Can you imagine a democratic Russia that respects the norms of international law, human rights and supports diversity of views? It is difficult, but quite possible, says Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr., a Russian opposition politician, until recently the chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation.
In 2015 and 2017, there were two attempts to poison Kara-Murza, as he believes, for his role in lobbying the so-called Magnitsky Act on personal sanctions against Vladimir Putin's officials. As the investigators of Bellingcat, Der Spiegel and The Insider have established, the perpetrators were employees of the same department of the FSB of Russia, which tried to poison another Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.
At the Riga Security Conference, we talked with Vladimir Kara-Murza about Russia with and without Putin, political prisoners, independent journalism as heroism, Crimea and more.
It is hard not to notice that here, at the conference, Russia is mentioned on almost every panel, and only in the context of threats to global security. How do you feel when you hear this?
First of all, I feel that people are inaccurate with the language. Nobody says that Belarus hijacked and landed the Ryanair plane, everyone says that [Alexander] Lukashenko did it. But for some reason, when they talk about Putin's regime, they always say “Russia, Russia”.
We do not have a democratically elected government in Russia. The last time Russian parliamentary and presidential elections were found to be in line with democratic standards was in 1999-2000. That’s it.
In reality, this is a debatable issue, to what extent, even in democratic countries, the government can represent the entire country. In authoritarian ones – definitely not.
But there is an old tradition of authoritarian regimes when they deliberately identify themselves with the state. It is clear why they do it. But it is not very clear why educated, all understanding people in the West also begin to fall into this trap. As once [Duma Speaker Vyaheslav] Volodin said: "Without Putin – there is no Russia." The most offensive phrase I've ever heard about my country.
Now, returning to Russia after two poisonings, are you not afraid for your life and health?
The concept of security has little to do with what we do. We know the price for being in opposition in Russia. Last weekend, Boris Nemtsov's birthday was celebrated – already the seventh without him. This is the price in Russia today to oppose the regime of Vladimir Putin: sometimes it’s bullets in the back, as in the case of Boris, sometimes it’s chemical weapons, as in the case of Alexei Navalny, me, and Dmitry Bykov.
But there are still hundreds of political prisoners: now, according to the latest estimate of the Human Rights Center Memorial, there are 412 of them - and this is an incomplete list. These are people whose cases Memorial has studied and who fall under the very strict criteria of the Council of Europe and the OSCE about who political prisoners are. But even this figure, if we compare it, for example, with the late Soviet period, has doubled.
For me personally, returning to Russia after both poisonings is a fundamental moment. The biggest gift to the Kremlin would be if everyone left, that's all they need. Because as soon as an opposition politician finds himself outside his country, he very quickly loses his sense of everyday reality and moral authority, the moral right to continue doing what you are doing. The only security measure in place for me is that my family and children are not in Russia.
How are things going with the investigation of your poisonings? After all, both times you applied to the Investigative Committee, but so far nothing has progressed.
In 2015, as soon as I was able to at least get on my feet, I immediately returned to Moscow, and my lawyer Vadim Prokhorov and I filed an application with the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation demanding that a criminal case be opened on the fact of attempted murder. At the time, we got no response at all.
In 2017, I was poisoned again. We submitted the same application again, and the reaction was the same.
In February of this year, the Bellingcat investigation was published. From it, we learned that there is a special "death squad" – a unit of the Russian Security Service, whose task is to physically eliminate the Kremlin's political opponents with the help of banned chemical weapons.
We are so accustomed to this reality that we are not surprised that in a European country in the XXI century, a group of murderers is operating in the service of the state, which is engaged in the physical elimination of political opponents. Thanks to Bellingcat, we now even know their names - this is the same department that poisoned Navalny.
When the investigation was published, I went again, for the third time, to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation with specific facts, dates, names and a demand to initiate a case. And this time I received two answers - mutually exclusive ones.
The Main Directorate of the Investigative Committee for Moscow replied that the information was transferred to the Investigative Department of the Khamovniki district, an inspection was carried out there, and a decision was made to refuse to initiate a criminal case due to the lack of corpus delicti. And then we received an answer from the very investigative department of the Khamovniki district, where they replied that it was the first time they heard of me.
In court, by an official decision of the Khamovniki Court of Moscow, it was confirmed that no one had really transferred anything to them. That is, we learned that the Main Investigation Department for Moscow was lying.
Now we are already preparing a new lawsuit against the Investigative Committee of Russia under the article "inaction of the investigating authorities."
Of course, I will go with this case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
This begs the question: for example, Navalny won the case at the ECHR and remains behind bars. What is the point then?
First, it is still very important that other member states of the Council of Europe raise the issue of the need to implement these decisions. Because these mechanisms work only when other countries are ready to put them into practice, to make sure that they are fulfilled.
Second, even when these decisions are not implemented, believe me, it is very important for us to know that the law and the right are on our side.
And with regard to the current political prisoners, is it also a hope that the regime will someday change and they will be released?
Yes, this is exactly the third point. Nothing lasts forever, and the regime of Vladimir Putin is no exception. When there is another government in Russia, democratically elected one, believe me, all these decisions will be implemented.
In February last year, the OSCE published a report on the murder of Boris Nemtsov. And there witness testimony was put in black and white - of course, ignored by the Investigative Committee of Russia. The entire chain of organizers of the murder is clearly indicated - from the perpetrators who are now in prison to Vladimir Putin personally. And it even indicates where, when, during which visit to Chechnya, he gave the command for this murder.
It also contains a clear conclusion that the lack of justice in this case, the continuing impunity for the organizers and contractors of the murder is not the result of a lack of professionalism among Russian law enforcement officers, but a lack of political will on the part of the Russian authorities.
It is clear that no one will investigate himself, and as long as Putin is in power in Russia, we understand that there will be no real trial over the organizers and contractors. But it is very important that this is spoken about publicly, that people see this information, understand what has happened - including at the level of the world community.
As for the Navalny case: how do you see his future fate?
The most banal answer is "Navalny will be in jail while Putin is in the Kremlin." But we know that this is not necessarily the case. Because the same phrase was said about Mikhail Khodorkovsky and about Oleg Sentsov. Nevertheless, they are both now free.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is free thanks to the personal efforts of Angela Merkel. And Oleg Sentsov - Emmanuel Macron. This shows how effective international safeguards can be, especially when politicians at the highest level are involved.
And so I will say this: we must do everything, and we are doing everything, in particular within the framework of the international organizations of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, firstly, to draw international attention to the problem of political prisoners in Russia. And secondly, to seek the release of specific people, including, of course, Alexei Navalny.
Therefore, even if we take into account the phrase said at the beginning, no one knows how long Putin will stay in power, including Putin himself. As a historian, I will tell you: all large-scale political changes in Russia occur very suddenly. The three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty collapsed in three days. And so did the Soviet regime in August 1991.
READ MORE: Misreading the Navalny Phenomenon
In Russia, independent journalism is practically on a par with civic and political activism. When the crisis is over, will everything be back in its place?
In our country, independent journalism has already become not only a civil act, but an act of heroism. People who, in spite of the jailings, the stigma that are put on the media, continue to do this work, are simply heroes.
It is clear that in normal democratic systems these are completely different spheres - politics and journalism, and they should not be in contact. But in countries with authoritarian regimes, when any independent act, any independent word is already perceived by the regime as almost a subversive act, independent journalism inevitably becomes a challenge per se.
It is very important that the Nobel Peace Prize has now been received by Dmitry Muratov - an unyielding, unbroken, uncensored journalist. We now have one truly independent media in each of the three types of media. There is one TV channel, TV Rain (Dozhd), even though it broadcasts on the Internet, and it has a stigma everywhere that it is a “foreign agent” and so on.
There is also the Echo of Moscow radio station, and in print it is only Novaya Gazeta. By the way, Muratov is asked periodically: when will you go online, because in the modern world few people read paper. And he always answers the same thing: "As long as there is at least one political prisoner in Russia, we will never go online." Because the Internet and gadgets are prohibited in prisons, but you can subscribe to a physical newspaper.
Protest sentiments are growing in Russia, and this was really very noticeable in the winter during the story with Navalny. But you get the impression that these protests do not last long and subside without reaching the goal. Why does this happen?
It's just that the moment has not yet come when the level of protest moods in society reaches a critical point. This also happens suddenly - it's not for me to tell you, Ukrainians. We had it in 1991, almost in 2011. Many of us, not only me, when the protests began on Bolotnaya Square in the winter of 2011-2012, thought: well, that's it, we are winning. The euphoria was so strong, it’s even uneasy to recall.
And Boris Nemtsov, with his experience, many years spent in politics, then said: there is still no critical mass in society. The real changes in Russia, he said, will take place around the mid-2020s. Now I often remember these words of his and understand that, apparently, he was right.
I would say that people are just tired. It is unbearable to watch the same person on TV for 20 straight years. We have many people in Russia who were born, went to kindergarten, graduated from university, started work, became adults, and all this time the same person is in power. This is just not normal.
But until last summer, many people had this feeling: well, 2024 is soon, the last term - and Putin will leave. And when they made amendments to the Constitution, absolutely illegitimately, and Putin allowed himself to remain in power further, people gradually began to understand that it would not work out on its own, he would not leave of his own volition.
You often mention Boris Nemtsov. How has Russia changed in these almost seven years after his death? What would you have liked him to see?
