The leader of the Russian opposition is convinced that Lukashenka is a bandit ready for any type of crime.
Today former vice prime minister of Russia, co-chairperson of the Republican Party of Russia – People's Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS) Boris Nemtsov runs for the Yaroslavl regional Duma deputy. Every day he meets with voters. Even the interview to the editor-in-chief of charter97.org Natallia Radzina, which began in his office, was interrupted for meetings with voters and continued at a Yaroslavl market where more people were waiting for Nemtsov.
- Boris, you are known to be a risky person, and now you got yourself involved in the electoral gamble. There is obviously no chance that the elections will be honest. How would you describe the opposition’s strategy for these elections? What are your personal goals?
- Firstly, the opposition has good chances to win in Yaroslavl. It will be an excellent example for other Russian regions. Basically, I decided to participate in these elections and work hard because I am convinced that Yaroslavl will show the entire country that swindlers and thieves from United Russia can be defeated.
There will definitely be falsifications, but during the recent elections of mayor of Yaroslavl, opposition candidate Yevgeni Urlashov, presently in jail, got 70 percent of votes. We have many observers and we know how to fight falsifications successfully. Anyway, Yaroslavl is not Chechnya, they cannot simply write 146 percent here.
But the fraud is in the censorship. Swindlers’ commercials get full coverage, while the opposition can get hardly any TV time. However, we managed to make a commercial even if it was costly. But unfortunately, our commercials are censored. For example, it is prohibited to mention Urlashov or off-shore stealing of communal businesses.
But we have discovered lots of fascinating stuff. Yaroslavl’s communal businesses that the people buy electricity from are as a matter of fact off-shore companies from Cyprus, a sponsor of United Russia. First, they raise fees, then they transfer the money to Cyprus, and then, from Cyprus, they finance United Russia. Today this is the main scandal that we have disclosed in Yaroslavl.
I believe that such a campaign can be successful. Right now we are building an organization of observers. Of course, the powers will falsify the votes from rural districts, but they won’t dare do that in cities.
- Let’s assume that you have been elected a deputy of the Yaroslavl duma. Can it change anything, while everything is controlled by the rigid power vertical?
- First of all, I will not hinge on Putin because I will be elected by the people. I don’t want to become a governor. In Russia, governors report to Putin, while deputies are independent.
What will it change? It will encourage opposition activists from other regions to try to repeat our success. Our program (centered around federalization of Russia and anti-corruption) can be accepted both regionally and on a district level. Actually, this is an attempt to break through outside Moscow and to strengthen other regions’ success. This is a federation-wide task.
Our positions will become more specific and clear as soon as we get the floor and the possibility to promote our ideas of anti-corruption and federalization. At least nobody will be able to claim that the opposition lacks a program. We do have a program, and it should be realized.
- Let’s assume that you lost the elections. What will your further political steps be?
- I don’t even regard it possible. I am absolutely sure that we will win. But if we don’t, well, then it won’t happen. Then we’ll think what we’ll do.
Frankly speaking, Natallia, this thought has never occurred to me. For some reason you are trying to push me from the right path (laughs).
- What is the opposition of the ruling regime like today? Have the protests of the past two years brought new members?
- Look: there is the Coordinating council that is constantly criticized, but still it is a union of various groups of opposition. There is the RPR-PARNAS, that together with Navalny, the party of Deceber 5th and the People’s Alliance takes part in the voting in Moscow and other regions.
There are obviously new people in the opposition. Is Yashin new? Navalny? He used to be a well-known blogger, and in 2011 he became a politician, just like Yashin, who today is the chair of my HQ.
Lots of new people have joined the opposition, entire parties have emerged. For example, the party of Deceber 5th is completely new. Just look at Yaroslavl; our volunteers there are just 19-23 years old. Young people are full of hopes. There hasn’t been a revolutionary transition of generations yet, but we don’t need that. We have experienced people. And I believe that it is a perfect combination.
