January 17, 2012

Boris Nemtsov: “If Putin Becomes President, Russia Will Have No Hope for Democracy.”

The discussions at one of the sessions at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference focused on the situation in Russia, its changing role in global politics and the developments concerning the upcoming presidential elections in 2012. At this session, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov underlined the fact that Russia’s future depended on the bravery of President Medvedev. Nemtsov’s hopes – and certainly not only his – were pinned on the president’s grand press conference on May 18, which was expected to bring nothing more and nothing less than the dismissal of Prime Minister Putin from his office.

The discussions at one of the sessions at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference focused on the situation in Russia, its changing role in global politics and the developments concerning the upcoming presidential elections in 2012. At this session, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov underlined the fact that Russia’s future depended on the bravery of President Medvedev. Nemtsov’s hopes – and certainly not only his – were pinned on the president’s grand press conference on May 18, which was expected to bring nothing more and nothing less than the dismissal of Prime Minister Putin from his office.

Boris Nemtsov: “If Putin Becomes President, Russia Will Have No Hope for Democracy.”

The discussions at one of the sessions at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference focused on the situation in Russia, its changing role in global politics and the developments concerning the upcoming presidential elections in 2012. At this session, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov underlined the fact that Russia’s future depended on the bravery of President Medvedev. Nemtsov’s hopes – and certainly not only his – were pinned on the president’s grand press conference on May 18, which was expected to bring nothing more and nothing less than the dismissal of Prime Minister Putin from his office.
Unfortunately, the press conference was an obvious disappointment for the democratic forces because Dmitry Medvedev concentrated more on foreign than on domestic matters, smoothly avoided all embarrassing questions about human rights issues (for example, by just saying ‘No’ in response to a question on whether Mikhal Khodorkovsky would be a threat to society) and did not announce his candidacy for the upcoming elections.
Boris Nemtsov’s interview with Kristel Kossar, a journalist for Radio Kuku, was conducted in Tallinn on May 14.
Kristel Kossar: Do you think that Medvedev has expressed strong criticism of Vladimir Putin in his recent statements, especially the hints about too much power being concentrated into the hands of one man?
Boris Nemtsov: It is obvious that there’s a major conflict brewing between Putin and Medvedev. It is obvious that both of them want to become president in 2012. It is obvious that Putin has actively begun his pre-election campaign with the establishment of the All Russian National Front, which we’ve already nicknamed the ‘Front of Crooks and Thieves’, similar to the nickname of Putin’s party United Russia – the ‘Party of Crooks and Thieves’. It is obvious that Medvedev is quite shaken and worried about this. So, generally speaking, his words were very much to the point.
However, when Putin set Medvedev up for the presidency, he followed two selection criteria: the future president should be weak and loyal. Medvedev satisfied these two criteria. Putin is hoping that Medvedev’s inherent weakness will prevent him from using his full presidential powers. And his powers include the possibility to fire Putin at any time at his discretion. Whether or not Medvedev is able to do so will be clear already by May 18 at his grand press conference. The ideal option for Russia and the world would be Putin’s dismissal from his office.
Do you think that is likely to happen?
Well, Medvedev doesn’t have much choice – either he puts everything at stake, winning or losing it all, or Putin will win the presidential elections, thereby seizing power until 2024. In that case, it’s goodbye to modernisation and Russia will become even more marginalised in the world than it is today – by the way, this was also discussed on the Russia panel at the Lennart Meri Conference. It is a dramatic choice, but I don’t think there is any other way for democracy to prevail.
When Marko Mihkelson asked Yegor Gaidar if democracy was at all possible in Russia, Gaidar answered: “There is no alternative, despite the emergence of a dangerous delusion with the name of ‘enlightened authoritarian market economy’.” Isn’t this a warning that the satirical dystopia described in Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik might become a reality or – even worse – that it already has?
Sorokin is a talented Russian author. His descriptions are quite accurate, although maybe a little grotesque. Today Russia has moved much farther away from democracy than it was in the 1990s. Putin is very much afraid of free and fair elections. Putin is very much afraid of an independent judiciary. Putin is very much afraid that he and his pals will be put in prison for corruption and the embezzlement of billions of roubles of state assets. So, he’ll fight to stay in power with all his might. It’s a question of money that he doesn’t want, and doesn’t intend, to lose. Of course, this is a tragedy for Russia – instead of being on par with the developed countries of the 21st century, our nation has joined the pariah states of the Third World. Be that as it may, the opposition still tries to take Russia on the road of democracy.
How strong are the Russian opposition forces at the moment?
It has to be said that our numbers have thinned. We have made efforts to consolidate our forces by establishing the People’s Freedom Party (a coalition of democratic forces, including the movement ‘Solidarity’, the Russian People’s Democratic Union, the Republican Party and the movement ‘Democratic Choice’, with Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Milov and Vladimir Ryzhkov as co-chairmen. Previous attempts to unite the opposition have failed. – K.K.). We are currently trying to get it registered, which is an important litmus test for what’s actually going on in Russia – whether or not they’ll authorise the registration of a really strong democratic opposition party that could also take part in the elections.
As I said, our aim is to set Russia on a democratic course and to fight against corruption. Just recently, we published a report titled Putin. Corruption, which has turned into a massive bestseller. I believe that the consolidation process will continue because, as an old saying goes, one man can’t win a war. A fragmented and therefore weakened opposition definitely suits Putin and his pals just fine.
The publication Putin. Corruption suggests several methods for curbing corruption, for example, that the president, governors and mayors shouldn’t be allowed to stay in office for longer than for two terms.
The longer someone stays in office, the higher the probability that he will start abusing his position. Experience from around the world shows that those in power must be replaced, that some fresh air must be let into the corridors of power – this is crucial for the prevention of corruption.
I myself was a governor for more than six years. Already by the fifth year I knew absolutely everything and my contact with real life began to weaken. This is why it is essential that from time to time the power elite must undergo a bloodletting in order to allow a change in power and to let newcomers, young people to the top. So, new people get their chance, progress is guaranteed and corruption is also curtailed.
To do that, however, we have to change the Constitution and Article 81 in particular. This very article enables Putin, if he wins the presidential elections in 2012, to stay in power until 2024 – that’d be longer than Brezhnev, but a little less than Stalin. I don’t think that this would herald a very rosy future for Russia.
The publication Putin. Corruption demands that an independent investigation into the corruptive activities of Putin and his entourage be carried out and that its findings be published. Do you really believe that this will ever happen?
You know, I have written a similar report on the activities of former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his wife Yelena Baturina – many didn’t believe that they’d ever be investigated, but that’s what happened. I was right! So, I hope to see the day when an investigation will be launched into the embezzlement of 60 billion dollars in Gazprom, into how Putin’s pals became the prime contractors for Nord Stream or into how a hefty chunk of Russia’s oil business was played into the hands of Gennady Timchenko, who lives abroad and doesn’t pay a kopeck of taxes in Russia. I intend to live to that blissful day, so I have to stay in shape. In Russia, it is generally more important to live longer.
The question is how long you are allowed to live. The latest report from Amnesty International claims that President Medvedev’s reforms, aimed at rooting out police violence, legal impunity and unlawful arrests, have been inconsistent and haven’t had almost any effect on decreasing the high number of human rights violations. The report highlighted the case of Khodorkovsky whose imprisonment continues. You yourself were arrested at a rally on New Year’s Eve and spent 15 days in jail…
The tragic thing is that Medvedev has actually done nothing to make Russia more democratic. This is how it is with some men – they’d like to, but they can’t.
Yet Russia responded to the report by calling it ‘politically biased’.
Russia reacts in exactly the same way to all reports that criticise the regime. They bang the drum about everything being the opposite because the truth hurts.
Still, Russia occasionally demonstrates a wish to be more open towards the West, to analyse and also to evaluate its own past (handing over the Katyn files, the president’s support for the research group to investigate Communist crimes). Could this reflect a serious intention to be more open on other issues, for example, human rights?
No. The current leadership is weak, which is why there is no trace of openness in domestic politics, or if there is any, then only in the foreign policy domain. If democratic opposition forces came to power in Russia, we could talk of an open, friendly and democratic state. Only a strong state without any fears can pursue domestic politics in an open manner. They, however, are scared of everything: of losing power, of being put in jail, of debates, of free elections, of an independent judiciary. They’re scared of Khodorkovsky and of Nemtsov – they’re scared stiff of us! Of course, the publication of the Katyn files and the condemnation of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact can easily be presented as openness, especially if they can be made to serve domestic political purposes too.
