An Interview with Russian State Duma Member Ilya Ponomarev

Tim Callahan interviews Ilya Ponomarev, a leading opposition figure in the Russian State Duma currently living in exile. Their conversation touches on everything from Russia’s relationship with Ukraine to the future of Russia’s leadership post-Putin. 


You mentioned you are working with the Russian diaspora and emphasize the importance of a “start-up class” which will help Russia transition into a new “information society.” From which social sector or social demographic will this class emerge? More importantly, what do you see as the future of technology in Russia?

It is really hard to say from which social class the start-up class will emerge because in Russia the social strata are pretty much mixed and people are coming from different parts of the country and from different demographics. I would say that Western society is more stratified in this sense and in the United States the process is more rigid. You are supposed to be at Stanford, at MIT, or at Harvard to reach the real entrepreneurial world. In Russia, people are coming virtually from anywhere. This is a remnant of the old Soviet system of education which had a lot of different social lifts implanted in it. Right now those social lifts aren’t working, but in terms of education they are still in place. That is why it is very dynamic and it is one of the reasons why people are so frustrated with the current order. They want something, but they don’t see ways to realize their potential inside the country, so they are leaving.


You have commented frequently about the struggle for power among those who are associated with President Putin. Certain acts, including the killing of Boris Nemtsov, involve a redistribution of power which commenced with the annexation of Crimea. Essentially there is a competition for Putin’s recognition and it points to what I think is authoritarian uncertainty, even institutional chaos, as groups and high-ranking figures jockey for position. Aside from stifling the opposition, in what other ways and in what other sectors of the government will this competition for power continue to manifest itself?

The institutional chaos you mention has existed in Russia for a very long period of time. Actually, the whole period of Russian reforms, starting in 1992, was done under the slogan of properly working institutions. In fact, the Soviet Union was a country with a larger number of perfectly working institutions. All the institutions were extremely reliable, transparent, understandable, predictable, very firm. There were not many institutions during Yeltsin’s time, but at least there was an attempt to create such institutions. Currently, there are none. Actually, there is only one institution and that is Mr. Putin himself. This is one of the reasons why the current regime in Russia can be described as Bonapartism; everything is linked to one man.

As you said, politics in Russia is about getting Putin’s recognition and attention. All economic activities are based on getting his attention and at the end of the day he decides who will be the main beneficiaries of the current order. How the economy progresses and whether it is efficient or inefficient is very much dependent on the reach of Mr. Putin. Especially in recent years, he is shifting more and more toward the international arena, rather than focusing on internal matters. He is thinking about his place in history. He is thinking about his safety and his personal stability, and that, he realizes, requires a certain degree of international recognition.

When Putin started doing things this way, he immediately ruined all relations because he wanted to be more secure. He wanted to be sure the situation would not turn on him as it did with Qaddafi or Milosevic or others like that. Now he has virtually guaranteed such an outcome for himself and this fundamental uncertainty within him actually dictates Russian foreign policy at the moment.


Russia is in the process of re-opening old Soviet military bases in the Arctic region in order to take advantage of natural resources like oil and gas. This will eventually become a sensitive issue regarding territorial sovereignty. Could this situation in any way be opportunistic for Russia in terms of forming an alliance, perhaps with a country like China?

Relations to China? I’m not so sure because the Chinese are pretty much predators themselves in terms of territories and influence. Russia has formed an Arctic organization which will develop a northern organization, or a Northern Marine-way. China demanded to be part of this organization, even though they don’t have access to the Arctic Ocean. In fact, China would be the main beneficiaries of that Marine-way; they would send the bulk of the goods around Eurasia, around India, across the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, even around Africa, to deliver any goods to Europe, so they would benefit a lot if those developments were made possible.

This situation begins with the trade route, but in the future there is the possibility of exploring the shelf. Russia claims we are supposed to inherit all the international treaties related to the Soviet Union and the so-called Arctic sector. This is actually against all the usual sea regulations and marine law. We can’t treat the Arctic Ocean as if it is our sea, carving out this sector which was never really recognized by other nations even though the Soviet Union defended the sector with its naval power since the Soviet Union was the main explorer of the Arctic Ocean. This status was more or less accepted, but Russia totally withdrew from the Arctic Ocean for twenty years, so obviously the agreement that was in place was never reinstated or enforced. In recent years we started to return and reclaim that space. But again, it’s a question of whether we are going to develop it or not. At the moment, it doesn’t make much sense to develop oil and gas on the Arctic shelf. I think the shelf would be important 50 years from now, though I’m not sure carbon will play the same role as it is today.

These developments are extremely expensive in the Arctic and we have huge reserves onshore. Right now we are actually facing restrictions on exports because of the Crimean conflict and the demand for Russian gas is falling. Europe doesn’t want to consume the gas we produce and there is no other way we can export it. So we export to China? The distance is too far and the pipeline that we are discussing right now connects Eastern Siberia to China and not to Western Siberia where the reserves are. These are all question marks.

Finalizing this subject, I would say that the future, the strategic future, for all the participating countries is in the development of a kind of broader northern union, generally a broader political alliance between Russia, Europe, and the United States. And, surely, if you are getting into Europe and the United States, Canada would also be a part of it. There is not much debate regarding this alliance because the Arctic Ocean would be considered our internal sea in that broader union. Of course, this kind of alliance would not happen under Russia’s current leadership.


At the G20 Summit in 2014, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed a growing concern not just for Ukraine but for the possibility of further conflicts in Eastern European countries. In particular, she mentioned Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkans. It seems her concerns were prescient. We are seeing an increase in nuclear arsenal in Eastern Europe after certain countries have sought the help of the US and NATO. Considering Putin’s reactions, how do you understand this new threat to Eastern European countries?

With regard to nuclear arsenals and things like that, I think that is more of a bluff and Putin is very good at such behavior; conversely, Western nations are extremely weak. Putin is not accountable to his own people. He manipulates public opinion and there is no active political opposition in the media. Of course, a political opposition exists, but it has no say in the media and therefore it’s pretty much irrelevant what we, the opposition, think about what Putin is doing. This is why he is so aggressive. He can’t be restrained and would never be blamed for reckless behavior, which is exactly the way he is acting now.

Western leaders are very vulnerable in terms of public opinion and that is why they always have to be cautious in what they do and what they say. Of course, everyone would be afraid of some kind of military confrontation, but there’s not much they can confront Putin with except for economic sanctions and these aren’t really effective. In terms of power struggles, I think that from the very beginning Western nations have to analyze why we came to this situation.

There were a series of mistakes made by the West as well as mistakes that were made by Russia. When Putin was running for president in the 2000, his foreign policy agenda was based on three cornerstones: First, accession to the European Union; second, accession to NATO; third, accession to the WTO. I personally oppose accession to the WTO; it is a pretty useless organization at the moment, if not harmful. But I fully support accession to the European Union and to NATO. There has to be a new system of global security of which Russia is a part and where it is a responsible member of the global community. I think Europe, America, and Russia can really control at least the Northern Hemisphere and create a truly global alliance which would be influential in all parts of the world. It would be extremely good for the whole of humanity in terms of security, development of natural resources, energy, innovation, and human capital.

While Putin is in power, there has to be a policy of firm containment without getting into a military confrontation, a policy which reinforces the primary Eastern European countries. Putin is not eternal. He is not an immortal figure. He has a lot of people around him who are not happy with what is happening right now, so he will go. After he is gone, we would face the situation where we need to negotiate with the West and discuss how to lift sanctions and how to start reforms, about reintegration and the global economy. Whatever reformist government comes after Putin leaves will fall under pressure because of these difficulties, so I think we have to prepare for this kind of plan and we need to act quickly as soon as Putin is gone. This planning is totally absent from the Western agenda.


As Putin’s presidential term reaches its conclusion, how logical is it to believe he will exist on the periphery after he has left office? In what ways do you think Putin will remain influential in the political sphere and continue to promote his ideologies and his social or political agenda? What are your thoughts on [former finance minister] Alexei Kudrin’s suggestion to move elections forward? Clearly, this would be unconstitutional, so why even propose it?

In Russia we say you cannot be half-way pregnant. [laughs] This can be applied to Putin. He is either gone or he is fully in power. It is totally irrelevant whether he nominates another Medvedev as a placeholder in the Kremlin. If Putin is in power, he will be the one who is running the country.

We are discussing his complete removal and the removal of his team from power, whatever the conditions may be. This could be a peaceful resignation and we are ready to provide Putin with everything he wants, his personal safety, his security. We would buy him an island in the Caribbean [laughs]. Let him leave, just for the sake of preventing bloodshed. Unfortunately, I think it is more probable that there will be bloodshed because he is not willing to go. I think that whatever happens in 2018—when the next elections are scheduled—he will at least try to stay in power. I’m not sure he would run, but I think it’s likely that another person like Medvedev would run because elites will most likely pressure Putin and there needs to be someone so the sanctions will be lifted and stuff like that. If that were the case, they would probably select the weakest among them. That’s my opinion regarding chaos, a power struggle, and the collapse of the whole system that we see right now.

With regard to Kudrin, I think he is a smart person who understands the situation perfectly. First, he understands that if the system collapses, he would not be powerful any longer. Right now he is at least one of Putin’s key advisors. If the system collapses, he would most likely lose all his influence as a result of being a member of Putin’s team. Second, he is very afraid of chaos and he thinks Medvedev’s inability to properly perform as a Prime Minister requires that he would be replaced as soon as possible. Kudrin understands there is an agreement between Putin and Medvedev, that Medvedev is there to stay during all of Putin’s first presidential term, because this, constitutionally, is considered Putin’s first term. Since Medvedev will not be removed, Kudrin wants to speed up the process and artificially create this kind of emergency, an extraordinary and unconstitutional situation so that Medvedev will be removed, then there would be somebody else, like Kudrin himself, who would be nominated to replace Medvedev as the new Prime Minister. There would be a substantial political will and backing behind Kudrin which would then allow him to really start doing things to rescue the economy.


How do you feel about the initiatives undertaken by Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Muzra in talking to the United States Congress about the murder of Boris Nemtsov? Is this a smart move on their behalf to engage the US, ultimately influencing its political leaders and the media to analyze the Russian media and expose propaganda? What do you think they hoped to achieve through this action?

As you can understand, I totally hate people in Russia who call themselves journalists when they are not. They have nothing to do with journalism. I think it’s in bad taste to go to another country and ask for sanctions against certain people who are citizens of your country. I would not do this and I have never called for sanctions against particular people in my country. I have always said there should not be double standards. If America is saying the current regime in Russia violates human rights, international security and international law, then why would people who constitute this regime be accepted in the West in whatever capacity we are talking here, not just visas, but property and business activities? I have also said that if this is the position in the West, then the West has to be consistent, prevent access and freeze the accounts of everyone who is part of this regime, those who are deputies in the Duma, those who are working in the government, those who are working in the state enterprise, members of their families, including myself…


Anybody who has political clout?

Yes, anyone who is part of the regime. There should be a very easy way out of this and not even through sanctions. I would call it an approach: You resign and you are off of that list. However, when you try to cherry-pick and say Dmitry Rogozin is good, then say someone like Vladislav Surkov is bad, or the other way around, it sends a very confusing message and provokes people to get engaged in different power struggles.

Certain people in Russia want to be on the sanctions list because it’s a way to promote their career inside the country. Others want to name somebody on the sanction list. They are ready to pay some lobbyist in the US to nominate their competitor to be put on the sanctions list. They would do this because they want to raid the competitor’s enterprise back home. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s the wrong approach for Russian politicians to be part of this cherry-picking battle.


You are a powerful figure both as an innovator and as an opposition leader. What is your role in the future of the Russian government? Do you enjoy your role in the political sphere more than your role in the business sphere? How will you continue your role as an effective opposition leader?

I would say that in an ideal scenario I have no role in the future Russian government because in an ideal scenario there is another person who would do the things I consider to be right. I don’t need to waste my time and energy in setting the government procedures when I can be engaged with projects and innovators. That’s what I love. That’s where my professional interest lies, in creating something. But, as we know, ideal scenarios do not always happen. Most likely something different will happen.

I think the most critical thing in Russia is the rule of law and how the judicial system and law enforcement have been structured. I have a lot of ideas about how to reform these systems and I think it would be a terrible mistake to leave the constitutional and legal reforms in the hands of lawyers.

There have to be people with a vision who want to be neutral, who want to create a system which would work for and benefit everyone, not just a particular part of the society. I really envy the United States because of what George Washington created for the United States, specifically this: there was a neutral and self-defending legal system and whatever the later deviations were, the arguments and the amendments, the core of the system is still being self-protected and you cannot change the fundamentals of that system. That is exactly what we need to do in Russia.

The biggest mistake the reformers made in the 1990s was they wanted benefits for themselves and the constitution was written with them in mind. They created an executive branch of power which resulted in Putin becoming president. He was not as motivated as Yeltsin and his team. Putin immediately grabbed all the power for himself. I think this is a direct consequence of people’s actions at the beginning of the 1990s. They are to blame for what is happening.


