Alexander Soloviev: “We Are Open And Ready To Cooperate”

May 18, 2017

Alexander Soloviev, diplomat by education and ex-assistant to Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, joined the Open Russia movement in November last year, and after just half a year has become the movement’s chairman after the April 2017 elections in Tallinn, Estonia.  In an interview with Vadim Meshcheryakov from Idel.real, Soloviev spoke about his relationship with Open Russia, the #Enough campaign, Navalny, Khodorkovsky and his plans for the future of the Open Russia movement. 

Why Open Russia? What did Vladimir Kara-Murza say to you?  After all he’s the man that brought you to the organisation, and whose position you took over as a result of the recent elections.

Vladimir Kara-Murza didn’t say anything that “recruited” me as such.  He spoke about his work and what he’s been doing in his own life, which was always interesting to me.  I was always interested by inter-parliamentary politics, me and Vladimir spoke a lot about the parliaments of different countries; his academic work on parliamentarianism in Russia from 1905 is fascinating.  Thanks to him I learnt a lot about the origins of the state Duma.

You could say that we had many mutual interests, and so naturally we became friends.  It was funny when I, as assistant to Duma deputy Dmitri Gudkov, more or less peacefully watched broadcasts of parliamentary hearings, while Vladimir sincerely resented many of them as scoundrels and hypocrites.

Why Open Russia exactly?  Comradeship played its role – I found many people whom I could trust.

But Dmitri Gudkov remained in politics.  You could have stayed with him, regardless of the fact that he’s no longer a Duma deputy.  He’s set his sights on the Moscow mayoral elections. 

I have never denied that I would have stayed with him had I not been elected chairman of the Open Russia movement.  I made it clear that I would return to him closer to the Moscow mayoral elections.  Alas, everything turned out the way it did.  I did not plan to become the chairman of the movement.

You joined the movement in November 2016 and in February 2017 you headed the “Open Law” project.  As far as i’m aware, Maria Baronova put you forward as a candidate for the chairmanship of the movement.  Do you have an idea why she did that?

Why I was selected, I don’t know.  I think it’s clear that I became a sort of compromise figure for many people.  You know that both me and Ilya Novikov received 5 votes for the chairmanship.  The decision was made to call Vladimir Kara-Murza who wasn’t present at the conference, and he cast his vote in my favour.

So you can’t really say that the decision satisfied everyone, but many thought that I was a kind of compromise figure; not engaged or connected with anyone in particular.  It was pleasant for me to hear that people considered me a diplomat.

I studied as a diplomat, and so it’s an honour for me.  It’s clear that I was a convenient figure, in the positive sense of the word.

Immediately after your election as chairman you said in an interview that you want to improve relations with other democratic forces in Russia.  The relationship of the opposition towards Open Russia is, to put it lightly, odd.  What is the reason behind this, in your opinion?

The spectrum of opinion towards Open Russia is gigantic.  In a number of Navalny’s regional groups and our regional offices the people are very similar.  In other regions there are people who cooperate both with us and with the “Yabloko” party and they are fine with it, whereas the “Yabloko” party in Moscow for some reason doesn’t like it when a member of their party is also a member of our movement.  It’s a shame for us because we’ve always got on well with Yabloko.

I’m prepared to work with anyone who who turns up ready to engage in dialogue.  If they’re not ready then we won’t force them.

Returning to the topic of Open Russia, even my relatives are of the opinion that it’s all about Khodorkovsky and some kind of dark past.  When I ask them why they think it’s dark, the answer is always that that’s what they say on TV.

I mean, among the opposition activists who understand perfectly well what today’s television is like.   

I cannot really say why this problem exists.  These people often don’t have an argument for why they don’t like Open Russia.  Some people admit that the propaganda against us genuinely works, and they call our organisation toxic.  They say that they respect the movement, but they’d rather support it from the side.  Many whom I personally ask to explain their position cannot do so.

There is the view that opinions towards Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Open Russia began to change because the movement began to take on former United Russia members, people from TV, and founded a number of odd media startups.  That’s what i’ve heard at least. 

