8 March 2023
by Jens Siegert
1 Was there a real opportunity in the 1990s to create a democratic state based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Russia? If so, what went wrong?
Of course! There is always a possibility that things develop in the right direction. There have been two main obstacles: 1. Almost nobody found the right narrative, what this new Russia is about. In other former Soviet republics this was often ‘independence from Russia,’ which served as a unifying force even in times of economic or other hardship. In Russia Yeltsin tried this, too, but failed. From whom should Russia have become independent? From itself (in the chrysalis of the Soviet Union)? Absurd! 2. The 1990s were a decade of unprecedented economic decline. The mass of the people got even poorer than they were before. But some got very very rich. People experienced that their non-democratic state, which obtained the western proof label of being democratic, wasn’t protecting them. It was protecting the rich. In the Russian mass consciousness this established quite a stable link: democratic means social unfairness. Then Putin came and with him (though much less through him) economic success.
2 How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?
In the 1990s Gorbachev no longer played a decisive role. Yeltsin tried to prevent the communists coming back into power (and thus stripping him of his office). He (and, to be honest, most democrats with him) did not really care by which means this was possible. From the end of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991 to the military confrontation between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet there was a window of opportunity to establish different, democratic rules not only formally, but ethically as well. But no side was ready for this. Yeltsin as well as the communists in the Supreme Soviet were set on total victory. A lack of any trust in each other, that the winner would play by democratic rules, most certainly played a role as well. In the end, the one with the tanks on his side prevailed. but he shot not only his adversaries, but also lost largely lost his standing as a democrat.
3 What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?
There was a short period when the FSB didn’t play a deciding role. May be from the very end of the 1980s until 1997/1998. Yeltsin tried to dismantle it, splitting it off into half a dozen different agencies. Many FSB officers worked in the security services of ‘oligarchs.’ I doubt that there was an organised group that planned a come-back to power then, as Catherine Belton rather suggests in her book Putin’s People. But then Yeltsin’s family was looking for protection after Yeltsin’s demission and they found a rather mediocre former FSB officer named Vladimir Putin.
4 To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?
I wouldn’t say that Russia is not able to become a democracy. Every country, every society has this ability. But an imperial past is clearly an added obstacle on such a path. The societal pain in Russia that it is no longer an imperial superpower is paramount. It seems to be Putin’s personal pain as well and he succeeded in taking the whole of society with him in feeling a huge narcissistic hurt about this issue. A hurt induced, as he and many in Russia think, deliberately by the collective West. This hurt serves as a general justification for almost all bad things Russia does these days, from the war atrocities in Ukraine to repression inside Russia.
5 What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?
First: It’s not a repeated invasion of Ukraine, but an ongoing one. It began in March 2014 and did not end until today. In my opinion, Putin believes that the West is hunting him. Maybe he even believes that the aim of the West is to destroy, to dismantle Russia. From his point of view an existential fight is going on, in which he/Russia (which is the same for him) either prevails or perishes. Many people in Russia follow this logic. The reasoning behind this may be that Russia, as many in Russia know it, really is vanishing: the colonial and imperial Russia that existed for centuries has to become a nation state. For them this goes beyond their imagination.
6 What do you predict will be the outcome of the war? What will be the consequences if Russia is able to make further territorial gains as a result of the war? What will be the consequences for the Putin regime if Russia is defeated in the war? What are the chances of bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice?
A lot of questions to which nobody knows the answers today. If Putin prevails, the war will not end, but at maximum there will be a pause. How long and stable this pause will be, depends on the resilience of the West, like in the Cold War. I see a chance of change only after Putin will be gone. But nothing indicates at the moment that that will happen soon. There are no signs of him losing power and with 70 years and seemingly in good shape he will be living for quite some time. I don’t see a chance of bringing him or other major figures of his regime before an international tribune or court. Even if there will be at some point a democratic government, it rather will bring justice itself than handing him and others over.
7 Why has the Putin regime closed down Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sakharov Centre? What is left of civil society in Russia today?
There is very little of an organised Civil Society left in Russia. Putin closed the CSOs down, because there is no place for action independent from the state in his regime. He began with this immediately after coming to power in 2000. At least since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine the Kremlin was convinced that independent Russian CSOs are an invention and a tool of the West to topple the regime. That let to their closure in the end. Regarding Memorial and other CSOs there is another reason. Putin’s Russia is a country without a future to strive for. There is only a glorious past that can be reached again. Everybody painting this past in darker colours is perceived as a threat and an enemy.
8 What do you think will happen to Aleksei Navalny in the future? And other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience such as Ilya Yashin and Dmitry Talantov?
They will stay in prison until they die or Putin dies.
9 Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?
Not as long as Putin or his regime will be in power. Only another Russia might return.
10 In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?
There is a Russian saying: ‘хуже некуда’ [khuzhe nekuda], which means ‘things can’t get worse.’ But that’s almost always an exaggeration. In the West many compare Putin to Stalin. In my opinion this is ridiculous and an insult to Stalin’s victims. So, it can (and, I assume, it will) easily get much worse. No light at the end of the tunnel, yet.