In Vladimir Putin’s quest to amass more power, the Russian government has become increasingly corrupt and ever more dangerous for critics and political activists.
Case in point — the suspicious murder of Boris Nemtsov as he walked home across a busy bridge in Moscow almost two weeks ago.
We recently sat down with Ilya Ponomarev — a representative in the lower house of the Russian Parliament who has been banned from Russia for his opposition to Putin — and got his take on what’s going on in Russia today.
Ponomarev believes that the people who killed Nemtsov were affiliated with one of Russia’s state security forces, and says that his murder was meant as a “message to Russian elites… and a message to the West.”
Yet, he thinks that in general Russians are closer aligned to Americans than they are to Europeans and that change will come to the country as early as 2017:
“The actual uprising might start in 2017… We will have major elections in 2016, and that is when economic and financial resources might get depleted by that time because of sanctions and issues with financial liquidities. All the problems will mount and be at their height in 2017. We need to be ready and we need to present Russia with a clear program, with a clear vision of Russia after Putin.”
Ponomarev is a former president of Yukos Oil, the former oil and gas giant that was effectively shut down in 2007 by the Russian government, which redistributed its assets to state companies. He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 2007, and was the only member who voted against the annexation of Crimea last year. The final vote in Russia’s lower house was 445 to 1. Colleagues warned him beforehand, saying things like “Putin will crush you,” and “Don’t ruin your career.”
The year before, he was the only member of the Duma not to support Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law. Eventually, in August 2014, Ponomarev and several of his aides were banned from Russia (along with several of his aides) and falsely charged with funelling money out of the Skolkovo Foundation — an organisation that supports high-tech startups — to finance protests against Putin.
Though he has been banned from Russia, he is still an active member of the Duma. He says that since his constituency voted him in, they are the only ones with the power to revoke his mandate.
Speaking before an audience at the Commonwealth Club, the bearded and battered politico spoke about Putin with disdain. He believes that Putin “wants people to negotiate with him and he wants to have the tradeoffs here and there and spheres of influence.” To Ponomarev, Putin is a creature of the last century.
However, throughout the night, Ponomarev talked with a glimmer in his eye — his wife, whom he had not seen for months, had finally reunited with him after clearing up a visa problem in Bulgaria.
We talked to Ilya Ponomarev before his presentation. Here’s what he had to say:
The following is a transcript of our conversation with Ponomarev; it has been edited for clarity and length.
BUSINESS INSIDER: Who do you think killed Boris Nemtsov?
ILYA PONOMAREV: I think it was somebody very close to Putin. I have doubts that it was his direct order, although he has created this very system which killed [Nemtsov]. I think it was one of the clans who are fighting for influence on Putin. And they want to trigger instability and be those saviors to offer a solution to everything.
BI: Are you worried that what happened to Nemtsov might happen to you?
IP: We have a Russian proverb — “Those who are doomed to be sunk will never be hanged.” I think that you shouldn’t run away from what is in front of you. You should do what you have to do, and leave to it. What can you do? Hire bodyguards? Stop doing anything? It will not save you either.
BI: Are politicians scared of Putin? Are there people looking at what you and Nemtsov have done and being inspired, in that sense?
IP: Some politicians are scared and some are extremely apologetic, actually. And I feel very sorry for this because some people who are like my friends from the left flank, they praise Putin because they see him as the fighter against American imperialism — which he is not. You know, why would you select between American imperialism and Russian imperialism? To my mind, it’s exactly the same thing. Others — conservatives — they say ‘Oh, Putin is a real leader, he’s a true man, he stays [firm] on his position, he’s not like this weak Obama.’ And also they are very much wrong. Because Putin is not a strong man, he is actually a man that put himself into a corner, and he’s fighting and biting from that corner, being very weak.
BI: Has anyone else you know been fined, kidnapped, or murdered?
IP: We have a lot of people — journalists — that were murdered in Russia. But my own situation is pretty unique. I haven’t seen my wife for half a year. She lives now in Bulgaria and couldn’t get her here because of visa [problems].
[Editor’s note: Since 1992, there have been 56 journalists killed in Russia.]
BI: How would you best describe your political ideology?
IP: The best description would be that I am a progressive libertarian.
BI: Which political figures do you look up to, people that you base your ideas upon?
IP: I think that my political position of course is very much influenced by thinkers of the left, and those are different people. I pay a lot of attention to what was written by Marx and by Lenin, but also by modern leftists like Wallenstein. I very much pay a lot of attention to what has been written by Noam Chomsky. We have such thinkers in Russia as well, like Boris Kagarlitsky, who is a good friend.
My political tradition is one the left, but I think that more modern leftists, they sometimes get stuck with this vision of large government and social benefits and everything and that’s against what is my position, because I think that the ultimate vision of Marx, Engels and those people was to eliminate government entities and to give as much power to the people. And in modern standing that means direct democracy, that means all the power to the communities, it means gradually eliminating all government oppression on the society. And 100 years ago, leftists’ major allies were labour unions.
In the world of today, I think that entrepreneurs are the new emerging ruling class — I identify it as the startup class. That’s the new proletariat of the 21st century. These are the people that are the drivers of that change.
BI: How is it that you’re still an active member of Duma?
