Viktor Kogan-Yasny answers our 10 questions

12 February 2023

by Viktor Kogan-Yasny

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?

Yeltsin at one time publicly and loudly denounced the Soviet Communist Party and Communist ideology. This charmed many people, both in the Soviet Union and in the West. But he was never a supporter of liberal democracy. The so-called liberal reformers, ‘systemic liberals’ such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, who were close to him also had a very low opinion of liberal democracy. In terms of political methodology, these people belong to the Bolshevik authoritarian tradition of manipulation, disregard for human life and dignity, and refusing feedback from citizens. They perceived the collapse of the USSR following the 1991 Belovezha Accords as the ejection of Gorbachev from political life and the creation of a new ‘club’ of leading post-Soviet officials, in which Russia, and Yeltsin personally, were given an unchallenged leading and dominant role. Such an approach to politics brought with it a high probability of dictatorship and wars on the basis of expediency.

With the support of Western experts, this strategic, authoritarian outlook provided the framework for the conduct of economic reforms that stripped a potential class of property owners of the wealth they had accumulated during the Soviet Union, while major forms of Soviet state property were handed out in a voluntaristic manner to chance opportunists.

Taken together, this generated a demand among the new elites for an ‘heir’ able to safeguard and consolidate the new order while building on a nostalgia for the ‘great Soviet post.’ In this sense, the arrival of someone like Putin and the fact that Yeltsin and his entire political circle chose him was very natural. As were natural all the post-Soviet wars in which Russia was directly or indirectly involved, from Transcaucasia and Tajikistan to the ‘restoration of order’ in Chechnya and today’s Ukrainian war…

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

Gorbachev was a great reformer. He wanted peace, he wanted disarmament, he wanted a stable ‘Greater Europe.’ He was committed to expanding freedom and giving greater scope to humanitarian values, which is absolutely astonishing for a leader who matured in a totalitarian system.

Yeltsin grew up in a period that ‘coincided’ with the emergence in the USSR of elements of public politics. In terms of the framework that existed at that time, he truly was ahead of many other potential leaders. As time passed, he came increassingly came to have a very strong ‘belief in himself.’ However, having become leader of a newly and hurriedly created state, which was practically immediately given all the main attributes of the USSR although it needed radical reforms, he proved totally inappropriate as a leader to the problems he had promised to deal with. He showed himself to be an authoritarian leader of a Bolshevik-type.

As for Putin, you could say everything is obvious. But the matter is in fact too urgent to make do with commentary focused just on the present time. First, it has to be said that Putin’s political direction, which continued and deepened the political direction followed by Yeltsin, was, I think, evident from the time Putin became prime minister in 1999. And this political direction was accepted and, moreover, supported by the EU’s top leaders at that time (we can recall his meeting with the top leaders of the EU and its member states in Helsinki in December 1999). Second, it is difficult for us to judge what Putin would have done if the policies of the leading Western countries had been more coherent, constructive, convincing, less linked to notions of tactical advantage and the need for cheap raw materials. However, I think a great deal would have been different.

Putin is a Bolshevik. There is no need try to draw comparisons between Putin and other leaders from the history of Europe in the XXth century – or to compare today’s Russia with other countries, for that matter. Any ‘historical reconstruction’ is wrong and methodologically harmful for any variant of the current situation  Suffice it to consider what we actually see … In order to deal with this and similar phenomena – a very difficult task with many dimensions – the first condition is not to turn into Bolsheviks, profiteers, adventurers and swindlers ourselves.

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

The role of the FSK-FSB [Federal Counter-Intelligence Service – Federal Security Service] in the narrow sense never was and is not now very significant. But obviously from the very beginning these structures continued the traditions of the KGB and other Soviet secret services, since these were all that anyone knew. It is certainly correct to talk about a group of people who had a shared past in the security services and who had and have a common way of thinking. This group of people has had a very large influence from the very beginning of the independent Russia, since 1992, and over time, its weight and influence has only grown. The failure of the GKChP coup in 1991 forced this group of people to seek new patronage in the person of President Yeltsin. It is important to note that the level of competence and general culture in the world of Russia’s secret services at the beginning of the 2000s, and especially later, was, I believe, lower than the general level of competence and culture even than in the Soviet KGB. The level of corruption greatly increased and cynicism became a norm of life.