As regards United Russia, I am in agreement with Mikhail Khodorkovsky in that if people come to us from the United Russia camp, that’s fairly normal; however, it doesn’t seem to happen the other way around.

About Open Media, our main goal has been to communicate the truth about what is going on to people before it’s too late.  We’re trying to explain that the government is driving the country into the abyss.

In actual fact the real patriots today are those who are trying to rescue the country, those who are saying that if we let things carry on the way they are, then it’ll lead us to catastrophe.

Returning to the subject of cooperation with other democratic forces.  We’ve spoken about Yabloko, but what about Alexey Navalny?

It’s relatively simple.  At the conference in Tallinn the decision was made to support Navalny in the presidential elections.

But it seems to me that this support amounts simply to non-aggression in the media?

There is really no point in trying to compete with Alexey Navalny because he is a huge figure, people love him, he has a huge support-base and he is a charismatic leader.  We are in the same boat, however, we operate in slightly different areas.  Navalny’s programme is that of a strident leader in a system with no alternatives and it’s working very well for him.

I respect the work of Navalny’s party, the Anti-Corruption Fund.  Open Russia is creating more of a grassroots movement where each year new people will take over the management of the movement and give it new direction.  Our team is formed of a large number of people and each has their own talents that they bring to the table.  I do not exclude the possibility that we will make mistakes, but Navalny established himself in 2007 and he has also made mistakes.

Many have noticed that relations between Navalny and Khodorkovsky have become a little cold?

Who else could Khodorkovsky have supported in the elections?

An announcement is one thing, but I’m talking about genuine support.  

Many people have made up their own version based on assumptions that Khodorkovsky supposedly wants to run for president himself.  Firstly, he has spoken only about a transitional period, secondly he has stated many times that

the time for leaders like Putin, and other people like him, must pass.  That whole generation must leave the political scene.

Khodorkovsky is trying to prepare the country for a transitional period, but the country is heading towards such an abyss at the moment that, if it goes that far, will not allow for such a transitional period, only collapse, or, in the worst case, revolution.  Neither I, nor Mr. Khodorkovsky would like to see that happen.

Our task is to create a state governed by the rule of law.

In what way can the Open Russia movement achieve this goal?

We do not say that “Open Russia” alone will bring this about.  We are simply keeping the idea alive and transmitting it to others.  We are working on the so-called schism in today’s elite – in the positive sense of that word.  More and more people in government are saying that there needs to be some kind of change, as the current system can only lead us to catastrophe.

We are working to spread our ideas, so that people who were once in positions of power will come to our side.  We are open to contact with most of the people who are in power today, I think that’s a fairly normal position.

What does this contact consist of? 

Everyone has, in some way or another, acquaintances in positions of power.  I have them, Maria Baronova has them.  These are the people who genuinely see that there is an “Open Russia”, whose activity is primarily educational in character.

Our message is directed at those elite representatives who in some way associate their own future with the future of the country.

It’s useless to engage with those who do not associate themselves with the future in this way, they’ll simply leave and that will be that.

So basically you’re trying to destroy the system from the inside?

No, we are trying to bring bring to their senses those in power who still have sense, and there are many of them.  We are trying to show that our message is a respectable one.  At the end of the day  it will lead to the mutual benefit of all people, including those currently in power; they will not be pursued by threats of the gallows and pitchforks, as we are against such actions in principle.  However, they haven’t yet come around to this.

We are taking part in regional and Duma elections as it is a good platform from which to present to people the real state of affairs in the country.

Unfortunately we do not have access to television.  We use all resources that are available to us, in particularly diplomacy and radio.  I have an acquaintance in the government who says that the level of hatred should not be pushed any further.  Even inside the government people have appeared who spread complete and utter nonsense, they remind me of the National Liberation Movement.  Such people are, thankfully, a minority.  However there are a significant number of people who understand that it is vital that something be done.

Moving on to the topic of Putin.  Let’s talk about the “Enough” campaign.  To many it seemed strange and even somewhat desperate.  Do you not think that it is strange to ask Putin himself not to run for a fourth presidential term? 

