Boris Nemtsov, Russian politician and a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement and People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS), talks about Yulia Tymoshenko’s case and the mistakes of Russian democrats
Boris Nemtsov is a charming yet often controversial politician and one of Vladimir Putin’s harshest opponents. He has called upon Russian voters to boycott the upcoming presidential election. According to independent surveys, his unregistered political force has the fifth highest rating in Russia.
KILLING TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE
U.W.: If you were to compare the current state of democratic institutions in Ukraine and Russia, to what extent are they similar?
It’s still different in Ukraine. Yanukovych is not Putin, and Ukraine is not Russia. The difference is in Russia’s baggage of imperialistic autocratic traditions that Ukraine doesn’t have. In addition, Ukraine still has a free press. Leaders in dictatorships have approval ratings of over 70%, unlike in democracies. Mr. Yanukovych’s rating is now at rock bottom with 10-15%. I don’t think he’ll cling to his seat for long. The Ukrainian people have shown they’ll say goodbye to a president just as easily as they fell in love with him. This, in my opinion, is a sign of a healthy nation. Ukraine has a different problem. As I understand it, many of your opposition members can’t stand Ms. Tymoshenko. They jealously and enviously compete with her but miss one thing: it’s not about Ms. Tymoshenko - it’s about turning the country around. When a court in the country passes such an absurd verdict and the opposition remains silent, it gives Mr. Yanukovych the impression that he can keep tightening the screws. That’s all. I’m not a big fan of Ms. Tymoshenko but I fully support her at this point because Ukraine is facing a real threat: it might simply start with Putin’s style of political opposition, but it can expand to bold repression of common citizens using executive powers.
I still think Mr. Yanukovych will fail to implement the Putin model in Ukraine. Apparently, he would like to become a leader as powerful as Mr. Putin, with no political rivals as long as he lives. But that objective looks distant. The problem is not in the nation’s strength or weakness but in its mentality – Ukrainians simply don’t like bowing to this guy. That’s not what they want. The societies of Ukraine and Russia are so different; their people have very little in common, even if much of the world thinks otherwise. Ukrainians don’t feel the need to look at a strong tsar as head of their state. Mr. Yanukovych will lose the election next year and that’s that.
U.W.: Are there any Russian “fingerprints” on the Tymoshenko case?
I don’t think so. Mr. Putin totally opposes the verdict. He does so because he sees it as a dangerous precedent, not because he supports independent courts in Ukraine. Once a Ukrainian premier is behind bars, what could protect a Russian premier from the same fate? That’s first. The second thing is that the gas contract was important for him because Gazprom is his personal business. Clearly, sending Ms. Tymoshenko to jail for that contract discredits the whole deal, including Mr. Putin’s business. I think the Ukrainian government’s pressure on the court was politically motivated. Since the judge never summoned Mr. Putin as a witness, the verdict of the Pechersk Court was based purely on political interests rather than the law. Firstly, Mr. Yanukovych is afraid of losing the election next year if Ms. Tymoshenko is not in jail. She is still the most popular opposition politician. Secondly, he thought he could score points this way by pretending he’s fighting for cheap gas.
U.W.: What is your assessment of the policy of Ukraine’s government as it attempts to maneuver between the EU and Russia as if wearing a mask?
There’s a nice proverb that says if you chase two rabbits, you’ll lose them both. I think it’s been tough for Mr. Yanukovych in Europe these days. He’s been told quite openly to get lost, while in Russia nobody is awaiting him as an equal partner. With his imperial habits, Mr. Putin doesn’t know how to work in equal partnership, so he wants a junior partner. Ukraine will hardly accept that option. That’s why I think Mr. Yanukovych is now in a similar situation to that of Mr. Lukashenko: nobody’s waiting for him in Europe and he’s not willing to surrender to the Kremlin. This is an absurd situation with a dead end. In fact, Europe is absolutely the correct and natural choice for Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean it should fight with Russia. Pranks like Ms. Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, ruin Ukrainian identity. This was an Asian trial, not a European one. That’s why Mr. Yanukovych is going from one extreme to another. I think this will continue as long as he keeps breaking the law. Remember, Mr. Yanukovych is hugely dependent on Europe. Not only because Ukraine is a transit country between the West and Russia but because damaging or diminishing Ukraine’s relations with Europe to almost nothing is not his interest, as it would make him more dependent on Moscow. Once Mr. Yanukovych behaves himself, the EU will talk to him again. The Western position in the Tymoshenko case remains the crucial point.
U.W.: What is the state of the Russian economy?
It’s a gas pipeline economy. It’s a banana republic of sorts with Siberian oil and gas instead of bananas. Fuels generate over 50% of Russia’s revenues, and their export represents the largest portion of the nation’s income in foreign currency. Russia has grown more dependent on these income sources under Mr. Putin’s reign. The proportion of proceeds from oil and gas in total revenues was 35% when Mr. Putin came to power. It’s over 70% now. Engineering accounted for 11% then, compared to today’s 5%. The tech industry earns Russia less than 0.1% of total revenues. Russia is a typical raw materials producer whose budget, living standard, pensions, salaries, and so on, rely entirely on oil market prices.
U.W.: So, all this talk about upgrading, streamlining and Skolkovo is just a sham?
