Four years ago, Ilya Ponomarev was the only member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation to vote against the annexation of Crimea. We emphasize: he was the only one out of almost 450 members. After such a step, he had no place in Russia anymore. On April 30, 2014 leader of the A Just Russia party Sergey Mironov demanded that Ponomarev resign his seat. In the summer of 2014, he left for the US, and shortly after that, a Russian court issued an order for his arrest. Ponomarev lives in Ukraine now. A few days ago, he visited the editorial office of The Day.
“THE FATE OF EUROPE IS NOW BEING DECIDED IN UKRAINE, AMONG OTHER PLACES”
You lived in the US for two years, and have been living in Ukraine for two years already. Did you have any connection to Ukraine before?
But we are now talking in Ukrainian. During these two years, you could observe both the Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian political class in particular. Have you ever felt any discomfort here as a Russian?
“It has been absolutely the opposite. I am not saying this for the sake of cheap dramatics. I really am very comfortable in Ukraine. Perhaps these two years were the happiest in my life, because I get a lot of emotional pleasure from my life here. Of course, I am indignant at the sub-optimal pace of reforms, the obvious mistakes that are made at the top, but at the same time, I feel a very powerful emotional upsurge.”
Where does it come from? From a sense of freedom, security?
“No, I do not feel secure in Ukraine for objective reasons. It was clear that I was going to live in a country at war. But people often feel happy precisely at war because they are involved in historical events. Without any doubt, the fate of Europe is now being decided in Ukraine, among other places. Ukraine faces major issues in its state-building process, but people are wonderful here. And the fact that Ukraine has survived in spite of everything, and the Ukrainians feel themselves to be a nation – that fact proves that these entities have deep roots.”
You were the only member of the State Duma of the Russian Federation to vote against the annexation of Crimea. Alone against the whole Duma, against Putin, against the government, effectively against everyone else. What motivated you?
“An MP’s job is to vote and argue for a specific position that they consider to be correct. That position should get voters’ approval as well. I made my first principled decision in 2002 when I decided to leave business and go into politics. Sometimes it seems to me that I should not have spent these 15 years of life doing politics. But speaking of politics, the Crimea vote was not the only one where I was alone against everyone. The Crimea vote was a principled decision because it could not end without consequences for me. At the same time, as I have already said, I did not ignore the opinion of my voters. I held special meetings with the public in Novosibirsk, asked questions and conducted my own Crimea polls among them.”
What were the results?
“The vote split in half.”
That is, it was not 90 to 10, as we are used to thinking due to the Russian media.
“Exactly so. Of course, a majority of Russians believes that Crimea is Russian. But when you come up with arguments about the implications of its annexation for us, then people’s thoughts begin to diverge.”
Prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov declared precisely that, saying that Russia did not need Crimea, because getting it would mean war with Ukraine. He could not speak this way without getting his position pre-approved by his employers. So, why did the rhetoric change dramatically later?
“Believe me, only Putin is to blame for this. It was his personal decision, and all others were already automatically on his side. Of course, many wanted to take Crimea, but, I repeat, there was always a question of the price that we might have to pay for it. There were many possible scenarios to minimize these risks. It was possible, for example, to hold a referendum there, to recognize Crimea’s independence, and then, after a certain time, when it would be recognized by others, accept it as an ally. It was possible to maintain influence there with the help of capital flows and thus avoid getting hit by any sanctions. But Putin decided to intensify the process. His motivation was the desire to stop the Maidan movement from spreading. When Viktor Yanukovych fled, the Kremlin had to create some very powerful story to prevent such processes from developing in Russia. Thus, Putin got his approval rating on the rise, and propaganda did everything to make the Russians to perceive the Maidan as a threat.”
“THE KREMLIN TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THE MAIDAN”
You said on a previous occasion that Putin attacked Ukraine as a result of the Maidan and that his decision was spontaneous. In turn, I would like to remind you the notable tweet posted by Dmitry Rogozin on December 3, 2013, when he returned from Ukraine to Moscow. He wrote that “Skies are cloudless above Kyiv,” echoing a phrase known since the reign of Francisco Franco in Spain. So, did the Kremlin take part in the processes and bloodshed that occurred during the Maidan?
“It is clear that Russia participated in the Maidan. The only question is, in what way. Of course, there was a group of advisers who used the Russian experience of combating protest gatherings. But they were advisers, not decision-makers. I have no doubt that if Putin was in Yanukovych’s position, he would have coped with the Maidan. More so given that the Maidan repeatedly lost steam, and if not for certain individuals from the Presidential Administration fomenting it again, everything could have turned out completely differently. Therefore, I believe that the violent dispersal of students on November 30, 2013 was not done on the suggestion of the Kremlin. It was the same with the approval of the draconian January laws. It was ‘local’ leaders wanting to show their strength and authoritarianism. And the Kremlin took advantage of it.”
On the other hand, who were these “locals”? I would like to remind you that people holding Russian passports and Russian state awards were at the helm of the Security Service of Ukraine and the Ministry of Defense at the time.
“I am convinced that for them, these passports were just guarantees of escape routes being open just in case. Yes, of course, a whole network of Russian agents worked in Ukraine for a long time. But believe me, as far as I know the Russian political class with all its complexities, nobody there had a serious long-term plan to seize foreign territory. I cannot believe it now and I will never be able to believe it.”
Perhaps the real issue is not about territories, but rather about other forms of expansion, then? The Donbas, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transnistria are all local conflict spots, which the Russian Federation has entered, enabling it to keep the situation there in a state of constant tension and, consequently, dependency.
“I can say that Putin does not need to control the Donbas as such. He needs Ukraine as a whole, in any form. Certainly, he simply does not consider Ukraine as a separate entity. This is a fact. Ukraine has been a priority since the day he came to power. This is his mentality, his psychology, his personal perceptions. As for the rest of the Russian elite, they think in a quite mercantile way. Of course, they benefit from hryvnia devaluating due to the fact that there are troubles in Ukraine, because it enables them to buy the assets on the cheap here. For them, Ukraine is a semi-colony. But at the same time, the war has created many problems for them, and therefore it contradicts their previous strategy. This elite group was content with undermining Ukraine and at the same time taking no responsibility for it.”
But Russia did reach for Crimea before. There was the Meshkov story in 1994 and the Tuzla Island story in 2003. An aggressive strategy can be traced from these facts, after all.
“All this is true. But one must understand that the Russian elite group is not homogeneous. If not for Putin, nobody would attack Ukraine and take its territory. Historically, Yuri Luzhkov was involved in the Crimean problem. This was his domain. Yes, he found his segment of the electorate with it. At the same time, Putin tried to destroy the Luzhkov-Primakov group in every way, since they were a serious threat for him. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), in turn, long filled the slot of the opposition to the regime. But at the same time, the CPRF included a certain group of mad White Guard imperialists, such as Alexander Prokhanov, Igor Strelkov, Eduard Limonov, Alexander Dugin, Sergey Glazyev, Konstantin Zatulin, Sergey Baburin, Alexander Borodai, or Dmitry Rogozin whom you have mentioned, and these people positioned themselves as an opposition as well. But what all of them have in common, above all, is the fact that they actively speculated on the Crimea theme. At the same time, they could do nothing in real life. Putin, therefore, simply took advantage of this electoral configuration. But, I repeat, the seizure of Crimea was contrary to the main line of the Kremlin.”
And this line has changed...
“Yes, when it became advantageous for Putin. And I associate this with the fact that he started sensing a ghost of revolution. Today you are the president, and tomorrow a young, strong opposition leader may come, and the people will recall things they were not happy with under Putin. The Crimea story showed Putin’s personal paranoia about the Maidan. Plus, he was influenced by the fact that world leaders who were mediators in the talks with Yanukovych did not come to the Olympics. All this created the general emotional picture that Putin saw in that situation. Thus, instead of playing chess, he decided to start throwing pieces around.”
“A BONAPARTIST REGIME HAS BEEN BUILT IN RUSSIA”
Previously, many said that Putin was not an independent figure, that he was only the facade of the regime, and that decisions were made collectively behind this cover. Was that really so?
“This picture is both right and wrong. A Bonapartist regime has been built in Russia where a particular politician stands in the center and the functioning of the whole system depends on them. Institutionally, this system is in ruins. Boris Yeltsin, for all the peculiarities of his rule, tried to ensure that some institutions of power in Russia functioned, at least in defective form. Under Putin, these institutions and rules of subordination and division of responsibility were being destroyed from the very beginning. But Putin has not become an autocrat. Rather, he has turned into a spider who sits in the center of a web of sorts. At the same time, he balances universally. There are really groups of influence around him, and he does everything to prevent any of these groups from starting to dominate. And this system of balance is in fact the biggest threat to the statehood of the Russian Federation. As soon as the central element disappears (and it will disappear in any case, sooner or later), then this entire system will begin to split up. Meanwhile, institutions, as I have already said, have not been built, they are not independent.”
Joseph Stalin had great troubles finding a successor. It was even psychologically difficult for him to do, because he saw a threat in every worthy leader. Is Putin able to find a replacement?
“I think he is not. But Putin himself, I believe, thinks he is. I am convinced that the next presidential term will be his last, and therefore the question of succession will come into sharp relief. The bureaucracy needs a specific ‘big boss’ who they can bow down to and thus solve issues. As soon as this ‘big boss’ disappears, chaos will come. Putin will be unable to explain that this leader is for real.”
You were a member of the CPRF. Why did you leave it?
“I left the CPRF when A Just Russia was created. Then I thought that the latter party would unite all the left-wing forces. The CPRF had a very pronounced penchant for statist-nationalist policies, which A Just Russia never had. It is very important for me, because I am a very consistent internationalist. Therefore, I suffered greatly while in the CPRF from the fact that they were left-wing, but at the same time imperial nationalists. Truth to be said, there were not only people like Prokhanov there. That is, there were two wings, and Gennady Zyuganov balanced between them.”
Did Yeltsin use Zyuganov for his political objectives? I mean the 1996 election, when Yeltsin’s tiny support was markedly increased against the background of the “red threat.”
“Yes, this is a rather well-known technique, which was used in your country as well later, during the 1999 presidential election. And the Communists were content to go with it. This was a very big problem. I can recall the CPRF having several chances to come to power almost unopposed. But they did not do it, because they did not want to get set up, did not want to take responsibility. And I agree that some Communists used the said techniques as an income source. Of course, not everyone did it.”
Did Zyuganov make money out of this?
“Zyuganov does not know how to make money. He is such a man. He does not make money. He just had a nice living standard. Zyuganov is very similar to a typical Soviet-era party functionary who was well-to-do, had a state dacha, a car, an office, and so on. He could shout ‘Down with the anti-popular regime!’ and nobody did anything to him. Putin likes to use the following phrase: ‘He is not a Robespierre.’ See, Zyuganov is not a Robespierre at all. If the presidency could have been obtained by meritorious service, then he might have obtained it. But he never wanted to really fight for this position.”
“AN ALTERNATIVE TO PUTIN IS THERE, BUT THIS ALTERNATIVE IS NOT POLITICALLY ACTUALIZED”
Is there really a worthy alternative to Putin now?
“Russia is a large country, and there is a lot of money in it, though the people are generally poor. Therefore, there is always an alternative to Putin, and I know at least 10 such people. But this alternative is not actualized because our political system does not provide for political competition. Putin never said that he was the best, because he knew that he was not. But he did say that all the others were even worse.”
It is a typical technique: “Petro is a good person, but Vasyl is just as good, and not a thief to boot.”
“Yes. ‘My underlings are robbing you, but others will be even worse robbers... Yes, there is corruption on my watch, but others will extort you even more.’ In our political system, these techniques simply weed out others who are not necessarily worse and may be even better. It is difficult to fight this when there are no free quality media in the country. As soon as a worthy figure appears and begins to gain political weight, the pro-government media start slinging mud at them. In this situation, people no longer understand who is in the right and who is in the wrong. People think that all politicians are shit, and any change will bring no real improvement.”
Is Ksenia Sobchak is a real opposition figure or a technical, formal candidate?
“She is not a technical candidate. Sobchak is an absolutely independent figure. Of course, she is not a revolutionary and has no desire to change the system as a whole. An opposition politician needs not to be a revolutionary. There are no revolutionaries in the group that is currently running in the presidential election. But this does not mean that they are all technical candidates. They just have no chances in this race.”
Putin and Sobchak have one link in common, I mean her father.
Does this indicate some sort of Putin’s obligations to the daughter of his former patron, whom he owes so much?
“The fact that Sobchak is allowed to take part in the election confirms this. Otherwise she could have been imprisoned. And as regards Putin’s obligations to Sobchak, then there is a moral aspect. And I have to say that Putin has many flaws, but still exhibits a great deal of loyalty to those people who have helped him. He adheres to some kind of a criminal code of honor.”
But what about his treatment of Boris Berezovsky?
“Putin was very loyal to Berezovsky. Even when Berezovsky began to harshly attack him and use his media to hit the president, Putin allowed Berezovsky to leave the country with his money intact, even though he could have grabbed everything right away.”
What do you think, did Berezovsky commit suicide or was he “helped”?
“I do not know. Maybe he is still alive. This story is mysterious.”
You lived in the US for two years, which is a genuine federation. How do you see the future of Russia? Does not it seem to you that Russia is not a genuine federation and the only path to survival is for it to turn into a genuine federation?
“Personally, I think that Russia has a lot in common with the US. If we start applying a lot of US principles, this will only benefit us. All those laws that we have borrowed from American experience work well in the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, those we have borrowed from European experience work much worse. Precisely in terms of the territorial structure, the Russian Federation should borrow it from the US. Each state enjoys a high level of autonomy there, but at the same time no one encroaches on the integrity of the entire federation. However, the longer Putin will be in power, the more likely it is that Russia will collapse, but it will bring nothing good to Ukraine. You will have to live with a dozen nations around you, who will think quite badly of you and want to fight you. Moreover, they will also fight among themselves, and you will receive a flow of refugees from a nation that has already committed an act of aggression against you.”