• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Russian liberal’s standpoint

Lilia SHEVTSOVA: “We hope that aspiration for Euro-integration will overpower aspiration for a presidential line of command in Ukraine”
2 August, 2011 - 00:00
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Lilia Shevtsova, a well-known political scientist, felt quite at ease as she began to grant an interview at Den/The Day’s editorial office. Without waiting for an introductory word and first questions, Shevtsova started speaking out and, so to say, putting us into the picture. Those present – journalists and students of Den Summer School of Journalism – learned a lot of things even though they know Shevtsova very well not only as a regular expert for our publication but also as one of those Russian academicians who share Den/ The Day’s values and philosophy. This atmosphere immediately made the participants feel free to discuss.

“I work for a now international organization (we have offices in Moscow, Brussels, Beijing, Beirut, and Washington), and we are expanding towards Africa and Latin America,” Lilia Shevtsova, a leading research associate at the Moscow Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, began to say. “The center is the only research institute that nurtures global-scale ambitions. It is not a foundation; we do not dish out money. On the contrary, we are raising funds all over the world to be able to do research and thus find some ways to exert influence on politics in various countries. At this institute, I manage the program of domestic policies and processes in the former Soviet space.”

The interview with Shevtsova lasted for about two hours. Naturally, we lacked time to discuss each and every sphere in which the visitor wields authority, but still…


“For us, Ukraine is a very important factor by force of two circumstances.

“Firstly, Russian attitude to Ukraine can mirror quite a lot of things about Russia itself, its political elite and the latter’s maturity, and about the extent to which we have pulled out from the past, from our ill-fated great-power complex, and the extent to which we have remained behind in the past. Ukraine is the most important test for Russia, far more important than Moldova, Central Asia, or Belarus – an acid test of sorts. What caused both the elite and the populace the most acute pain was the loss of Ukraine – perhaps by force of Russia’s special great-power complex. The elite think that Russia cannot be Russia without Ukraine, without Little Russia. Therefore, our attitude to Ukraine exposes our own selves.

“Secondly, it is the attitude of Russian liberals. I represent what may be called a very small minority. Only about 15-17 percent of Russia’s population shares our ideas. Is it much or little? Of course, very little, but, at the same time, it is 15 million people, which is not exactly a ghetto. We used to think that Russia was the linchpin of all this process, and if we managed to carry our reforms and build a civilized country, we would serve as a role model for other countries. But then we saw the Baltic countries become normal states and the living standards in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania exceed those of Russia. So we arrived at a totally different conclusion: by all accounts, Russia is going to be what may be called a historical failure in the nearest future. Russia is not supposed to succeed in the short term. Watching the Baltics, we pinned still greater hopes on Ukraine: we thought you would manage to make a breakthrough after 2004. And Russian liberals still have a hope (I will not say ‘myth’ because I believe you still have chances) and are convinced that Ukraine should break free from our shadow, our pocket, and our gravitation field. Ukraine’s future is, naturally, European membership. Ukraine is a European state.

“When you began to show things that were raising questions and doubts among us, we, naturally, began to worry. We have too little information about Ukraine. The Russian press totally misinforms us. Russian television is complete falsification, especially when it is about Ukraine and Belarus. For this reason, a lot depends on who we communicate with. Meanwhile, those who come to us are people like Mykhailo Pohrebynsky, a Kremlin friend. Yet one of the visitors was Oleksii Haran who helped me personally very much in my queries about Ukraine. What also helps is that some of us read the Ukrainian press. It is good that Den is also published in Russian, for there are very few Ukrainian publications that can, if I may say so, demonstrate something. So thank God that you exist! Very few people surf, as I do, through the Ukrainska Pravda forum and read all kinds of things about themselves.

