Sueddeutsche Zeitung: Putin is Out of Touch with Reality

August 17, 2012

On the same day as the three bandmates from Pussy Riot were found guilty of hooliganism and sentenced to two years imprisonment, Sueddeutsche Zeitung published their interview with Khodorkovsky: 

The trial against the participants in Pussy Riot is already reminding many of your case. Is the blame for hooliganism under Russian law justified or are we talking here about a symbolic punishment of opponents of the state and the church?

There is no question that the girls’ behaviour in the church can be regarded as unacceptably provocative. However, a negative ethical assessment does not signify that there was a criminal offense. I think the church would have reacted far less strongly if it were not for the text of the prayer. The text is anti-Putin. The hierarchs probably got scared of losing their close relations with the power. The goal – to teach critics of the regime a lesson. At any rate, that is what what is happening looks like, whatever compelling motives Putin might have had at first. There is no question that the command came down from the very top. As far as the Pussy Riot “case” itself is concerned, the only thing I would consider fair would be a verdict of not guilty.

Do you believe in a fair trial?

There is no need to even dream about any independence of judges. Today’s Russian court is just an ordinary bureaucratic office in the structure of the vertical of power. Moreover, if somebody inside decides to mutiny (which is not very likely), the higher-standing instance will quickly take care of it.

The beginning of the trial against Pussy Riot and the adoption of a new law “on agents” happened at the same time: Do you believe this is a coincidence or the start of a new phase of state “severity”, and if so, why?

I do not see a direct cause-and-effect connection between these events – different people were involved in preparing the decisions. But there most likely is an indirect connection. This is a dangerous tendency – compensating for the decline in one’s own authority, both political and moral, by using the repressive machinery of the state. There is something else that the introduction of the status of “foreign agent” for non-commercial organisations funded from beyond the confines of Russia has in common with the Pussy Riot case. Both of these stories deliver yet another serious blow to the power’s reputation, at least in the eyes of the active part of Russian society. As a result, the “great divide” between the power and society in Russia is growing. They are trying to intimidate society. The result will be that first the radical leaders will come out into the arena of struggle, and then the broad masses will get involved, already under radical slogans. The power itself is triggering an “Arab spring” mechanism by forcing people to make a choice: either silently accept things the way they are or rise up; it is itself eliminating the option of compromise. The probability that youth is going to silently accept things the way they are is zero. The likelihood that repressions against youth will force the older generation to forget about moderation – high.

Despite the mass protests against the government, society’s critique of the trial in the Pussy Riot case and of the new law on NCOs [non-commercial organisations] has not gone out of bounds. Has the protest movement weakened, have people been intimidated?

I am not completely in agreement with your point of view. A simple example: Pussy Riot was supported by dozens of cultural and public figures who are very well known in Russia, many of whom were considered – and continue to this day to be considered – perfectly loyal to the Kremlin and to Putin personally. On top of that, many thousands of educated urbanites continue to come out to the mass protest actions in Moscow. It is another matter that the Russian opposition – both the old mainstream opposition and the new non-mainstream one – has not yet had the time to adapt in a proper and sufficient manner to the new political realities in order to be able to transform the growth in protest moods into palpable political results. What next? Lock up thousands, tens of thousands? Shoot? I doubt that all of our power elite is ready for such a development of events. After all, they are not from someplace else, they are not monsters – they are just ordinary government officials, whose children go to the same schools as our children. The path of non-violent protest is aimed precisely at getting part of the elite to realise the pointlessness of trying to fight against one’s own people. Alas, such a path requires determination and sacrifice, a readiness not to respond to blows with blows. By the way, patience and persistence are something that comes naturally to us Russians.

It seems that the protests in Russia have still not made any kind of impression on Putin. Is he within his rights to feel confident that the majority of the population is on his side?

I think that Vladimir Putin does indeed deem that that a large part of the country’s population supports him. But this is already not so. That a part of Russia’s citizens simply does not see an alternative to him yet – this is not support, this is apathy; and it is passing. The traditional problem for autocrats – a loss of touch with reality. After all, it looks as if Putin also believes that the demonstrations in Moscow have been bought and paid for, and that the workers in the Urals are genuinely prepared to defend him.