Journalists have very wearily called it an appeal to the president himself.  From the start we said that there’s no need to call it an appeal, we are trying to show people that precisely the act of demanding that the president not run for a fourth term is a significant and normal democratic action in itself.

The Enough campaign was designed to show people that the president is not some god-like figure, he is simply a typical ruler like any other, and that it’s up to us (the people) to decide whether he runs for another presidential term or not.

Maybe you simply understood that the campaign did not attract as many people as, for example, the March 26 anti-corruption protests?  

Of course we understood that not as many people would turn out compared to March 26.  We never set ourselves the task of competing with that, and we do not have the popularity that Navalny enjoys.  We openly said that it’s possible not many would turn out and we were prepared for that outcome.  Regardless, it helped transmit the message “Enough” to Vladimir Putin.

We paid attention to the fact that the country has been brought to a point where the people are frightened to demand that their president not run for a fourth presidential term.  That’s where we are!  That alone should make you feel like you’ve had enough.  But no, this person wants to stand again for another term, making it a total of 24 years!  If you think about it, it isn’t even funny, it is a catastrophe for any country.

Open Russia vice-chairman for Tatarstan Daria Kulakova was arrested for 10 days for her participation in the “Enough” rally; is this a form of deterrent?  

In my own opinion, the Tatarstan authorities incorrectly responded to signals from the federal government.  On another note, it could be connected with some of the serious problems taking place in the region.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in leaving his position as chairman of the Open Russia movement, said that the new leader must source funding himself.  How is that going?

It’s difficult, because everyone sees such funding as a huge risk.  Besides that, many think that because Khodorkovsky founded the movement, he should provide the funds.

Most people tend to think that, it seems. 

Well the search continues.  It’s very difficult and at the moment it hasn’t been to much avail.  Nevertheless, nothing is impossible.  We are searching and sometimes we find something, but people tend to prefer financing slightly more concrete things, rather than civil society movements.  We do not have bank accounts, but people are willing to help us out with accommodation and things like that.  

Khodorkovsky has said that he has taken part in financing until now.  How does he do that, if you don’t have bank accounts? 

We do not have accounts, and therefore there is no financial cooperation within the organisation.  For example, our human rights project is funded through the personal account of Maria Baronova, through which we gather resources.  She constantly produces statements showing the resources she gives and takes.  If we opened an account, it would be closed almost immediately.

And who are these people who donate money, or offer their services to you?  Is it typically businessmen, or people who have secretly dissented from the rank of the government, for example?

We cannot boast of having any secret government dissidents.  On the whole it is people who consciously donate to our cause, often small or middle-sized businesses.  We’ve never had dealings with large corporations.

So what will your next moves be? Do you have any plans for the year?

Nothing has fundamentally changed since I came to the chairmanship of the movement.  Open Russia, up until the time that I became chairman, was undertaking active preparation towards participation in local elections in Moscow, and that’s what our main priority is for the meantime.

We plan to support a large number of independent deputies.  Municipal elections are our main priority for the foreseeable future.

In addition we have a lot of things going on in connection with our human rights project.  Everything is already up and running, but as chairman I can put an emphasis on closer ties between Open Russia and the upcoming mayoral elections in Moscow.  This will come about quite organically as we have very close relations with mayoral candidate Dmitry Gudkov.

What about the 2018 presidential campaign? 

I am not sure how we can help Aleksey Navalny in his preparation for the presidential campaign.  If the situation arises in which we need to provide help in some way, we are always ready to provide it, particularly legal help.   

Khodorkovsky can help with money, at least? 

Of course people are going to say that.  Maybe they already have, I don’t know.  If it happens, then I am sure it will be done publicly.  In a discussion between Khodorkovsky and Leonid Volkov (Navalny’s campaign manager), Volkov quite straightforwardly said that they currently have enough donations.  We simply need to keep learning from them, if we’re talking about crowdfunding.  Closer to the elections we will have to talk with Alexey Navalny’s people.  We are open and ready to cooperate.

This interview originally appeared at in Russian.  This version has been slightly abridged for clarity.  You can read the original interview here.