tried and convicted on fraud charges in 2003. His company was dismantled and he would spend nearly the next decade in prison.

Khodorkovsky's takedown sent a strong signal to the rest of Russia's powerful tycoons not to meddle in politics, lest they suffer a similar fate. It seems the message got through. In the decade since then, none have tried.

But now Khodorkovsky is back. Putin pardoned him and released him from prison in December, a move that was widely seen as an effort to tamp down on international criticism of Russia before hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

At the time, Khodorkovsky insisted he had no interest in challenging Putin.

"The struggle for power is not for me," he said.

It appears that is no longer the case. In interviews with European publications this weekend, Khodorkovsky said he was "ready" to become Russia's president and pledged to enact political reforms.

"I would not be interested in the idea of becoming president of Russia at a time when the country would be developing normally," he told France's Le Monde newspaper, according to AFP.

"But if it appeared necessary to overcome the crisis and to carry out constitutional reform, the essence of which would be to redistribute presidential powers in favor of the judiciary, parliament and civil society, then I would be ready to take on this part of the task," he added.

In a separate interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Khodorkovsky warned that the longer Putin remains in power, the more likely Russia is headed towards a bloody disintegration.

Khodorkovsky's comments come as he is set to help launch a group called Open Russia, which will seek to organize the opposition against Putin's rule.

Yet if Khodorkovsky dreams of personally wresting the Kremlin from Putin's grasp, he has a tough road ahead.

Putin remains firmly in power, having engineered a political system that has marginalized any meaningful opposition. He also controls most media, especially the powerful television stations.

Khodorkovsky, meanwhile, has limited leverage, living in self-imposed exile in Switzerland. Given what happened last time he got involved in politics, and also that shortly before his release last December prosecutors hinted at new charges against him, it's unclear what might happen to Khodorkovsky if he returns to Russia.

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