Navalny associate: Putin's worst mistake was not leaving in 2008

Take note – story published 5 years ago

Leonid Volkov, the man who managed the headquarters of Russian opposition frontman Alexei Navalny ahead of the Russian presidential election, spoke with  LSM's Russian-language service about corruption, sanctions, the state of democracy in Eastern Europe, and more. 

LSM: Recently the anti-graft bureau searched the office of Rīga mayor. Please tell us what regular people can do to decrease graft in the country, judging from your experience in fighting corruption? 

Volkov: First of all, I would like to say that I hope to live to see the day – I hope it's drawing near – when the cabinet of the mayor of Moscow will be searched by an anti-corruption bureau and when an independent anti-corruption bureau will appear in Russia. It won't happen under the current regime. There's nothing that [Russian] citizens can do to fight corruption. That's what the modern Russian regime is like. It's the model of power current in Russia. You need to overcome Putin to overcome corruption. 

As concerns a democratic society, it's simple. Support the media and anti-corruption investigators, vote for anti-corruption politicians and have zero tolerance towards corruption. In a country such as Latvia, your hands are free to fight corruption, and many choose to do so.

I am not well-versed in the case of Nils Ušakovs, but from what I gather he's involved in a case over receiving a €800,000 bribe. It's about on the level of a deputy head of the interior department, or a police major from Uryupinsk. The very fact that €800,000 in a possible corruption scheme is enough to launch investigations and searches and achieve public resonance – it's a very good indicator. [..]

What are you discussing with politicians? I mean, Latvian politicians. 

Meeting politicians is not a priority for me. Generally, in my travels abroad I'm visiting my clients in IT consulting. Someone helped arrange a number of meetings for me in Latvia. And in these meetings I'm sending a rather simple message.

I'm saying that there are things the European public can do. The chief among them is dividing the Kremlin and Russia. 

"How can you divide them? As these people are voting for Putin. Putin represents them," was the usual way everyone saw these things.

But you shouldn't be afraid of working against the Kremlin. If you're against the Kremlin, you're supporting Russia. You won't anger Russia or its citizens if you assume a cold demeanor against Putin and the Kremlin. They neither represent nor embody Russia. 

Do you find sanctions imposed by the EU and NATO to be effective?

No. I find them about 90% harmful.

Why is that?

Because, first of all, we don't know of any historical precedent of sanctions helping to topple a dictator. 

But sanctions do help the dictator's state propaganda to introduce the "embattled fortress" regime. 

Sanctions also help the propaganda to write off every single failure of the government's economic policies to outside circumstances. That's why every time when Europe and the US introduce sanctions against areas of the Russian economy, there's a dinner party at the Kremlin where they're pouring champagne with good cheer. Because for them it means they'll be able to steal even more, and no one will point it out to them because they'll attribute everything to the sanctions.  

In that case, what are the alternatives? 

The only occasion when they don't hold parties is when the sanctions assume a personal character. 

In addition to saying that the entire world is set out to enslave us, for the past 20 years Russian propaganda has told a story about the awful 90s: "Our lives are so bad because the oligarchs stole everything in the 90s."

'Oligarch' is used as a bogeyman and a swear word. It's a very bad word.

When the oligarchs associated with the Kremlin – who are, in effect, bolstering the regime... I mean, all the Deripaskas, Vekselbergs, Abramoviches, Fridmans and so on. When they're sanctioned, the propaganda is forced to shut up and keep silent. They can't switch sides and tell the people, "You know, we've changed our minds. Now Deripaska is a good guy and we should tighten our belts to give Deripaska money and to support him." They simply can't.

People from Putin's entourage are going to him, saying: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, they've taken everything from us. They've punished us and we can't go to Davos and Miami anymore. They're stripping us of our assets in the US. What are we to do?"

He doesn't have an answer to that, and it threatens his stability, because, of course, the regime's stability is heavily dependent on the oligarchs. 

For this reason, personal sanctions work. They work wonderfully and they cannot be touted, as per the propaganda line, as sanctions against the Russian people. 

What's your take on the general anti-liberal orientation of the ruling parties in here and in Europe, like in Poland and Hungary, and the mainstream shift towards national-conservative ideas?

I think that you generalize too much. In Hungary they almost have a Putin. Yes, it's difficult in Hungary. It's a country that, of all European countries, has gone so far on the road of dismantling democratic institutes that, honestly, it seems scary that European institutions haven't been able to defend Europeanness.

But even in Hungary it's clear that at some point Viktor Orbán will leave and there'll be elections in which votes will be counted fairly and the opposition will be allowed to participate. I have not heard of any gays being tortured and killed in Hungary, of Jehova's Witnesses being sentenced, of thousands of people being arrested for speaking up, and of Hungarian secret services torturing people with electric shock.