Who can run as a strong opposition candidate or pro-democratic figure against Putin and his allies? What type of socio-political atmosphere will prospective presidential candidates be facing? What will the atmosphere be like in the next year and do you think Russian society will be more inclined to support the opposition?

I don’t expect anyone to be able to run in the electoral process because all the levers of power are in the hands of Putin. The combination of resources that are needed to win, including media, finance, organization, ideology… Putin would never allow these to be consolidated into one set of hands, so I don’t think we can defeat him in the election process because there are no elections. In fair elections, of course, we would just debate with Putin. I think we have a number of very good Russian politicians, including Khodorkovsky, Navalny, [Dmitry] Gudkov, even myself. I think altogether we have a lot of things to say to Mr. Putin, but he never allows us to have any kind of open dialogue with him. Even journalists are never allowed to ask him tough questions or do anything that might compromise him in the media and in the public eye. In terms of who is strong enough to confront him and to lead the nation after him, I think that right now we have a virtually irreplaceable figure which is Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

There are a lot of political leaders who seem powerful: Navalny, Gudkov, myself. But Khodorkovsky is neutral, including to the current elites, and they understand he is neutral because he had a marvelous business career. He has an unparalleled record as a manager and he is a really trustworthy person. I think that to restart the current political system to get from the point where we are right now to the point when we will have free elections, it’s at least a year, most likely two years for the transition period. Someone needs to run the country during the transition period and this person would not come out of the electoral process. I am very afraid that, firstly, if any of us became the leader of the country, then all the others would start fighting against us because of jealousy and competition. Conversely, Khodorkovsky would be accepted by everyone and they would trust Khodorkovsky to establish the electoral process, though he would not be a part of the competition. Emerging leaders, both young and old, might compete and present their programs freely, have their access to media, and in the freer competition the strongest and most popular will win.


The gestation of what you just described is occurring right now where you have figures in different political parties who are expressing interest in forming a coalition. However, many have mentioned they don’t want to be part of the legislative process and they don’t want to be part of the government. Noting this hesitancy, how can any coalition develop to a point where it can begin to change policies in Russia?

I would say that it is totally impossible. It’s a counter productive process to try to form a coalition party. I am an internationalist. Navaly is a nationalist. I am leftist. Kasyanov is rightest. Why would we want to be in one party? We can sit around one table and have good, normal working relations with each other. But then we have to face the constituency and they would say ‘You guys are just crooks. You want to cheat us. You say that you have some opinions, some agenda, but if you are sitting at one table in one political party, that means each of you is ready to sacrifice your agenda for the sake of just getting to power.’ That’s a very bad message.

The experience in many countries shows that when there is a grand coalition in power, usually one political force acting on behalf of this grand coalition benefits from all other parties. We see this right now in Germany. The Social Democrats lost a lot being in a grand coalition and the voters said ‘You guys are principalists, bastards, and you are cheating us.’ That is why I don’t believe in those coalitions and why I am talking about a neutral person being in power.

Khodorkovsky is a straightforward technocrat. He has recently announced a program and I am very actively participating in this process so it would be a certain transitional program created with a precise set of very short term actions which have to reach a consensus among all political forces. This would not be a long-term vision for the country, but there are certain things which are indisputable for all of us. In the political sphere, there is already a consensus among us because all of us say that we need free elections. The overwhelming majority say they want a transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, that we want constitutional reform, that we want a true separation of powers. These views are shared between us. There are far more details in terms of the economy and what needs to be done, because there are different views on privatization, on de-monopolization, on the role of private entrepreneurship, on the tax system. These are all things we definitely need to discuss together for this two-year period of transition where we would have a common view. After that, Kudrin may win and want to be more neoliberal, if people will trust him to do so. Let’s say leftists win and we want something different—more self-governing, less centralization—then it would be our time to play. However, we will compete for this.


Can you expound on your reason for voting against the anti-gay legislation in 2013? How did you see that legislation in terms of its significance for civil liberties and human rights in Russia? Is it possible to change the intolerable and sometimes violent atmosphere in Russia when this type of legislation is a reflection of Russian sentiment, either its citizens or those in political office?