“We fear very much that Yanukovych will borrow Russia’s pattern of presidential line of command. We are very glad that he proclaims Euro-integration as Ukraine’s ultimate goal, and we hope that aspiration for Euro-integration will overpower the aspiration for a presidential line of command. So I can say we are very much worried at the moment over the path Ukraine is going to choose and whether you will manage to reach a national consensus about how to move on. But you still remain our great hope.”

Please tell us about your student years in Lviv. What benefit did you derive from studying at Ivan Franko University’s Faculty of Law? What made you leave Lviv for Moscow after all?

“I first entered the Franko University’s Faculty of Philology and then decided to be a lawyer and transferred to the Faculty of Law. I was perhaps too ambitious at this crazy age, but I knew only too well: if you want to see the world, you should break loose from a provincial city. I felt that Lviv was a very provincial city at the time, in the late 1960s. It was a very good and pleasing city to live in. I think the world’s best chestnut trees are still blossoming in Lviv. Incidentally, I lived on Hipsova Street. It seems to me it was and still is the best and the most beautiful place to live in. But, like Minsk and Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), Lviv provided too few opportunities to make an informational breakthrough into the world. To get a visa to Poland in Lviv, you had to stand in an outrageously long line. When I wanted to read the Paris-based journal Kontinent and the Polish Kultura, I had to apply for endless security clearances. Then it turned out that there were only two issues of Kultura at Lviv University’s library. So I thought: why not try [to enter Moscow State University]? Many were trying to do so, including Grigory Yavlinsky. But not all of them succeeded. I managed to go through for one simple reason: obviously, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations [MGIMO-University. — Ed.] was in need of non-Russian students and staff. I was admitted on the Ukraine list and, besides, they needed a woman. But I saw later a lot of female students who were children of Party functionaries. So there was no place for me. I remember sitting near the dean’s office and thinking: I have already told Lviv University that I was applying. How can I get back in shame? Eventually, I came to the MGIMO-University dean’s office and asked them to take me on probation. I promised to pass all exams for the previous two years if they took me for a three-month probation term. They thought I was crazy and, not to have me hanging around by the door, took me on probation. Therefore, I proved how persistent our Lviv students might be. I passed exams for the two previous years within one semester. And my Lviv University English language background proved so good that I kept receiving straight A’s in English until my fifth year at MGIMO – the point is we were taught at Lviv University by Ukrainian diaspora repatriates who had excellent command of English. Incidentally, Yavlinsky had gone to such a good Lviv school that he was the best at the Faculty of Economics. In other words, the then ‘provincial’ Ukrainian education offered us a chance to go up to Moscow. But we had to be very tough and persistent not to get lost in this cosmopolitan and brazen Soviet-era Moscow hangout. It was cheeky even at that time.

“So please dare! If Yavlinsky and I managed to capture Moscow (which was a hard thing to do, for we rivaled with Armenians and Georgians; incidentally, the fiercest battle for survival was against the Armenians, but later we, the two oppressed republics, made friends), you will capture Kyiv all the more so. All you have to do is to show persistence and willpower.”


You spoke about Russian liberals. We recently had a heated debate with Moscow Echo Radio over the conversation between Mr. Venediktov and Ukraine’s foreign minister, which showed that Russian liberals lack information about Ukraine and, what is more, they are not making sufficient efforts to broaden their knowledge and change their attitude to Ukraine.

“Firstly, I must reread Hryshchenko’s interview with Venediktov, or even better to listen to it because sometimes the voice and accents mean much more than words. I haven’t heard this interview – I watched it, as usual, without focusing on Venediktov’s questions. I was trying to see something specific in Hryshchenko’s position. But I must say that there are very many ‘liberal imperialists’ even among liberals (which is a very ill-assorted bunch). These people are quite liberal about Russian problems: they advocate the market, democracy, the right to own property, and human dignity, but they think they are allowed to tell the Ukrainians about their mistakes and the path they should take, pronounce judgments, and advise Yanukovych, Tymoshenko or somebody else. And they still consider that Ukraine’s salvation is exclusively in partnership with Russia. As I can conclude from what I see in my hangout (I’ve conducted no polls), a half or even the vast majority of my liberal colleagues are intentional, unintentional or hidden ‘liberal imperialists’ with respect to Ukraine. They are ready to give a carte blanche to and recognize the sovereignty of Georgia, Central Asia, the Baltic states, and Moldova, but Ukraine and Belarus is a sore point for them – Ukraine even to a greater extent. I have been pondering over this point: why is the separation of Ukraine causing Russia a more acute phantom limb pain than the independence of Belarus? Maybe they still hope that Belarus will come back after Lukashenko goes out? They are mistaken. Belarus has such a powerful nationalistic movement that it will never come back to Russia. But Ukraine is a phantom limb pain. And, apparently, this will not change unless we, liberals, decide to fully get rid of this complex and say: no, we are not to blame – we are following our standards… We must admit this.”


You spoke about responsibility of the elite. Some political scientists at the Higher School of Economics in Russia recently published a survey that shows that the Russian public mood resembles that of the Weimer Republic (Germany in 1919–33): all the societal strata are permeated with xenophobia and long for a mighty Soviet Union.

“The Levada Center has also conducted similar polls. All depends on the way you put a question. If you put the question as ‘Are you nostalgic about the Soviet Union?’, some 60 to 70 percent will says ‘yes.’ If you ask ‘Are you prepared to sacrifice yourself for having the Soviet Union back again?’, I think only 10 to 12 percent will say ‘yes.’ ‘Do you want Russia to be a great power?’ 80 percent will say ‘yes.’ But there should be a more concrete question: ‘What do you mean by great power: economic might, law and order, subordination of the state to individuals?’ The vast majority will say: ‘Economic might, step-by-step market reforms, and, above all, public control over the state.’ About 50 percent will say that if interests of the state run counter to those of society, society must rise up. It is very important how you will put the question.

“Yet there is a very important point here. Xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise. When, as you know, about 30,000 people took to the streets last December, they could have made mincemeat of the whole Moscow. The police were hiding. Thousands of them marched down Tverskaya Street towards the Manege Square and the Kremlin. They were crying out ‘Sieg heil!’, they painted swastikas on the Kremlin walls near the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. It is a dangerous phenomenon for Moscow and Russia. I went downstairs (our office is next to Manege Square) and saw normal faces in this crowd. You know, soccer fans have a typical collective facial image. But in this case I saw educated-looking people aged 15 to 25, many of them wearing glasses. And there were lots of riot police at the entrance. I say to them: ‘What are waiting for, guys? They are going to smash shop windows!’ To which one of them replied: ‘And do you want them to punch us on the nose?’ And another says: ‘Let them bash these ones. They deserve to have their windows smashed.’ I saw, firstly, that the law-enforcement bodies were afraid of this mob and, secondly, that many of them think in the same vein: ‘Serve these fat cats right.’

“What did this 30,000-strong march mean? Not only that Russia is becoming nationalistic and xenophobic. Xenophobia does not come out as long as people are happy. When people are unhappy and feel bad, they begin to look for an enemy. They look for enemies in Georgia, Ukraine, Tajikistan… They begin to kill Tajiks. You know that Tajiks and Turkmenians do all menial work here. But people are unhappy. The more the current government makes people unhappy, the more xenophobia and nationalism will come out. Perhaps 5 or 10 years later, social surveys will show that people are prepared for the comeback of an aggressive empire. What is the conclusion? This system – the Russian state – is dangerous to its own and other people.”

Maybe, these sentiments are being artificially whipped up? We know that in the Soviet era secret services used to manipulate this kind of movements and organizations.

“Yes, you are right. These sentiments were artificially whipped up until a certain moment, until last December. The secret services had planted their agents in fan clubs and used neo-Nazis to fight antifascism and liberal get-togethers. But it is not always policemen who bashed liberals on the head at public rallies. This was often done by fan clubs after a tip-off from the secret services. But when they suddenly took to the streets with anti-Kremlin and anti-Putin slogans, the Kremlin understood that these people were against Putin, against the government in general. They had created a Frankenstein, and the genie went out of the bottle. They no longer monitor social networking sites. They are unable to control these youths. They are afraid now. After this, the government began to try to hobble Nazism and new nationalism in some way. They suddenly began even to sentence nationalists to life. But the moment has been lost, and the Kremlin can no longer control nationalists.”

You often call Nazis nationalists. Do you think these notions are the same?

“No. I am speaking here about nationalism in Russia. Naturally, nationalism is a far broader phenomenon – left-wing nationalists, right-wing nationalists, nationalist populists, and all kinds of other groups, including fascists and neo-fascists. More often than not, nationalists of all hues and Nazis take part in the same events, for example, in Russian marches. And we do not know which of them – the right or the left wing – will get the upper hand. Nationalists always form the most fast-moving brigades; they are always ready for aggression.”


It seems to us in Kyiv that, as the parliamentary and presidential elections are coming up, the face-off between Putin and Medvedev is becoming rather artificial. And what do you, Muscovites, think? All this hullabaloo around Mikhail Prokhorov’s party The Right Cause, all the latest events – is this the real result of the face-off or just the imitation of a face-off with an unclear result? In her recent article for the Syndicate project, Nina Khrushchova points out that Joe Biden, who had never mingled with Putin before, has been in close contact with him lately, telephoning him and trying to persuade him not to take part in the elections. He even allegedly offered him, instead, the office of Olympic Committee president or UN secretary general. Is the US really so much interested in Putin’s resignation? Incidentally, the German politicians we spoke to are saying they have no clear-cut position about the domestic situation in Russia. They are saying they are unable to forecast the Russian situation.

“I have the same feeling when I meet people in the main capitals. I don’t think that Brussels, the European Commission, or Ms. Ashton have at least some tactics about Russia. The whole policy boils down to one thing: let us not irk them. It is the policy of Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, and Angela Merkel in the main European capitals: we have our own economic interests, and we are getting on with this regime. They are stable and do not seem to have a tough dictatorship. ‘Let us avoid tension’ is the European policy towards Russia.

“Now about this rumor of Biden’s offers. We have a little different interpretation: Biden allegedly told oppositionists that he had advised Putin to go. There is no credible evidence on either the Russian or the American part that this occurred and Vice-President Biden went so mad as to crack this kind of jokes with Vladimir Putin who has ‘reset’ the relations with Barack Obama and in whom Obama and Washington are basically interested. Maybe, Nina Khrushcheva wrote a satirical pamphlet and expressed these ideas in the form of a joke. I do not think that, with common sense and in a good memory, Biden could have taken this step.

“How do we see in Moscow the face-off between Putin and Medvedev, the Prokhorov case, and all the rest? There must be a clique in Moscow, as well as in Kyiv, which comprises both liberals and Kremlin followers. This clique keeps crawling from one office to another, from one cafe to another, and we all mingle with each other. There is not a single person in this coterie who would think seriously that Medvedev is a self-sufficient figure and a political leader and that he stands some political chances. There are no such naive people in our clique. But when we cross the limits of this hangout, some of us suddenly show our own tactics and interests, and a number of people begin to work for Medvedev. They tour various capitals and say: ‘Medvedev is top class! He is a modernizer and a liberal deep in his heart; he is now just deprived of possibilities. But when he comes to power – if not now then some other time, – Russia will advance with seven-league strides towards Europe.’ And Western people wish to believe this. Why? But for Medvedev, it would be very difficult to justify friendship between the West and Russia and all these re-settings. But even in Russia, only 14 percent of the population believes that Medvedev will become president. The rest must be well aware of where the authority lies. So it is common knowledge that Putin is pushing all the buttons and is in charge of the uniformed services. Putin is not only a leader. Putin is Russia’s main voter. The Kremlin will host the one he chooses. Meanwhile, Mr. Vladimir is fed up with sitting in the Cabinet building. So he thought: what the hell, I’m the national leader! When he formed the Popular Front for himself, this left no doubts whatsoever that Putin was coming back to the Kremlin. Now the Front is admitting everybody – nurses, railroad men, factory workers, etc. Should anything suddenly happen later this year (Russia is such an unpredictable country) and Mr. Vladimir decide that it would be better to place somebody else in the Kremlin, for example, a mouse or even a cat, he is sure to place one. Yet the control and leverage of the machine called Russia will still remain in his hands, while that guy will be sitting without a steering wheel – Medvedev does not even have a steering wheel.