I believe that the opposition should not focus on some specific methods of struggle. In Russia, a street riot is a very effective but not the only method. In my view, all peaceful methods should be used. At the same time, I don’t think that taking part in the elections is the only thing that we need. Nonsense. A combination of elections and street protests is, in my view, the right choice.
- What does Navalny, another candidate from your party, do today? What can he expect after September 8th?
- I don’t believe that Navalny will go to jail. They will put him on probation to remove him from any elections – the Moscow city duma or presidential. They won’t turn Navalny into a martyr or political prisoner, but they will continue with the criminal cases against him (there are five cases) and they will try to convince people that he’s a swindler and a thief.
It is also clear what Navalny will do. I think that he will continue fighting along with us. If he can’t take part in elections, he’ll work with anti-corruption and party management. He will definitely go on with his fight.
- Today Navalny is often compared to young Lukashenka. You had a chance to meet the Belarusian dictator. Is it a correct comparison?
- It has never occurred to me to compare Lukashenka and Navalny. Frankly speaking, I am a bit startled. No, I don’t see Lukashenka in him.
My criterion is plane simple. I ask him: Navalny, if you had become the president, would you remove the article of the Constitution that allows one person only two terms, 4 years each, of presidency? He replies: Undoubtedly, I would. Then we pass this question to the Coordinating council of the opposition. Navalny and his guys vote unanimously for it.
In other words, he has certain authoritarian ambitions, but as a politician he realizes that democratization, transition of power and political competition are on top of the agenda. Since Navalny is a 100 percent politician, I don’t think he would neglect the agenda supported by the majority of his fellows.
I recall my meeting with Lukashenka back in 1997. He came to sign a union agreement. He was drunk, which is unusual. He wanted to play tennis with me, but the game went too well (6:0, 6:0) and he dropped the racket. Then Chernomyrdin joined us and Lukashenka complained to him that I wasn’t that hospitable of a host.
- Will the Russian opposition urge people to go to the streets in case the elections are falsified?
- Of course. In Moscow, the elections will be thoroughly controlled. I don’t think any fraud will be plausible there.
- In the past, you worked in the government. Strategies from the west often suggest not a revolutionary, but an evolutional way of transition of power, hoping that incumbent officials can realize the need of changes. Can you see this scenario in a dictatorship?
- No, I don’t. They will fight for their power, they will bite, they will kick, they will do anything in fear of prison and trials. That is why the only way to defeat them is to protest actively and to engage all methods of struggle. It is meaningless to wait till they leave themselves.
- Boris, you had a chance to become Russia’s president, but you left the race to show your respect to Yelstin. Do you have any regrets now, in today’s Russia?
- I don’t. It is stupid to regret things that have already happened. You cannot change them anyway.
- Modern western officials are often accused of being too soft and indecisive regarding dictators. In this light, we often recall such examples of firmness as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. You had a chance to meet with the Iron Lady. What lessons did you personally learn from than meeting, and what can western politicians learn from Thatcher?
- Many western politicians are indeed ready to ignore dictators’ swindle, thievery, corruption and political prisoners. This is a short-sighted politics that, in my view, only hurts them. They have a long way to go before they are somewhere near Thatcher or Reagan.
I believe that a firm position based on values is much more effective than the conjuncture-based routine that today defines nearly all governments, in the EU and US, in the real politik-mode. According to Putin, such balancing is a sign of impotency and weakness.
If they persist with this type of behavior, they should not feel bad in future when the number of political prisoners will grow and the support of aggressive regimes by Putin will increase.
- You were an active supporter of the Magnitsky law, but it turned out that the sanctions apply to a miniscule number of Russian officials. What is the possible effect of this law?
- I think that the list can grow. A new list should come this fall. A similar law is expected in Europe. Right now the Europeans are acting somewhat cowardly, but I have no doubts that the American list will grow. We are working on that.
