24 February 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky
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?
Yes, I believe there was. From 1994 to approximately 2003, it was possible to talk about political competition and there was a wide corridor for freedom of speech. Yes, the institutions sometimes malfunctioned, but they worked. But in 2003 the last media corporation independent of the state was finally destroyed, and it became clear (with the trial and conviction of Khodorkovsky) that the judicial system lacked any independence from those in power. Speaking of the causes, or the main root cause, it is hard to be original. Boris Yeltsin committed a catastrophic mistake in giving a particular KGB colonel all the requisite powers. At that time, it was hard to see the today’s evil and short-sighted dictator in him. But shrewd people already saw it back then.
2) How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?
Gorbachev saw roughly what Andropov had seen: a profound economic crisis of a ‘socialist’ model that had been created during the Stalinist years. Above all, they were concerned about economic problems. Gorbachev tried to start his reforms with the economy, but acted without conviction, because he still nurtured a romantic belief in the ‘ideas of socialism’ (state property, the ban on entrepreneurship, the leading role of the CPSU). Gradually – because no economic reforms were being implemented – Gorbachev decided to free the press.
Yeltsin in practice turned out to be Gorbachev’s successor as a reformer, but he harboured no romantic illusions about ‘socialism.’ He immediately resolved to carry out both privatization and the liberalisation of prices.
Initially, Putin felt himself to be Yeltsin’s successor. He saw his particular role limited to strengthening the federation (he started with the war in Chechnya). However, along the way he came to love power, and then absolute power. As he clung to power, this gradually began to unleash the malevolent and narrow-minded KGB lieutenant colonel that was sitting inside him. I think this process in fact took a number of years. I would compare the process to the emergence of a werewolf out of a human form – at full moon. He should never have been allowed to remain in office until the full moon. He is destroying everything created under Yeltsin, but at the same time he cannot bring back the pre-Gorbachev times, and he does not need to. However, he is isolating and weakening the country in other ways – as we see.
3) What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?
The role of the FSB should not be exaggerated. The organisation has had, of course, and still does have, a number of ideological Stalinists, led by Bortnikov, but there are also plenty of those who simply carry out orders they are given. The FSB after all implements the will of the head of state. If tomorrow they are instructed to arrest Girkin or Prigozhin, they will do it without a qualm.
4) To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?
In my opinion, it does not explain anything. Putin had as good as done away with democracy by 2007, without any particular reference to the imperial past. Then he started talking about it when he became bored with everything else.
5) What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?
The Russian dictator’s unhealthy craving for self-expression through military adventures, his desire to see himself in an even larger role than he had secured by 2022. I would not single out any objective factors.
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?
Any solid prediction must have the character of a modal categorical syllogism. Otherwise, it is not serious at all. If one army is superior to another in the amount of modern weapons and manpower (option: has roughly the same potential in manpower), that army is likely to win. Let’s suppose the Ukrainian army gets the necessary weapons by March. Then it could break through to the Sea of Azov, which would bring the Russian army to the brink of disaster. I won’t look any further beyond that point. If Putin is able to keep the territories he’s seized, there’s a good chance he’ll die a peaceful death in six to eight years. And it will be his successors who then have to clean up the mess resulting from economic isolation and an empty budget. If the Russian armed forces are pushed out of the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine, Putin’s grip on power may become uncertain. But he will not automatically lose power. A well-known example is that of Saddam Hussein who, after his military defeat in 1991, retained power for another 13 years.
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?
What we are talking about in principle is the wiping out of any institutions capable of criticizing the authorities. The human rights organizations Memorial and Moscow Helsinki Group, which did not depend on state funding in any way (political parties are dependent), could be and were institutions of this kind. The regime has come very close to being totalitarian. However, dozens of NGOs are still operating.
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 he survives, Navalny will become a major political figure. As will Yashin. I am ready to vote for them right now. Dmitry Talantov will become chair of Russia’s National Bar Association and, perhaps, a deputy in the State Duma.
9) Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?
Yes, there is. After Putin.
10) In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?
The question is not posed very well. The human rights situation could be much worse. If we remember the experience of 1937-39 and 1949-50. Compare about 300 criminal prosecutions a year with about 30,000 shootings. Is there a difference? In other words, things can always be worse. It’s just that things are worse now than they were, say, in the early 1980s.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove