It might seem like Russians stand firmly behind their president. Not so, says ILYA YASHIN. But the opposition has trouble making itself heard, and the West isn’t doing much to help.
Mr. Yashin, President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party swept September’s parliamentary elections. From the outside, it looks like Russia is united behind Putin. Is that true? You know, I’ve lived in Russia all my life, and I notice that people are often seduced by the Putin they see on TV, including you. The reality is, people live very difficult lives in Russia. We have all sorts of economic and social problems. Many Russians do support Putin, but not because he’s a really good president. They support him because they see no alternative. All the propaganda, pressure on the media, pressure on the opposition – Putin spent the last 16 years making sure there was no alternative. That’s one of the most significant achievements of his time in office.
At the end of these 16 years you can really see that Putin is a dictator. Alexander Lukashenko said a very funny thing: he said, “You know, now I’m not the last dictator of Europe.” True enough! And if you look closely at the last presidential and parliamentary elections, you notice that people didn’t turn out. It was the first time in modern Russian history where less than 50 percent of voters cast their ballots. That’s the real outcome. People didn’t vote. They just don’t believe in politics, don’t believe they can change anything.
You’ve just published a report documenting the staggering extent of corruption within United Russia. What kind of impact does that have? The view that the Putin regime is immensely corrupt has now been widely accepted in the West, but do ordinary Russians get this information too, and do they act on it? It’s just like anywhere else – Russians don’t like corruption, they don’t agree with it, and they don’t want to accept it. But people in Russia don’t believe they can do anything about it. For a long time, people here were told you can never change the Russian system, you never can change the Russian mentality, that corruption was always part of Russia and it always will be. My colleagues and I don’t agree; we want to fight corruption, we want to inspire people to stand up to it. That’s why I publish my reports, and that’s why Alexei Navalny publishes his investigations into corruption. We’re trying to show our people what’s actually happening in our country.
The Russian prime minister tells pensioners, “We’re really sorry, we don’t have any money for you. Try to hang in there, good luck to you.” But at the same time, we see villas and yachts, castles and expensive watches. We know they have the money. We know they steal it from budgets, from oil and gas – they spend it on themselves, not their people. And that’s our message to Russians.
How much impact did the Panama Papers have? They uncovered astonishing amounts of money stashed in offshore accounts, around $2 billion linked to Putin … Yes, it’s very big. We have information, we have lots of documents and facts, we have lots of arguments – but the problem is, we have no way of communicating with people. We can’t go on TV, we can’t take part in debates, and we can’t go to big radio stations. What we do have is the internet, social media, and we have a number of small regional media outlets like Echo Moskwy and Meduza in Latvia. That’s it, though. It’s nothing compared to Putin’s propaganda machine. It’s like David vs. Goliath. All we can do try to tell people what’s actually happening. I publish my reports, make copies, and go out to talk to people. I hand them copies of my reports and say, “Please read this, you should know about this. It’s interesting information.” I go to Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and I talk to anyone who’s willing to listen. It’s very old school but that’s all we can do. And I believe that step by step, person by person, we will create a critical mass.
Before the last presidential election, we saw a protest movement emerge almost out of nowhere in Moscow and other cities. But after the vote it all seemed to fall apart. Why? There are various reasons. The first is, people lost hope. They’d go to rallies because they really did believe that if they went to this rally and the next and the next, something had to give. But Putin’s regime is very strong and very aggressive, and it targeted the protestors. Many of them went to jail – there are more than a hundred political prisoners in Russia today. Belarus only has two or three political prisoners, while we have more than a hundred behind bars, Russians and Ukrainians. So people got scared, a lot of people lost hope. Some left the country to go to the United States or Europe.
And Crimea was a turning point because part of the protest movement actually started to support Putin after Crimea. In 2011 and 2012, they saw Putin as a thief, just a corrupt dictator. But after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 they changed their tune. They said, “He may be corrupt, that’s true. But he’s bringing back Russian land. He’ll go down in history for restoring Russian territory. So if he steals some money, it doesn’t matter – we have Crimea back.”
That was always the suspicion, that Crimea was annexed to regain popularity at home. That’s right, and it’s a big problem for us, because Putin’s propaganda team made Crimea the central campaign issue in elections. For example, when I debate with people from United Russia and bring up corruption with facts, they almost appear a bit bored, and then ask, “Okay, but what about Crimea. Do you consider it part of Russia or not?” That’s typical of the political debate today.
