‘In the year before elections, these kinds of demonstrations are necessary’

June 15, 2017

Interview with Echo Moscow about the June 12 anti-corruption demonstrations.

The founder of Open Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, comments on the anti-corruption demonstrations which took place on June 12 as part of Evgeny Albats’s program on the Moscow Echo. The full version, which features Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s campaign chief, and political commentator Gleb Pavlovsky, can be found here.

Evgeny Albats: Mikhail Borisovich, you called Alexei Navalny’s decision to move the demonstration from Sakharov Prospekt in Moscow to Tverskaya Street a ‘provocation’. Navalny defended his decision, saying that his contractors had been put under so much pressure from the mayor’s office that it would be impossible to put up a stage, or have screens or a sound system on Sakharov. However, you described this decision as an attempt to escalate tensions. Please explain your position.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Well, first of all, other commentators have also described Navalny’s decision as an attempt to escalate tensions.  I didn’t write about that, but I do happen to think that it’s true. There’s no doubt that when Alexei agreed to hold the demonstration on Sakharov Prospekt, he understood that there would be problems with the stage, with the sound and with the screens, just as we understood the same thing when we were offered to hold our rally on Sakharov Prospekt on April 29. At the time also I didn’t think it was worth taking this decision. The fact that he decided to move it to Tverskaya was, obviously, a provocative decision, and it clearly had the intended effect. Once again, I do not think that provocation is an unthinkable political act; it’s normal in politics. But on this particular occasion, in my opinion, it was a bit extreme. But that’s just my opinion.

Albats: The Human Rights activist Lev Ponomarev, who was present on Sakharov Prospekt, has said that Navalny caused damage to the protest movement by acting in this way.

Khodorkovsky: I can say that it was hardly worth conducting the demonstration on Sakharov Prospekt. This demonstration was doomed in advance to a low turnout, and open to the influence of the authorities on the organisation of the event. Re-directing the demonstration to Tverskaya Street was a risky move in relation to the people involved because it meant pushing two groups of people with radically different views into the same space.

Albats: But the clashes between radicals which you wrote about didn’t happen. There were clashes with the riot police, who singled out the protesters—the people chanting ‘Putin, get out!’—and took them away. But no one touched the historical reenactors on Tverskaya Street.

Khodorkovsky: Once again, it was perfectly clear that the authorities would react in that way, and that it would be a provocation from the point of view of the authorities. Because if the authorities had done nothing about it, there would have been people asking, “Why was nothing done? Look what happened!”

Albats: And what was the outcome of the demonstrations, in your opinion?

Khodorkovsky: I think that these kinds of demonstrations are absolutely necessary, especially in the year before elections. That’s why I immediately declared that they had my own personal support, as well as that of Open Russia. I think that they are important and necessary. Because people are ready to listen to political arguments. The political arguments that the current government has overstayed it’s welcome, that enough is enough, that the authorities have turned into a bunch of thieves – these ideas are very important and very vivid and they ought to continue.

Albats: Alexei Navalny was charged with Articles 22 and 19.2, for repeated violation of the rules of organization of rallies, and for resisting a police officer. He was arrested in the entrance to his building, when he’d already organized and finalized everything — it’s not clear why. But you know how our government works. You can imagine Putin’s psychology fairly well, and it’s he who in the end will be the one who solves the Navalny problem. Do you think they will shut him down?

Khodorkovsky: I do not want to believe that they would go that far. Because it’s clear that the authorities would provoke and aggravate the opposition by shutting him down. Nevertheless, I’m sure that some prominent people will call for that. But I will say again that I hope that won’t happen this time around. In terms of the the work which Navalny is doing at the moment, some parts of the Kremlin consider it necessary for raising voter turnout. But parts of the Kremlin consider it dangerous, and as long as the Kremlin is in two minds, the opposition have a chance.

Albats: Do you consider today’s protest a step forward after 26 March, when we first saw the younger generation take to the streets — a generation which was born after perestroika and which never knew the fears associated with the USSR; a generation that was born in 2000, the year Putin came to power, and who have never known another president. Do you think that this is a step forward after 26 March?

Khodorkovsky: I would not want to compare these two events, it’s difficult for me to speak in those terms. Each new rally in the year before elections is its own step forward, a step towards the politicization of society, a step towards society taking responsibility for what happens in the country — that much is certain. So these demonstrations are nessary, and they must continue.

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