With the exception of Moscow, the protests in Russia bear a limited character, although there is a whole series of million-population cities. Could it be that Russians’ fear of changes, of an unknown future, or of chaos is greater than the opposition would like to admit?

It would be naïve to expect anything else of people who still recall the harsh crisis and the convulsions of the times of the breakup of the USSR. People also remember state terror and they are alarmed that they can see signs of it in the actions of today’s siloviki. It is far more difficult to get public support someplace in Astrakhan or Arkhangelsk than it is in Moscow. For now, only citizens who are not very dependent on the state are making the decision to declare their views. There are an order of magnitude more of these in Moscow than in the provinces. But the situation is changing as the middle class grows. The serious opposition is looking ahead 3-5 years, when it will comprise a large part of the population in all the large cities.

Do you deem that the opposition is missing a charismatic leader who can make people from the provinces too follow him?

Replacing Putin with an autocrat analogous to him is a path to nowhere. It is precisely for this reason that the opposition is striving to maintain collegiality and coalitionality. Of course, this does complicate the task of attracting supporters from the number of traditionally-minded citizens, of whom there are quite a few, especially in the provinces. However, any potential leader who wishes to receive the support of democratically inclined citizens should declare clearly and unambiguously that part of the constitutional powers of the president have to be transferred to the parliament and the government.

What tactic should the opposition choose to attain greater democracy and freedom of speech?

I am convinced: the only right way is non-violent protest (rallies, strikes, civil disobedience) with the objective of attaining the liberalisation of socio-political life, honest elections, independence of the judiciary and the mass information media, and the cessation of forceful and administrative-criminal repressions against the opposition and its supporters. For now though, the power rejects dialogue, is adopting laws that contravene the Constitution – along the lines of the law “On rallies”, “On extremism” or “On NCOs” – and uses the hands of its controlled courts to apply laws selectively or simply ignore them. That is, it uses “legalised violence” against the opposition and its supporters. The method – an ordinary one for a police state. In such a situation, political competition with the regime outside of protest actions in impossible.

Who, in your opinion, is in a position to become dangerous for Putin? And why?

Today – tomorrow any social conflict that will unite political and economic protest is going to become dangerous for the power. The dependence on raw materials export is total. The infrastructure is falling into disrepair, the corruptional tax is growing. Tariffs for the services of monopolies are increasing at an annoyingly rapid pace. The quantity of petty conflicts is growing. Outside a working political system, in the absence of really functioning state institutions or given their extremely low authority, the opportunity for the power to be able to control the situation is not great. Which of the conflicts will start off the “chain reaction” is impossible to predict, but the probability of this is extremely significant in the next 3-5 years.

What are you expecting from Putin’s presidency and Medvedev’s new government?

From responsible politicians I would expect a broad dialogue with civil society and a gradual restoration of the lawful functioning of state institutions on the constitutional principles of separation of powers, federalism, and empowered local self-administration. I would expect on this base the creation in the course of 2-3 years of guarantees of the safety and participation in public life of politicians leaving their posts, and, at the same time, of the opposition. After which a change of power by way of honest elections would be imperative, inasmuch as the current parliament is semi-legitimate, while president Putin has simply “overstayed” and is already no longer capable of reacting appropriately to the needs of society. Unfortunately, however, the likelihood of such a favourable scenario after 24 September 2011 (when the “tandem” voiced the understandings it had reached) is not great. More likely is a “tightening of the screws”, a continuation of the destruction of the constitutional order of running the state, pinpoint repressions, growing corruption, and a harsh “disruption” of the system in any crisis.

The government of Germany used to criticise Russia endlessly because of your case. Despite this, you are still in jail. Would it be worth it for Berlin to intercede for you even more, like it has for Yulia Timoshenko in Ukraine?

I am very grateful for the support I have gotten. Unfortunately, my fate is not unique. There are around 100 thousand people in Russian jails imprisoned under economic articles. Many of them are the victims of an avaricious, corrupt bureaucracy. The YUKOS case was merely a symbol of a systemic problem. I believe that going forward, the German government and German society are not going to shut their eyes on the violations of human rights and the absence of an independent judiciary in Russia, but are going to strive for real movement in this question as a condition for partner relations between our countries.