KIEV — A top foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin who spent a decade behind bars told thousands on Kiev’s main protest square Sunday that the Kremlin colluded with Ukraine’s ousted regime in violence claiming 100 lives.
Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky received a rousing reception on Independence Square — the crucible of three months of protests that ousted a pro-Russian regime from power last month — as he walked out on stage dressed in a black parka and his hair still styled in a prison crew cut.
“I was told what the authorities did here. They did this with the agreement of the Russian leadership,” Khodorkovsky said in an emotional address delivered under a clear blue sky and televised live by several Ukrainian national television stations.
“I wanted to cry. It is terrifying. This is not my leadership,” he said to chants of “Shame!’ from the crowd.
The 50-year-old founder of the former Yukos oil empire — its main holdings now in possession of the state — was released from jail in December under an amnesty Putin signed in what was widely seen as an effort to ease criticism of his rights record ahead of February’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Khodorkovsky was once Russia’s richest man and an influential politician with presidential ambitions who openly opposed Putin when the former KGB spy first entered the Kremlin in 2000.
His 2003 arrest and subsequent convictions on fraud and embezzlement charges have been widely condemned by Kremlin critics as an effort by Putin to silence his most potent foe.
Khodorkovsky left Russia immediately after his release and has vowed not to return until the authorities drop old lawsuits against him worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
He was flown from prison directly to Western Europe under a deal mediated by former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and has vowed to stay out of Russian politics.
But Khodorkovsky arrived in Kiev late Saturday for a tour of central parts of the city where protesters were slain by police snipers in a week of carnage last month that saw Yanukovych flee to Russia.
‘Russia, Rise Up!’
Khodorkovsky’s voice shook and his lips quivered as he told the receptive crowd he was deeply shocked by the violence that has gripped the ex-Soviet state.
“I want you to know — there is a different Russia. There are people who despite the arrests, despite the long years they have spent in prison, go to anti-war demonstration in Moscow,” Khodorkovsky said in reference to the dozens arrested last week near the Kremlin during a protest against Russia’s de facto seisure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
The crowd soon broke into a cry of “Russia, Rise Up!” while several elderly women dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs.
Khodorkovsky for many has assumed the image of a political martyr who was willing to give up his entire fortune and a part of his life in order to stand in the way of what he saw as Putin’s attempt to reimpose a police state in Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The former oligarch began his three-minute address by hailing a “new democratic Ukraine” and ended it with perhaps the most famous quote from Taras Shevchenko — the Ukrainian poet who is viewed by many as a culturally unifying figure whose 200th birthday was celebrated on Sunday.
“Fight and you will triumph. God is on your side,” he read in Ukrainian.