This was a man who combined so many things at the same time. First, he had a successful track record of statecraft: almost none of us have one simply because Putin has been in power for a long time. And Nemtsov was deputy prime minister, governor, deputy in four convocations of parliament, he knew how to manage the state - this in itself made him dangerous for this regime. Because here he is - a ready-made president.
He was amazing at connecting with people, and with a wide variety of audiences. He knew how to seat people with different points of view at the same table - this is what we really lack now. He knew how to take people to the streets.
I will never forget the last march in his life, September 21, 2014 - Peace March against the war with Ukraine. We walked along the Boulevard Ring, I walked next to him, and around us was just a sea of humanity, tens of thousands of people, the entire Boulevard Ring was filled. And this despite the fact that every day on TV we were told how great Putin is, how everyone supports him, "Crimea is ours" and all that. Plus his role, which, apparently, was decisive in the emergence of the Magnitsky Act in America - on personal sanctions against Putin's kleptocrats and officials. I took over this case, and for this they poisoned me.
It is amazing: now the Kremlin is fighting even with the dead - with the memory of Boris Nemtsov. We are not allowed to put even a small plaque on the bridge where he was killed, and again and again they steal the flowers that people leave there.
And when they made it very clear to us that under the current government they would not allow us in Russia to honor the memory of a Russian statesman, we turned to politicians, parliamentarians, civic organizations, municipalities of democratic countries with a request to do what we cannot yet do at home. And I am proud that in the four world capitals - Washington, Kyiv, Vilnius and Prague - Russian embassies stand next to squares named after Boris Nemtsov. For me, as a Russian politician and simply as a Russian citizen, it is difficult to come up with a more pro-Russian (not pro-Kremlin!) gesture.
His best memory will be the kind of Russia he wanted to see, the Russia for which he lived and for which he died. An open, free, democratic country. When such a day comes, it will be his best memory - and that it will come, I have no doubt.
Do you feel the unity of the opposition in Russia, or are there any differences on key issues?
It depends on what we consider the opposition. There are fake parties that sit in the Duma, they can be ignored altogether. If we take the real opposition, this is a question of terms. Opposition is a concept from democratic systems. The opposition sits in parliaments, in television studios, while our opposition is being killed, imprisoned, squeezed out of the country, poisoned with chemical weapons. Perhaps "dissidents" is a more correct term for what we do.
It is difficult to talk about any kind of unity, when in fact our entire structure has been destroyed. All organizations associated with Navalny have been declared extremist, people are imprisoned, many have left the country. Our opposition is now at the level of society, and not some structures. Returning to the people who came out to protests in the winter: these are mostly young people. And this is amazing and very important, because these people are the future of Russia, and Vladimir Vladimirovich is its past.
In general, Ukraine is very cautious about the Russian opposition: often everything is determined by the question "Whose is Crimea?"
I can express my position. I believe that what Vladimir Putin did in the spring of 2014 with regard to Crimea was illegal annexation. You know, it is easy and pleasant to tell the truth: there is a corresponding decision of the UN General Assembly. This was a violation of international law, and Russian laws, by the way, too. First territorial annexation in Europe after World War II.
Here, in my opinion, there can be no other opinions. But another question: how to solve this? Being realistic, we must understand that it is impossible to rewind it all at the drop of the hat. This is a huge headache that Putin's regime has created for Russia – a future, democratic one, and for Ukraine. This problem will have to be solved, it is impossible to pretend that it does not exist. We are now a country with internationally unrecognized borders because of Putin.
The most correct thing that I have heard on this topic: the problem of Crimea will be solved when both Russia and Ukraine are together in a united Europe. Now no one will remember that Germany and France fought for Strasbourg. Now, when I fly from Moscow to the PACE session, I usually fly to Frankfurt, because it is easier to get there from Moscow, I rent a car there and drive to Strasbourg for 2.5 hours. I don't even always understand where France is, where Germany is - there is practically no border there. And for centuries people shed blood for this land.
The eternal discussion that the change of persons in power does not exactly mean that the entire regime will change - they say, the entire system needs to be changed. But what about Russia or Belarus, when the regime is mostly identified with one person at the helm of the state?
The point is not to exchange Putin for Navalny or Lukashenko for Tsikhanouskaya or anyone else. Even if without surnames – to exchange a bad king for a good one: there are no good kings. The goal is to make sure that there are no more kings. To change this vicious system, when all power is concentrated in the hands of one person, for a normal parliamentary model with counterbalances, civil control, with an independent judiciary, as it is throughout Europe.
There is a fairly broad consensus on this topic in the ranks of Putin's opponents: a parliamentary system, not a super-presidential one, should supersede it. It does not work in Russia when all power is in the hands of one person, even if he is a good person – Yeltsin’s power did not end well either. The key principle is parliamentary control over the government, where the government is formed by a parliamentary majority. If you look at the map of Europe now, you will see that in all European countries this principle applies, except for two. You can easily guess them: Russia and Belarus.