IP: From the point of view of legislation of the Constitution, my mandate has been given by my constituency. So it’s only my constituency that can revoke my mandate. So until the next election, nobody is supposed to do anything. The next election is in 2016.
BI: When was the last time you were elected?
IP: Last time in 2011. The first time I was elected was in 2007. Originally it was a 4-year term and now it’s a 5-year term.
If I would not be able to campaign, I would lose my post. They can use such reasons like if I’m doing business, then they could justify that I am violating my status. But I’m cautious not to do it. They are looking through a magnifying glass from the outside.
I have a group of very loyal people. We are in the minority very much, basically 10 to 15% of the population that supports what we do. It’s temporary. I think that the high numbers for Putin, they will pass as soon as economic tensions mount. And then the whole situation will be flipped. It’s important not to alienate people, not to receive negative reaction on yourself but we have to wait a little bit. Bolsheviks in 1914 were a dying sect, the only ones against the war, but just two and a half years later, they came to power.
BI: Russia is obviously a surveillance state. That being said, America has its own conundrums: NSA phone tapping, Edward Snowden, CIA torture tapes. How is the United States different from Russia in this regard?
IP: I think that there are excesses that exist in all societies. I won’t say it’s normal to have them, but it’s natural to have them. I’m watching very closely…what Snowden has done. I don’t know him personally. I wanted to talk to him, but all of the security people didn’t allow me to. But I think that he took the wrong approach to a very right thing which he was doing. Just the implementation was wrong. There was a clear platform to what he was doing, although of course that there were some mistakes made.
I think that it’s inevitable if society will be run by old-timers who are still in the paradigm of the past, so I think the real way to resolve this is if the entrepreneurs go into politics and gradually take over and push for their agenda. You named a bunch of privacy issues which are at this stage secondary to me. The primary issue is the competition between Uber and traditional taxis, or contradictions between FDA and 23 and me. That, I think is most important. And I think that we are right now — the society — is living in the Facebook era and the political system is still in the 19th century prior to the Industrial era.
Why for God’s sake do you need to be socially liberal and economically conservative? Or to be economically market-oriented but at the same time socially, extremely conservative? Why can’t you be free in both dimensions?
BI: Now let’s bring our conversation to a global scale. Especially now with ISIS looming large close to Russia, what is Russia’s end-goal in the Middle East?
IP: I don’t think there is a conscious and strategic play there. Putin is not a strategist at all. He has brilliant tactics, but he is a very bad strategist overall. And I think he is acting very opportunistically there, just to play the cards with America. He was very proud of himself when he convinced us to give up on chemical weapons so that it could be played down and prevent an invasion and that was very helpful for Obama because Obama saved his face and didn’t order airstrikes at that very moment. Putin was extremely proud. That’s the kind of thing Putin does. Generally, he thinks of himself as Christian. I don’t think he is, but he pretends to think that he is. In terms of his ideology he’s more like Bush Jr. But he’s less ideological. He’s [thinking] more ‘how to stay in power.’
BI: What is it about Putin then?
IP: He’s just manoeuvring. He wants to be respected. He wants to be an important player in global politics. He wants people to negotiate with him and he wants to have the tradeoffs here and there and spheres of influence. He’s very much a person of the 20th century in the global and geopolitical space.
BI: Stratfor predicted in its recent decade report that the Russian Federation will disintegrate into an archipelago of loosely-connected and more localised entities over the next decade as the ruble plunges, the price of oil declines, and the country’s politics get crazier. Do you think Russia is essentially falling apart? What will be of the Russian Federation in the next 10 years?
IP: Russia can fall apart. It’s not because of the oil prices…. It’s because what sticks a country together is a common interest of people. It has to be economically and socially profitable — beneficial — for people to be together. They should understand how they benefit from a large country. And if they start to feel like a large country is a source of problem, then the country collapses as the Soviet Union collapsed. And right now, I see a lot of alarming trends inside Russia, especially in Siberia, which I represent in the Parliament. People start to ask questions: If we mine all the natural resources — if we have all the oil, all the gas, all the coal, all the gold, all the diamonds — why the hell do we need central Russia? They are just eating at our resources. Without Moscow having a response for this, it would face very nasty questions such as one that was asked during my recent reelection campaign — it actually became a slogan of my campaign — “Stop feeding Moscow.”
BI: This mindset is similar to that of the Tatars. How is it different?
IP: With Tatars, the situation is a little bit more complex. They are geographically very isolated so they need the rest of Russia. When they pump oil, they need pipelines to deliver it so they need those connections. We in Siberia don’t need those connections. The only thing which actually sticks us together is the cultural similarities and the relatives that are on both sides of the Ural mountains.
BI: Last question — if Putin were standing in front of you at this very moment, what would you say to him? The first words out of your mouth are…
IP: There is nothing I can say. “Goodbye, Mr. Putin,” that’s the only thing I can say.
We need to convince him that if he makes the decision to go, that we are ready to trade his personal security for peaceful resignation. That’s very important because we’re all afraid that he will stick to power to his deathbed and just kill a lot of people along the way. If he is willing to go, we shall buy him an island in the Caribbean or in the Pacific Ocean with nice girls — like a separate country for him.
He’s very much afraid of leaving. Because he is formally right now in his first term, so has another 8 years from now. Legally, he has created all the mechanisms for himself. He’s a lawyer.
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