What kind of developments do you see in the relations between Russia and its close neighbours, including Estonia, in the coming years?
Well, Estonia and, for example, Georgia were both turned into grand enemies who had to be defeated – one of them has a population of about 1.5 million and the other has roughly as many people as the region of Nizhny Novgorod where I was governor. This is typical of Russia – let’s create enemies with whom we can fight so that we can be sure of our victory!
However, the Bronze Soldier scandal in Estonia also taught something to Putin and Medvedev – that nothing good will come from this kind of incitement to hatred. Estonia has made its choice. Its accession to the euro zone converted it into a full member of Europe. For Russia, a war with it would be a war with the whole of Europe, which is definitely not in the (business) interests of Putin and his pals.
Of course, there are also problems in Estonia, but now let these problems be dealt with in Brussels or Strasbourg. I am personally very grateful to Estonian MEP Kristiina Ojuland who has kept a very close eye on human rights violations in Russia. Together with Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala, she has established a group for monitoring the upcoming elections in Russia – that was urgently needed.
There is definitely no point in trying forcibly to root out the historically grounded relationship between Russia and Estonia. I believe that a pragmatic Estonia could consider Russia as a partner if we could only overcome our bilateral complexes – on our side, there are the imperialist urges of Putin and, in Estonia, there’s the attitude that the Kremlin is to blame for everything. It’s high time to get rid of them.
But how can we do that?
Young people, born in the 1990s, are much calmer about all this than the people who lived through the anguishing period of occupation. This is a matter of generations – the next generations in both Tallinn and Moscow will probably cease reacting to these issues with similar pain.
Obviously, Estonia’s economic success could cause much envy and bad blood – by the way, Moscow might have more complexes over this than Estonia. An empire cannot stand a smaller brother especially if the brother is doing so well. I personally think that this attitude is stupid and completely unjustified because a nation can really be great, can really be strong and successful only if its people are paid decent wages for their work, if people aren’t killed and if they laugh, instead of crying or yelling at each other. I’m certain that such a neighbour would be a blessing for other states, including Estonia.
The only factor that prevents Russia from becoming such a state is its imperialist aspirations, fuelled by Putin – in his words, this long-awaited empire will be here any minute now. Yet this will never happen; the empire has disintegrated for ever like an iceberg that first starts to crack and then shatters to a million pieces. I haven’t heard of a single iceberg being put back together from its very pieces, so this dream must be given up by those who pursue it.
Does the Russian government even care what the West thinks of them?
It seems to me that the so-called Old Europe, Eastern Europe and the Baltic states understand Russia’s role in global politics in different ways. I think that Putin and his pals care a lot about what the Old Europe thinks of them because this is the area where they have business interests. It only profits them that Europe does not actually have a common policy towards Russia. Not that this policy should be aggressive, but it should exist nevertheless – it should be amicable; it should be based on European values, including human rights protection, democracy, market economy, open society and an independent judiciary. If there were this kind of common policy, Russia’s current government could not interpret it at its own discretion and exploit it for its own purposes, with the help of its friendly partners like Berlusconi, of course.
At the same time, isn’t Finland also quite friendly towards Russia?
The Finns also extracted the maximum economic profit from the existence of the Soviet Union, but I’m not judging them – they understand that you can’t change Russia; you have to live next to it and try to make the best of it.
Neither Finland nor Estonia alone can define such a policy towards Russia. A common understanding should be reached all across Europe as to what values this policy should promote. This would give a significant boost to the relations because the current situation is that, for example, Eastern Europe is always anti-Russian, while Old Europe is pro-Russian. Putin enjoys being in such a position because it is easy to take advantage of it.
Maybe the West should express stronger criticism, for example, of the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky and other human rights issues?
Let me reiterate – it is a question of values. If Europe values human rights protection and an independent judiciary, the case of Khodorkovsky should tilt the scales in this matter. If Russia does not take a democratic course, this will have a detrimental effect not only on the people living there, but also on the neighbouring countries because such a Russia would be unpredictable. What do you think – would anyone like to have an unstable neighbour who might do anything that springs to mind?! It’s better to have a neighbour who’s rich, successful and stable, be it however strong.
Translated from Estonian into English by Marju Randlane.

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