Some of the propaganda targets you personally – accuses you of being a western agent of some sort. How do you respond to that? People who buy into that don’t want to listen to real arguments. Normal people don’t believe it because the reasoning behind it is just plain stupid. For example, there was a report on the Russian channel NTV that portrayed me as a Swedish intelligence agent. They showed a set of “documents” with an agreement between the Swedish government and myself – that I would send information and they would pay me something like €5000 for every document. The “journalist” doing the report even admits that there are no signatures that actually verify the documents “but experts are certain they’re real.” And then they bring on an “expert” who says he has no doubts about the validity of the documents. Then, the other piece of proof they used was video of me entering the Swedish embassy with a woman. “Here we see Yashin going to the ambassador to receive his instructions.” But the interesting fact is that this woman was my mom. We were going to the embassy to get her a visa. She was joking with me the whole time, she said: “Ilya, you are the dumbest spy in the world – you’re the only spy who goes to get instructions with his mother.”
You’ve taken a close look at what’s happening in eastern Ukraine and completed the report Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered within earshot of the Kremlin’s walls, was unable to finish. How do you see the situation today? Is the Minsk agreement dead? The Minsk agreement isn’t working, that’s clear. But this has become something of a frozen conflict – it’s not peace, but it’s also not war. It’s a frozen conflict, and that’s fine for Putin. Because he can use that as a tool to put pressure on the Ukrainian government. And Kiev understands very well that Putin can wield that pressure anytime if he takes the gas…
… and sets it on fire? He could torch it and we’d have the next war – that’s the pressure. He says, “Okay guys, you can do whatever you want. But if you cross a line, I can create big problems for you.” And Germany and France don’t really want to find a solution. They have other problems – Syria, immigration, the economy. They don’t want to solve this problem. They wanted to freeze this conflict and they’ve succeeded in doing that. Actually, it’s a compromise for them, even for Poroshenko and Putin. It’s cynical, but it’s a compromise for all of them.
Some Western countries are discussing fresh sanctions on Russia for its actions in Syria. This is a key part of what happened in eastern Ukraine: Putin realized he can play the geopolitical game, and Western leaders accepted it. That’s the biggest issue. They stood aside and let Putin instrumentalize geopolitics to put them under pressure, and he did. That’s why he decided to get involved in Syria – there was no Western response. None. Not for aggression in Ukraine, not for Crimea, not even for shooting down passenger flight MH17. Nothing.
What would have been the proper response? A political response! We want to bring everyone who was responsible for the war in Ukraine to account, including generals, the minister of defense, secret service officials. We’re talking about ten thousand people who have died. Ten thousand.
The EU has reacted by imposing economic sanctions, though many in Germany and Europe want to see them lifted again. Sanctions never work in the shortterm, never. They work in the long run, and we’ll see the result of these policies in a few years. But if the sanctions are lifted now, they’ll amount to nothing; they shouldn’t have been imposed in the first place.
In my opinion, good sanctions are sanctions against specific people – not against the Russian economy or the Russian people in general, but against Putin’s officials. We should impose sanctions against members of governments, against army officers, against secret services officials, against propaganda agents. That’s more effective than economic sanctions.
Take my friend, Boris Nemtsov. He was instrumental in changing the Jackson-Vanik [trade] amendment in the US – it’s an American sanctions law dating back to Soviet times and a thorn in Russian-US relations; Putin of course wanted to get rid of it but there was opposition in the US. Nemtsov had an idea: he went to Congress, to the Senate and convinced them it was better to target bad individuals than the Russian economy or the Russian people in general. It worked, and they changed the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Magnitsky Act. It was Nemtsov’s idea and it was a good strategy.
You think Europe should follow suit? Yes, sure. Because when you slap sanctions on the economy, Putin can use that for his propaganda against the West and against the opposition. He uses it to mobilize people, to show that the West is against us. But placing sanctions on individuals makes it hard to mobilize people because the measures only target one person – an official who stole money in Russia and spent it elsewhere. It’s targeting the villa in Miami, the yacht in France – and that’s smart, very smart.