- One can describe you as a lucky person; first a talented physicist, then a successful politician, governor, minister, vice prime minister, opposition leader, sportsman, father of four, darling of women and media. You remind of Belarus’ former vice prime minister Viktar Ganchar who was kidnapped and murdered because Lukashenka couldn’t stand such a bright peer. Mediocre individuals hate bright people. Do you feel a danger from this regime?
- We live in Russia where you should be prepared for anything. But basically I have been living in this regime for a long time, I’ve got used to it.
Probably I underestimate the risk, maybe I just ignore it. But I sleep a sound and completely calm sleep, and I don’t feel anxious or suspicious because I think I am being watched.
- Today the Russian leadership repeats Lukashenka’s steps to destroy the people’s rights and freedoms. Doesn’t that mean that the Russian opposition should learn from the Belarusian?
- Dictators surely learn from each other. Sometimes Putin even surpasses Lukashenka: in Belarus, the law on foreign agents hasn’t been adopted yet.
We are on good terms with the Belarusian opposition, we keep in touch. We have signed an agreement with the United Civil Party. We meet with Andrei Sannikov.
Of course, we learn from each other’s positive experience, but I think that we should take into consideration specifics of Russia and Belarus. For example, now in Yaroslavl I focus on talking to people. When you called, I was at the market talking to voters. Every organization in Russia and Belarus should strive for efficiency. I don’t know what will work for you; everyone should make their own choice.
- You have frequently said that changes will come to Russia after Belarus. Maybe, it’s time for us to work together to make it happen in Belarus?
- I am convinced that when Belarus is freed from Lukashenka, it will rapidly move towards Europe and become a European country. And it will happen in Belarus much faster than in Russia or Ukraine, because your little country has no imperial ambitions and Caucasus problems like ours. But I don’t think that our direct involvement can lead to drastic changes. Only people of Belarus can free their country from Lukashenka. We can merely support.
- The most recent scandal in the relations between Russia and Belarus is the arrest of CEO of Uralkali Vladislav Baumgertner in Minsk. According to a popular opinion, Belarus has basically declared war. What is your forecast for the situation?
- As a matter of fact, this is an attack on Suleiman Kerimov. Although Kerimov is loyal to Putin, he is not Putin himself. The fact that Lukashenka has arrested Baumgertner is, of course, outrageous. This is an obvious business conflict that causes losses for everyone, but still, there is no criminal element in it.
Lukashenka has demonstrated that he is ready to kill and throw people to jail, that he spits on law and all principles of business communication. Belarus’ already abominable reputation has become even worse.
Now, everything depends on whether Suleiman Kerimov can get Putin to interfere. If he can, then there’ll be a war between Putin and Lukashenka. But I have a feeling that Putin will not defend Suleiman, who is a loyal Lezghin from Dagestan, not someone close from his St Petersburg team. Putin may tell him: Sulik, you got involved with this bandit Luka, you’ll have to fix it yourself.”
Putin knows that if he doesn’t keep out from the conflict, he’ll look like someone who threatens Belarus’ economic interests. How does Lukashenka see this conflict? Someone’s attacking the most sacred thing, the Belarusian oil in form of potassium fertilizers, so I’m just protecting economic interests of my country!
Right now I’m reflecting as a normal person, but Putin will perhaps act differently.
- Boris, I will never believe that Russian oligarchs are capable of making independent decisions that can threaten the entire economy of the fellow country of the so-called “union” and Lukashenka’s regime on the whole.
- I believe that Suleiman’s plan probably involved buying Belaruskali. Kerimov’s idea was to leave this cartel agreement, bring down potassium fertilizer prices at the international market and then buy Belaruskali and reinstall his company as the world’s monopoly.
He just didn’t realize that Lukashenka is an oligarch himself, and he only plays oligarchs’ rules. Moreover, he controls the entire law-enforcement system. Kerimov didn’t expect Lukashenka to be so inadequate as to arrest his manager.
Putin knows Lukashenka, who has slapped him more than once, very well. Had it been the Rotenbergs, Timchenko, Gazprom, Yakunin, or cooperative society Ozero, he would have definitely interfered as the leader of the mob.