In Poland, they've no problems with democratic institutions as such. In Poland they have a problem with the Smolensk tragedy. Some way – and the psychologists of the future should investigate as to how it occurred – a big European country turned out being a part of a strange idea with the consequence that you can't really do politics in Poland if you don't subscribe to a rather exotic, not to say schizophrenic conspiracy theory. No – and I can tell this to the Polish media as well. The Polish airplane was not shot down by the KGB.

As concerns Latvia, or rather the Baltics... I am not disposed to throw around accusations of the sort, as if "Oh, your democratic institutions are being dismantled, the neocons have won everything and there's no liberalism anymore." 

Yesterday I visited the Saeima and spoke to MPs of six parties out of seven. Seven parties! God, if they had seven really different parties in parliament in Russia! I also spoke with a rather liberal party, namely Development/For!

At last, you and I are in a country which has an openly gay minister. 

Tell us, please, what do you think is the worst mistake Vladimir Putin has made while in power?

He didn't leave in 2008.

Why was that the worst mistake?

He violated the principle of change of power. He gave a mandate for indefinitely holding power by way of endless falsities. He prepared the soil for all the violations that were to follow.

Okay, now the reverse. What's his main achievement? 

There were quite many reasonable and positive reforms carried out during the first presidential term. 

What were those?

There was the pension reform with an accretive system installed, the adoption of a criminal codex, as well as a partial land reform. Taxation was simplified. Thanks to simplified taxation in Russia there are at least some entrepreneurs who are doing something and on whom we will be able to lean on. If there hadn't been that, they'd have died out by now. But they still exist.

What are your views on the historical policies by the current Russian authorities concerning national subjects of the federation, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and other national republics and okrugs? 

As of now, there's no federalism in Russia. Federalism has been completely dismantled in Russia, i.e. while constitutionally a federal republic Russia has been functioning as a strictly unitary government. That's why there are no particular policies in Russia concerning national subjects, with the exception of Chechnya. 

What do you think should be changed?

Russia needs federalism and federalization. Russia should become a federal state again. It is written in our election program. That we should pass a bundle of powers onto the subjects. And it doesn't matter if it's Tatarstan or the Chelyabinsk Oblast.

Which powers do you mean specifically?

Changing the distribution of taxes, enabling [local] changes in tax rates so that there'd be regional competition. What I mean is that currently Russian regions have no incentives to compete under the current system of budgetary relationships. Secondly, there are no ways to do that. A Russian governor or a regional parliament can't just say: "Okay, now we're attracting an investor of this sort or the other, and for that we're setting up a special economic zone, tax breaks or something like that."

Regions have no autonomy and no ability to implement independent policies. 

What status should local languages have in national republics? What role should they play? For example, what role should Tatar or Chechen play in their respective republics?

It's a very general question because the subjects differ wildly. On one end you have the Chechen Republic. They have simply driven out the entire Russian-speaking population. There, you had something close to a genocide of the Russian-speaking population. Now there isn't one. On the other end we have the Jewish Autonomous Oblast where, how shall we put it, there are no Jews to speak of. Or the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug where, of course, you should protect the Khanty and Mansi cultures, but they make up about 1,5% of the population in total. And then there's Dagestan where there are national languages as well, but instead of one you have 32. That is, seeing that the republics are so different, it's obvious that national language politics should be substantially delegated to the local level. 

In one interview you said that your strategy lies in identifying spots that are problematic for the power and then press onto them. For this goal, as you said, a network of regional headquarters was created, and massive protests were held, bringing political life to a a new level. But are there any positive changes as concerns current official policy?

I'll repeat myself. The current powers that be are incapable to provide positive changes.

We are not, and we should not expect positive changes from the current authorities. The only possible positive change is them packing their bags and driving in the direction of Lefortovo [an area of Moscow that holds a big prison].

What's the use of holding protests, especially unauthorized ones? Doesn't it undermine the trust that neutral observes could have in you?

First of all, there are no unauthorized protests at all. We do have laws in our country, and there are international rights' regulations which we obey. There's an order for arranging protests, and we never violate it.

What we have are not unauthorized protests but instead protests that are illegally denied from us. 

There hasn't been a case when the European Human Rights Court didn't take our side and didn't judge the refusal to be illegal. We haven't held a single protest violating public order, and which would have really warranted suppression or dispersal.

That's why I don't think we're undermining trust. Quite the opposite. I think that with our consequential stance we're actually inspiring trust. 

The very idea of protesting is, of course, overcoming loneliness. 

In one of your presentations you said that one probable future scenario is that Putin would hold onto power indefinitely, that is to say, until he dies.

