18 April 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
- 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?
The opportunity was there, but not enough effort was made. The people of Russia, who generally welcomed the changes, were satisfied with short-term victories and put their trust in politicians who should not have been trusted. Politicians of a democratic persuasion neglected to create a real democratic opposition, and, as a result, those in power began to drift towards authoritarianism.
2. How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?
Gorbachev tried to modernize socialism and did not see himself in any other role. Yeltsin liked being the boss of the country (as he used to be the boss of Sverdlovsk region) and paid attention to his democratic image and rhetoric. Putin is someone who loves power, is hooked on power like a drug addict on drugs. This is the disease of most mediocre politicians the world over. In the current situation Putin himself is less to blame than those who have tolerated the illegitimate procedures of ‘re-electing’ him to ever new presidential terms.
3. What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?
The FSB is the attack-dog of the dictatorship, a proven instrument of political repression and suppression of civil liberties. The role of state security agencies has always been the same.
4. To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?
Not at all. An imperial past is not an obstacle to becoming a democracy. The best examples are the British empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Even the Ottoman Empire – we in Russia are a very long way today from the democracy they have in Turkey.
5. What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?
An authoritarian regime is cemented by internal repression and external aggression. Both are necessary to maintain dictatorial power. Without these processes the regime would weaken and risk collapse.
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?
I wouldn’t like to predict the outcome of the war, it could take various forms. If new territories are added to Russia, this won’t change anything. The aggression is not caused by a lack of ‘living space,’ but by the need for war as a process. A defeat for Russia in the war would give a better chance for dismantling the regime, but could also bring about a sharp increase in political repression.
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?
The authorities are destroying centres of possible civil resistance and have started with what’s easiest: closing down institutions which are incapable of functioning otherwise than in cooperation with the state.
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?
If they survive and are not broken, they have a good chance of becoming political leaders in the new Russia.
9. Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?
A democratic Russia will certainly return to the Council of Europe.
10. In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?
The future of Russia is not predetermined. It could take forms that are polar opposites, depending on the efforts Russian society makes to revive democracy. The West’s position will be important: will the West continue, as hitherto, to recognize the legitimacy of the dictatorship and enter into various inter-state relations with it? Or will the West take a principled stance and help the restoration of democracy in Russia?
Translated by Simon Cosgrove