These are buzzwords favored by Putin Jr. – that’s Mr. Medvedev – it’s all just talk, PR. Skolkovo is a Potemkin village rather than a Russian Silicon Valley. In fact, that’s the place where oligarchs such as Abramovich, Prokhorov and Potanin live. The land there is more expensive than in Rubliovka, an elite residential area west of Moscow. The Kremlin has chosen Skolkovo for a good reason. Abramovich owns the land there and many people will earn a pretty penny on this. The high-tech talk is complete nonsense. With the price of real estate there ranging from USD 15,000 to USD 25,000 per square meter, no investment company or venture fund that deals in egghead inventions will ever pay that much to rent an office there. Never! Clearly, some high-tech monsters such as Google, Yandex, Yahoo, Mail.ru and Microsoft can afford to build offices there, but everyone knows it’s not these giants that keep the Silicon Valley alive. Its foundation is the small and middle-sized companies that lure a third of all venture capital in the US.
U.W.: Why have some in the Western establishment turned a blind eye to Russia’s swift attack on civil liberties while lauding the order created by its tough power hierarchy?
This is a classic example of double standards. They’ve imposed sanctions on the authoritarian Belarus officials by banning their entrance to the EU. They are now personas non-grata while similar Russian officials travel freely wherever they want. The reason is plain to see. Russia is a nuclear state. It has the fuels that Europe relies heavily upon. Of course, between gas and human rights, they choose the former. Merkel, Sarkozy and Berlusconi are all Putin’s advocates. They don’t believe Russia can be straightened out, but they need its oil and gas. They act like businessmen, not democrats.
U.W.: Will Russia be able to exert pressure over the entire CIS in the foreseeable future?
Russiais so wanton, aggressive and repulsive with its neighbors that none of them wants to deal with it. It could be very attractive, in theory, for Ukraine, among others. If Russia were a safe and friendly democracy, it would be a good partner for Ukraine. But the image that Mr. Putin has architected for his nation is that of a monster – cynical, violent, and teeming with terrorists and crooks, with zero civil liberties. Russia has lost everyone, other than maybe Armenia but it’s also trying to keep a safe distance. Who would want to deal with a country run by KGB guys? I don’t think Mr. Putin can get anybody on his side through sheer force. Yet, everybody would turn to Russia if it were a model of freedom and democracy.
TO THE SIDELINES OF HISTORY
U.W.: What mistakes did democrats make to bring about what is essentially single-party rule in Russia?
We’ve a made a load of mistakes. Firstly, we should have explained to voters the desperate situation in which Russia found itself in the 1990s, while we were mostly concerned with the economy and trying to save the country from cold and hunger. We should have explained why the USSR had collapsed; why the command economy had gone broke; what decisions we were going to take to improve the situation, and how difficult they would be for the nation. Secondly, we should have struggled to strengthen the state. I’m talking about special services that had been under total control of the soviet KGB and ultimately led former KGB agents to the presidency, as well as the Prosecutor General, Ministry of Internal Affairs and others. They all come from Soviet times and hamper Russia’s progress greatly because Russia is essentially a police state run by outlaws—both in uniforms and not—rather than law. Thirdly, I believe that democrats should not have supported Mr. Putin. I’m not talking about myself, but there were many democrats who supported him during the 2000 election.
We still have a great chance to turn Russia back toward democracy. I believe that different political forces in Russia can work together. We need a united opposition and a common platform. But this takes time. Years, not months.
U.W.: What are your projections as to Russia’s future?
What happened on September 24th humiliated the nation. Putin and Medvedev didn’t even bother to pretend that voters were entitled to an opinion or choice. This will have some serious consequences for Russia including the emigration of well-educated Russians, capital outflow and a collapsing infrastructure. Mr. Putin wants to be president forever, but he forgets where dictators tend to end up. Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya. Actually, I’m not a fan of revolutions. But the Kremlin regime has banned public discussion in the country thus prompting people to take to the streets. Mr. Putin is like a professional provocateur, needling the Russian people to protest. And one more thing: there’s no doubt Putinism is leading the country to collapse, but Russia can still avoid it. To do that, Russians will have to toss Mr. Putin to the sidelines of history, have a fair election and win back the rights taken from them. Russia can survive as a united state only if it walks the path of freedom and democracy.
1959 – Born in Sochi
1990 – Member of USSR Parliament from Gorki constituency, now Nizhniy Novgorod
1991 – Boris Yeltsyn’s trusted ally in presidential election
1991-1996 – Chief of Staff at Nizhegorodskaya Oblast
1993 – Member of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament
1994 – Authorized representative of the Russian President in Nizhegorodskaya Oblast
1997 – Vice Prime-Minister of the Russian Federation
1998 – Chairman of the Young Russia policy council
1999 – MP from the Union of Right Forces
2004-2005 – Chairman of the Board of Directors at Neftianoy oil concern
2008 – Co-founder of the Solidarity Joint Democratic Movement
2010 - One of the leaders of PARNAS, the People’s Freedom Party
2010 – One of the first signatories in the Putin Must Go letter
The Provincial Man, 1997
The Provincial Man in Moscow, 1999
Confession of a Rebel, 2007
EXPERT REPORTS, CO-AUTHOR
Putin and Gazprom, 2008
Putin. The Summary, 2008
Putin and the Crisis, 2009
Sochiand the Olympics, 2009
Putin. The Summary. 10 Years, 2010
Putin. Corruption, 2011
 A planned Russian equivalent of the Silicon Valley