Yes. That is his goal and it's quite possible he'll achieve it. 

And your goal is prevailing as the strongest structure in the country to take power at that critical juncture. What do you mean with "prevailing as the strongest structure"? 

It means that at the moment when Putin dies or another transit scenario occurs, paving the way for overtaking power, we should prevail as the political structure that is able to address as many people as possible, and have these people support our demands.

Let's say that if Putin finds himself a successor...

He won't.

Are you sure?


How come?

Because we know history and politics, and political science well. And we know that regimes such as these are unable to find successors and have a hereditary power structure. 

There's a very simple reason for this. Right now what they have is dependent on personal agreements that will become invalid at the very moment Putin is not there anymore, for one reason or another. 

Let's assume Alexei Navalny becomes president and enjoys support from the Duma. What legislative reforms are an immediate and absolute priority for Russia?

There are three main points in our program which would be solved immediately. At the heart of it is judicial reform. That is to say, there can't be independent media, fair elections and what have you if the courts are not independent. Secondly, but not in terms of importance as the three are all equally important, is adopting a package of anti-corruption measures, because, again, corruption is considered the basis of modern Russian governance. Thirdly, which is less concerned with practicalities and technicalities, is immediately freeing political prisoners and putting a stop to prosecution for their words and their thoughts. 

Who do you consider to be natural political allies in the EU for a Navalny administration? Which governments and political powers?

We see the entire EU as a strategical ally. We think that Russia is part of Europe. Russia should make a strategical effort to become part of a united Europe, and it must set an ambitious and difficult but achievable end which we can see fulfilled maybe within then years. That is, joining the EU. Europe is our main and basic trade partner.

Geographically, economically and politically there's nothing to divide us from Europe. Russian culture is part of European culture. 

That is to say you'll have the same relationships with all EU countries? There won't be any priorities regarding Germany and France, for example?

It's clear that some trade ties are more natural due to geographical factors. Of course, we have less to do with Portugal than Latvia. 

I don't think, however, that the beautiful Russia of tomorrow should come and say "Well, we'll be friends with these people but not with those." We're interested in the EU as a whole. 

What about the US?

Our relationships with the US will be more difficult.


Because anti-Americanism is deeply rooted into the psyche of Russian citizens and electors. And not only Russian ones. The US have also done a lot to achieve this. That is to say, the entire world is seeing a crisis as concerns their perspective against the US and American politics. This crisis is in many ways related to the fact that the US willingly assumed the function of a global policeman.

That is to say, there won't be any celebratory perspectives, like in 1990 when everyone thought, well, the Americans will help us, make a bonanza of Bush legs, and it'll be simply great.

And another objective fact is that the US is a faraway country. Our trade volume with Europe is significantly higher than that with the US. That is to say, it's not as important for us to shape special politics with the US. 

What would Navalny's administration think of possible expansion of NATO, in particular, in the direction Georgia and Ukraine?

Again, I will give you a quote from a Russian politician. "Becoming a member of the EU and NATO is a long-term strategic goal for us." That is taken from the 2004 election program of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. 

Would a Navalny administration return Crimea to Ukraine? Please answer in the form of "yes, because..." or "no, because...". If yes, how would the transfer mechanism work? If no, how do you propose to normalize relations with Ukraine?

 I always get asked this. And the answer to this cannot be summarized as "yes, because" or "no, because". The answer lies in that president Putin has created an enormous problem, which we'll be having for years and years. It will not go anywhere. There's no simple solution to this problem.

The next generation of Russian politicians and Ukrainian politicians will have to approach this problem very carefully, creating a new road-map and a new legal framework. 

Solving the Crimean issue is hopeless with appeals to Ukrainian legislature and Russian legislature...

Will the Navalny administration try to agree with Latvia on automatically granting citizenship to non-citizens? What are the arguments for that?

I think it's a domestic matter in Latvia. That is to say, I don't understand why any Russian administration should approach this question.

Do you admit that the Soviet Union occupied Latvia?

Yes, in 1940. That's a historical fact. 

Do you count on the support of Russian speakers living in Europe in your fight against the current Russian authorities?

Not really. There are quite many people, many Russian citizens living in Europe, and they continue following the political situation in Russia. They support us, follow us, post our information and donate to us. Of course, we see and know that the majority of people who leave Russia to settle down elsewhere lose their ties quite quickly. They stop following Russian politics and instead follow political events in their countries of residence. Of course, the Russian diaspora is big, and it's growing. And it's true that some part of them keep on helping and being active participants, but it's still several times smaller than the entirety of Russian citizens who have remained in Russia, and that's why their role cannot be substantial.

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