“Now about Prokhorov. Eyewitnesses say that members of the old Yeltsin ‘family’ came to Prokhorov and said: let us, old chap, revive a party: anything may happen, so this may come in handy for Medvedev or for us, and we got a go-ahead from Putin. And if Putin gave the go-ahead, why not spend a hundred million to revive a Kremlin liberal party? This party was made ‘just in case.’ It may really come in handy!

“At the same time, the Kremlin refused to register PARNAS, a really oppositionist liberal political entity. But they did register the Right Cause and are now touring all the capitals, saying: ‘This is a liberal party. I will take part in the elections.’ And the Germans, Frenchmen, Italians and other nations willingly believe this. The Europeans are legitimizing Russian elections in their own eyes.”


You said in a 2006 article: “For the first time in Russian history, the West has become a resource for Russian autocracy.” What do you think this may eventually mean for Russia, the West, and Ukraine?

“Complacency and connivance on the part of Western elements shows that the West is in an ideological crisis. They have lost their mission, they have endless problems, so they decided to look after themselves. This also shows double standards. It is hypocritical to consider something undemocratic as a democracy. And if you are pursuing a hypocritical policy towards Russia or Ukraine, you are willy-nilly discrediting your inner values. On the other hand, the West is not monolithic: we are talking about governments and leaders… Thank God, there are also European parties, such as the Greens and liberals. They are passing one resolution after another, which say: ‘Free Khodorkovsky!’, ‘Stalin and Hitler is the same thing!’ But these parties do not determine European policies.

“But, sooner or later, this policy will sink into a crisis when it turns out that the Russian system is unstable, when this system tries to pursue anti-Western course. Only then will it dawn on them: ‘Oh we have lost Russia!’ A good illustration of this was Putin’s arrival in Munich in 2007 for European security conference. Mr. Vladimir, a hunky bronze guy of sorts, rises to the podium. Sitting in the hall are Merkel, European leaders, the NATO and EU leadership. Putin suddenly laid into the audience, accusing the West and the Americans of all mortal sins. And he said: if you… again, we will give you a response! They were shocked. I watched this footage from Munich: the poor Merkel went pale, not knowing what to do. She kept nudging the Americans, but they sat with glassy eyes, for they did not expect this. But what did they expect? I think our Western colleagues will pay for their naivety and pragmatism.

“The problem is that they lost an adversary in the shape of the Soviet Union and became complacent. They are now looking at China. But they will be disillusioned with it, too. The point is that even though China is rising, it is still beset with major problems, and if that country also ‘explodes’ in 20 or 30 years’ time, this will pose quite a problem.”

And what about de-Stalinization which President Medvedev proclaimed in Russia? Do you think it is really de-Stalinization?

“If a ‘soft’ dictator rules the country, can he possibly allow a true, fair and genuine de-Stalinization? Hardly ever. For this reason, as long as Putin is in power and we have a supra-presidential constitution based on a leader, God, or a tsar, Russian de-Stalinization will remain another Potemkin village and a simulation even if they admit that Stalin was an enemy. Admitting that Stalin killed millions of people, they are saying: ‘But Stalin was a great manager, and we won the war thanks to him!’ They forget that we paid for this with 20, if not more, million human lives.”