30 January 2020

What’s it really like standing up to Vladimir Putin?

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With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a new series of essays and interviews on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.

What does it take to be an opposition activist in one of Europe’s most illiberal states? Vera Kichanova knows first-hand. She was the first ever politician elected for the Libertarian Party – a genuine opposition party, rather than one of the fake ones sponsored by Vladimir Putin’s government.

Late last year we were delighted to welcome Vera to CapX Towers to talk us through the travails of pushing for liberal reform in the face of a ruthless, authoritarian system. You can listen to the full interview here.

JA: Let’s start from the beginning, tell us about how you came to join the opposition movement.

VK: “That certainly comes from my parents who were always liberal democrats. They were rallying against the communist regime during perestroika and when Putin came to power they were quite suspicious of him – especially my father because my mother didn’t want me to be politically active.

“I started going to the rallies, going to some student meetups dedicated to political situation. So I became part of this broader umbrella. opposition movement because it’s sometimes hard to explain to the outsiders but in authoritarian organisations the ideological differences they do not matter that much so you can see the rock if you see this big rallies in Moscow you can see the libertarian flags next to the red flags next to the nationalists.

“We are fighting for for institutional change, do we will all benefit if we have a democratic society will have a independent election free elections and the real parliament is a place for proper discussion. So we would rather fight each other in the parliament than on Facebook because if we fight each other on Facebook that can last forever until they shut down Facebook, which they certainly can do.”

What’s your impression of the way Western media cover Russian politics?

It’s been such an overheated topic, everything that’s going on in Russia. There’s a lot of both good reporting and a lot of nonsense. I remember when I first moved to London, and I went to Waterstones, and I saw this on the shelf with the most best-selling books, and half of them were about Russia, Russian corruption, the Russian oligarchs, the Kremlin, the Russian Revolution.

I have very mixed feelings about it. Because on the one hand, I think it’s very important what’s going on in Russia, not just because I come from Russia, but because it influences not only Europe [and] you can see what’s going on in Venezuela – without Putin’s support the situation could have been different.

It’s good that everyone’s talking about Russia and acknowledging the problem. But on the other hand, that’s exactly what Putin wants, when he’s doing it, because he loves when the world is seeing him his biggest threat as they kind of the general of this army against what they would call the liberal order, the protector of traditional values.

How do yo think Putin sees himself on the world stage?

He sees the world as a zero sum game and he cannot impress everyone with the economic prosperity of his country, but he can play the role of moral leader. I think that is a very important thing to understand about Putin, that he is, unfortunately, quite a clever man. He knows how to address, how to target every every audience, every piece of how to target different groups.

So if you can see he is supporting both the radical left wing and the radical right, between parties and movements in Europe and elsewhere and sometimes in the same country. Like in Germany. The Kremlin has ties both with Die Linke, the radical left and the radical right. Or in Spain during the Catalonia referendum, the Kremlin backed both sides.

So, it’s about destabilising the situation, but the thing is that many of these groups think that he genuinely shares their values. Right wing people think that he’s a champion of traditional values of Christianity fighter against Islam, Islam, whatever the left wing people think that he is the he’s the one who like carries on the communist flag and wants to restore the Soviet Union.

How genuinely popular is he among ordinary Russians?

A lot of people in the West don’t don’t really get that nobody actually knows how high his rate of support is including putting himself because in an authoritarian country, when you destroy all the means of feedback, you kind of create a trap that you fall into yourself, because there’s no independent elections, there’s no independent media and there’s no independent polling. And everyone’s too afraid to say what they think. Well, not everyone, but most people.

I think most people treat politics like the weather, it just happens and we have to we have to adapt to it. And It’s not nice to us, but that’s the country we live in, a country where we have cold winters and an authoritarian leader.

How do you assess the likelihood of real progress in replacing Putin?

It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. So this we we didn’t realise it back in 2012. But we realise it now. There were very big protests in Moscow, which was sparked out of all things by municipal elections, which no nobody had ever care about in the previous years. So it was a sign that only a spark is needed, that people – at least in Moscow and big cities – are so angry. So it wasn’t really about municipal elections.

The people who are running and who are banned from the opposition candidates, they’re very decent people and they have their support, but they are not like stars. Some so it’s it wasn’t about their personalities. It wasn’t about the elections. It was about the everything that’s been happening in the last few years, all the government failures from from environmental disasters to forest fires, to the sanctions. A lot of things were just happening and happening and there was no reaction.

Now I see it that, partially because of the Crimea issue – the opposition movement was an Umbrella Movement when I joined it 10 years ago, it’s not as much any more because a large chunk of the opposition movement were happy about the annexation of Crimea.

For the communists, it was the first step to restore the Soviet Union, for the nationalists it was like ‘we are the big superpower’. So most of the opposition is now on the liberal wing. So all sort of liberal parties, so from Social Democrats to us libertarians, and they are much more united, they’re much better in working together.

So a lot of efforts are put into preparing a programme that would be put put on the table until some something changes. This is one of the things that we’re doing and yeah, we realise that we cannot register our party, for example, but we still consider it a legitimate party. I just went to Moscow for the Libertarian Party convention. We had 48 regions represented, 150 people from almost 50 regions all over Russia. It’s it’s now one of the two biggest opposition forces in Russia together with Alexei Navalny. We cannot participate in elections as a party, but we can build grassroots networks.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX