Sergei Davidis answers our 10 questions

14 February 2022

by Sergei Davidis

Rights in Russia is asking a number of human rights activists, commentators and experts ten questions. You can read their answers here.

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?

There was a certain opportunity, especially before 1993.  The fact that the conflict between the branches of power was resolved in October 1993 precisely in the way that it was , to a large extent was a result of chance – the personal characteristics of Boris Yeltsin. But even after 1993, some hope remained, its realisation depending on the personality of the person who would be Yeltsin’s successor. The choice of Putin was also a historical accident, which finally determined the direction of Russia’s movement away from the rule of law and human rights.

2)      How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?

Gorbachev did what he could. He fulfilled his fateful role, and it was impossible to demand more from him. His mission was to dismantle the USSR, not to build a democratic Russia. He did not have the potential for this.

Yeltsin’s role is ambivalent. His persistence and tenacity in many respects played a positive role, while his love of power, his cultural and educational background, and other inadequacies, had a tragically negative impact.

Putin’s role seems to be unequivocally negative and although in the early 2000s it was possible to find some merits in his work, he subsequently repeatedly nullified whatever merits there had been. His personal role in the creation of an aggressive dictatorship is exceptionally great. He made the most of the objectively available conditions for building a dictatorship and he destroyed the remaining potential for movement towards democracy.

3)      What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?

 In general, there is no doubt the role of the FSB has been negative. To a large extent, the agency has remained heir to the traditions of the security services of the Soviet dictatorship, but I do not think it necessary to attribute the building of a dictatorship to the FSB. Its representatives only contributed to the political choice of this variant of future development.

4)      To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?

I do not think it is right to speak of Russia’s ‘inability’ to become a democracy. I am certain that Russia will become a democracy. But the imperial past is indeed a powerful obstacle and brake on the path towards democracy, distinguishing Russia from other post-socialist countries except, probably, Serbia.

5)      What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?

The conditions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were created by a combination of extreme inefficiency on the part of the state structures under Putin, devoid of any real feedback with the public; the archaic mindset, ignorance and amorality of the small group of people led by Putin who have happened to come to power in Russia; the influence of an imperialistic and state-centric legacy on the public consciousness; and an economy based on production of raw materials, which makes the state independent of society.

The immediate causes are the desire by Putin’s clique, at any price, to hold back the march of time and to stay in power, their imperial ambitions, and the purely psychological defects of Putin’s personality.

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?

There is great uncertainty about the outcome of the war. We can only say for sure that Russia will not win. Specifically, the lack of victory can be expressed either in the liberation by Ukraine of the territories occupied by Russia or in the unleashing of a nuclear war. In between these extremes are variants in which Ukraine liberates part of the occupied territories, the offensive potential of both sides is exhausted and a line of demarcation is established.

In the event of Putin’s complete defeat, if the conflict does not turn nuclear, the prospects for Putin’s regime could range from a collapse, as a result of a successful combination of a surge in public discontent and a split in the elites, to ossification and conservation, as in the case of Iran.

In the long term, many years from now, the chances of bringing the perpetrators of war crimes to justice are quite high. The chances of bringing key war criminals, currently on Russian soil, to justice in the near future seem low, and the chances of Putin personally being brought to justice seem close to zero.

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 destabilization of the situation as a result of the war and the desire to consolidate society around the regime require the elimination of all organisations that coulc potentially provide a focus for bringing dissenters together and the silencing of all dissenting voices. This is the reason for the closure of NGOs and for the increase in repression, in particular the imprisonment of Pivovarov, Navalny, and Yashin.

Nevertheless, and even despite the exodus of hundreds of thousands of the regime’s opponents from Russia, civil society in Russia is alive and well. It manifests itself both in the work of traditional NGOs and, to an even greater extent, in networked, self-organizing activities in a whole range of areas: anti-war protest, the environmental movement, support for political prisoners, assistance to Ukrainian refugees, and so on.

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?

In all likelihood, they will remain in prison either until the dictatorship collapses, or at least until it is significantly weakened and its transformation begins.

9)      Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?

Of course, Russia after Putin will definitely 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?

In the short term, the human rights situation could become much worse. The regime has the resources, the tools, and the will to seriously increase the scale of repression, if it considers it necessary, since it is still an order of magnitude lower than in Belarus. However, in the medium and long term, Russia has no alternative but to develop in the direction of European democracy. In the future, Russia, as a whole or as a composite of its parts, is bound to be democratic.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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