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

What is meant by Russia’s ‘imperial past’? The Russian Empire at its end was certainly incomparably more democratic than the subsequent rule of the Bolsheviks. And the rule of the Bolsheviks, as is known, was not only a Russian [rossiiskii] regime. The current chauvinism and imperialism has a very primitive nature, hostile to culture, and has its roots in a sense of greatness and pride, in the habit of praise for oneself, that was fostered in the Soviet era. And this phenomenon is present in many of the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Soviet bloc, not only in Russia (although in Russia, on account of the country’s size, resources, and political role in the former USSR, it has proved particularly strong). And this multiplies the desperate nature of the current situation.

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

The main reason for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the desire by Putin and a number of people in his entourage to deprive Ukraine of its sovereignty (at least in the general form in which it existed within the USSR and after the Soviet collapse under the Belovezha Accords) and at the same time to return Russia to a situation of parity in its confrontation with the US, NATO and the ‘political West’ in general.

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 am far from being able to predict the outcome of the war. The situation is developing in a very dangerous way in terms of the future. The risks are enormous and events on the front line can develop in many different ways. I’m not an intelligence officer, so I don’t know what the specific circumstances are. From a humanitarian point of view, and in terms of political philosophy, any military outcome, historically, can have no winners. Humanity and the idea of Europe will be the losers. Herein lies Russia’s enormous responsibility, since the war was launched in the name of its sovereignty. However, from the start of the war onwards, responsibility has not only lain with Russia, and certainly not only with the Russian public.

The experience of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the recent experience in the Netherlands show that justice is possible in the most unlikely situations if it is pursued with persistence, patience, objective, convincing arguments, and without political manipulation. Where there is political manipulation and associated hustle and bustle, justice is doomed

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?

Memorial was not closed down, but its leading organisational divisions were ‘liquidated’ as legal entities. At the same time, the other divisions remain as legal entities. It is impossible to ‘close down’ Memorial as an informal organisation. The Moscow Helsinki Group has also been ‘liquidated’ as a legal entity, but it is unlikely to cease to exist because of this, although its existence will become very uncomfortable. The Sakharov Centre has not been closed down, but has been deprived of its premises, since the latest amendments to the law on ‘foreign agents’ provide that government agencies cannot give support to ‘foreign agents,’ and all the premises of the Sakharov Centre were given by the Moscow city government rent free. Now that will no longer be possible, since it is the Centre cannot pay rent at a market price. Probably, the Centre will continue somewhere on the basis of a very small rented space. 

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?

I have no idea as to what Navalny’s future will be. I very much hope he will be released and be a free man. But he has a special and very serious conflict with the system, which, I think, is perceived in a very personal manner by Putin. And he (or his entourage) very much wants to see him as president. This does not make his release any more likely. As for Kara-Murza, Yashin, Gorinov, Skolichenko, Korolev and the 500 or so other people who have been imprisoned for long terms for speaking out against the war, I truly hope that, with the slightest de-escalation of the situation, they will be released.

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

Russia not only left the Council of Europe but was also expelled from it. So the possibility of Russia returning to that organisation is very doubtful. Unfortunately, no one even talks about this as a long-term, strategic perspective now. In general, no one is talking any longer about the prospects for the world’s future, and this is very alarming. This removes all constraints from everyone…

10)   In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?

It will be possible to talk about Russia’s future when we can at least see a glimmer of a prospect of peace. Until that time, there is no future, because a fate decided by events on a front line, a long front line where people are killed and killing, is no future. In a situation of this kind, absolutely anything can happen.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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