I think this whole story about LGBT rights is very much a decoy which was artificially created by Putin to divert public attention from the real problems of our life. The level of tolerance toward members of the LGBT community was actually pretty high before 2011 and all the protests. It was somewhat comparable to the level of tolerance in the United States, but it was not reflected in the legislation in terms of same-sex marriage. In general, the feeling of tolerance from common people was way higher, mostly because the subject was never advertised or made very public.

Basically, in society—and Russian society is very sexually liberated after the collapse of the Soviet Union—the approach was whomever you have sex with and live with is totally up to you. We never ask and you never go in public and advertise. That was more or less the consensus within the society. But then a lot of members of the LGBT community wanted to increase public awareness about themselves during political protests. Again, especially since we are leftists, we are extremely friendly and we want to protect the rights of all minorities, and we supported this. Those people are bright and very expressive. This behavior was spotted by Putin’s political technologists and they started to promote the idea that this whole political process existed because some queers are running against the state and running against the core values of the society. Well, they just speculated, they manipulated, they played on hidden fears and prejudices of common and educated people and it was very successful. The numbers of those who were tolerant and had apprehensive attitudes toward the LGBT dropped significantly over a year and half. Politicians started to play on this for their own political benefits. That’s how this supposed gay propaganda law appeared.

If you look at this law by itself, it says pretty much nothing. It just says you shouldn’t propagate your sexual orientation in front of minors. That’s actually what this law is about. But this law emerged during this whole campaign, and, of course, this is a repressive campaign and a discriminative campaign against sexual minorities, so it’s fueled a lot of additional anger and a lot of additional discussion and oppression toward LGBT people. Of course, that’s why you can’t support this law, but it’s pure speculation, pure manipulation.

When I was meeting with members of the LGBT community, I would say, ‘If I were you and if I could offer you advice in terms of your best interest, I would play this situation down in general. I would try to calm the situation and would not advertise yourselves. I would not fight for gay parades on the streets of Moscow or any other cities in Russia. I would instead showcase you are good people, normal people, living as all others. You are good citizens.’ I think it’s a shame that people from both sides of the barricade only try provoke conflict and build their political and social capital in situations of conflict.


Can you explain more deeply your view of Ukraine as “a brother country and a brother nation?” I understand the historical resonance of this view, but I am curious about what objectives you think Russia and Ukraine share as citizens within two very different political systems.

I think we are exactly the same. That doesn’t mean we have to be one country. If people want to live in two different countries, three different countries, four different countries, that is their choice. Nobody should dictate how people want to live. If people decide they want to live separately, let them. Maybe at some point, eventually, they will decide they want to live together. Again, let them decide. This decision shouldn’t be influenced from the outside. It has to be up to the people and how they want to live.

In general, I think our countries are closer than even Germany and Austria. The language is very close. We generally understand each other without even knowing the other’s language. There are a lot of dialects which are intermixed and all sorts of transitional dialects from one language to another. South of Russia, people are talking in Surzhyk which is a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. Surzhyk, for example, is a transitional dialect. If Ukrainians consider this a dialect of Ukrainian, then Russians can consider this a dialect of Russian.

Additionally, Ukraine is very diverse. The Eastern part of the country belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. There are some religious groups which are part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but it is the same Orthodox religion, only autonomous. When you look at this situation as a whole, we are one. Everybody in Ukraine speaks Russian.

We were one for many years and, generally, the country itself was created by Lenin after the Revolution of 1917. It was his decision to bring Ukrainian Nationalists to his side in the war against the Czar and he was successful in that. So those Ukrainian Nationalists from the very beginning were all Bolsheviks. Now, ironically, they are removing the monuments of Lenin and other remnants of the Soviet past. But the fact that Ukraine was created in the first place was because of the Great October Revolution.

I think what’s happening now is a horrible tragedy. Earlier, I was expressing my idea of the broader alliance. I think this will eventually happen because I don’t see any other alternatives. We will again be one family. We’re neighbors. You might say we’re living in a condo [laughs] and Ukraine is just next door. They are not living in our apartment. It’s a separate apartment, but it’s one condo. We have to acknowledge the interests of each other. As Russians we need to listen to the interests of Ukrainians and Ukrainians need to listen to the interest of Russians. Ukraine is a smaller nation than the Russian nation, so we always have this complex relationship because the bigger nation is to blame for wrongdoings. We have to accept this, but that is the reality of life.

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Tim Callahan

Tim Callahan is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and attended the Kathryn Davis School of Russian at Middlebury College. A journalist dividing his time between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, he focuses on Russian Politics and philanthropy. He is also interested in contemporary fiction.