Journalism, Opposition, and Democratization in Putin's Russia

Journalism, Opposition, and Democratization in Putin's Russia

On April 4, the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe welcomed Vladimir Kara-Murza as part of a panel to discuss how Russian President Vladimir Putin will define his next term and his legacy. Five Minutes sat down with Mr. Kara-Murza after the event to discuss Russia’s foreign relations, domestic opposition to the administration, and the role of journalism in bringing about democracy for Russia.


GJIA: How do you predict Putin’s next term will be different from the previous four?

VKM: If you look at Vladimir Putin’s rule over the last 18 years, it’s been remarkably consistent. He has been raising the stakes over time, but the general direction is unchanged. The first thing he did as president came before he even took office in December of 1999, while he was still Prime Minister. He went to the old KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square to unveil a memorial plaque to Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the KGB who was most infamous for targeting and persecuting political dissidents. Andropov set up a special directorate of the KGB to do so, and to expand the practice of purity of psychiatry where those who opposed the Communist regime were declared to be insane and kept in torturous psychiatric asylums. Putin honored Andropov with a memorial plaque just 11 days before becoming acting president of Russia, giving a clear answer to the question of who Mr. Putin would be as a leader. When he came to power, he began to revive the symbols and methods of former Soviet rule. For example, within his first year in power, he brought back the Soviet national anthem, which was personally picked by Stalin in 1944. In terms of practical tactics, he went after independent media, and either took over or shut down every independent nationwide television channel. He ejected the real opposition from Parliament, began to rig elections, and jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia who had dared to support the opposition and civil society. He very quickly transformed what was a flawed and imperfect, but functioning, democracy in Russia into the fully fledged authoritarian system it is today. These domestic repressive acts were accompanied by increasing aggression on the world stage as well; we saw this first with the military incursion into Georgia, then Crimea, and now his actions in Syria. There’s also talk of interference in American elections. This has been a consistent approach of Mr. Putin’s ever since he came to power, and I don’t see any reason to expect any different behavior from him as long as he remains in power. He is pursuing a path of domestic authoritarianism and autocracy, accompanied by enormous domestic corruption in Russia, and this course will likely lead to confrontation with the international community, especially Western democracies. As we mentioned in the panel, however, Russian history has a way of throwing little surprises. We know that major political shifts can start suddenly and unexpectedly, so how long Mr. Putin will remain in power is entirely unknown.

GJIA: You’ve been working with organizations such as Open Russia and the Boris Nemtsov Foundation to help bring about democracy and freedom in Russia. However, Open Russia was effectively banned in December 2017. Given this challenge, how is the organization looking to work with partners abroad and in Russia to achieve its goals?

VKM: The main focus of Open Russia’s work is the young people of Russia today. We have a new generation of pro-democracy and civil society activists who have grown up under Vladimir Putin and have never experienced democracy in Russia. We are working with those young people to train and educate them in the ways of democratic campaigning, civic activism, and political leadership. One of the ways we’re doing that is by setting up educational and training projects and schools all across the country. Even though elections in Russia aren’t free, fair, or democratic, by helping them to run as candidates they’re getting training in how to be candidates how to be campaign managers and volunteers, actively involved in the civic and political life of their country. The downside of the potential for rapid political change in Russia is that nobody is prepared for it, and we saw a lot of mistakes made in the 1920s and 1990s because of that. We believe we cannot afford the be unprepared the next time a window of opportunity comes to Russia. We don’t know how precisely the Putin regime will exit the stage, but we do know that it will, because nothing is permanent. By the time that moment comes, it will be too late to sit down and start figuring out what to do next, so we have to do this now. A lot of the work that we do within Russia involves helping to empower, train, and educate the younger generation, as well as deliberating some of the substantive proposals for reform for issues like the energy sector, demobilization of the economy, and constitutional reform. A lot of what we do now is preparing for that future democratic transition. As you said, we were effectively banned by the Russian government, but that doesn’t change anything. Everybody knows that it’s a dangerous and risky vocation to be engaged in open opposition to the Putin regime, but there are enough courageous people in Russia who care about their country, who see that the corrupt, kleptocratic, authoritarian regime we have is destroying the prospects of our country, and who are willing to do something about it. A lot of the people who are involved with Open Russia are young people like the ones you’ve been seeing out on the streets in the past year, coming out in the tens of thousands to protest. There are a lot of people who are continuing to work with us and be involved despite the fact that we have been designated as an undesirable organization and officially blocked by the Russian government, and that our organizations have been officially blocked.

GJIA: Given your role as a journalist and an opposition figure, what role do you think journalism both within and outside Russia can play in helping bring about democracy?

VKM: The answer is simple: journalists should tell the truth. In Russia, we have very few real journalists or real media outlets left, because the first thing Mr. Putin did when he came to power was to establish complete government control over all national television channels. Today, all national television channels in Russia serve as mouthpieces for government propaganda. A lot of the remaining genuine media outlets are online, though some still manage to come out in print – like Novaya Gazeta newspaper  – and some even still broadcast – such as the Ekho Moskvy radio station. These outlets are very important because somebody needs to tell the truth, and somebody needs to present a real narrative against the fake propaganda narrative that is put out by state television channels. One of the areas that’s especially important is the so-called presidential election in Russia. When I was looking through a lot of the world media and Western newspapers, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes, because they were talking about the event as if it were a real election, even though it clearly was not. This was a pre-ordained spectacle, with an outcome that was known beforehand, a field of preselected candidates, skewed media coverage, ballot stuffing, voter coercion, and so on. That’s not what an election looks like. I think it’s very important to not fall for those Kremlin propaganda narratives, and to continue telling the truth however difficult or inconvenient it might be.

GJIA: You talked briefly at the event about U.S.-Russia relations and how they are different than during the Cold War. Given the unique nature of both the Putin and Trump administrations and their informal ties, how do you think the international community could work to stabilize those relations?

VKM: The short answer is that relations will stabilize when Russia has a democratic government which respects the rule of law and democratic principles at home, and which behaves as a responsible citizen in the international community. This has been an axiom of modern Russian history: the way the regime behaves towards its own people is a reflection of how it behaves internationally. Andrew Sakharov – the great Russian dissident humanist and Nobel Prize winner – said that a government that violates the rights of its own people at home will inevitably also pose a threat to the international order. There’s no reason to expect a regime that tramples on the rights of its own citizens and violates its own laws to then respect international law, international order, and the interests of other countries. This is what we’re seeing from the Putin regime. Its domestic abuses have ended up transforming into foreign aggression, and it’s easy to predict because that’s how it has always in modern Russia. For a long time, there’s been a notion put out by proponents of realpolitik, that there is a conflict between interests and values when it comes to relations between the West and Russia. The people who propose the realpolitik approach ­– which in my view is cynical and immoral – say that a country should forget about values and just focus on its interests. But I don’t see a conflict between interests and values, because there can only be stable and constructive relations between the West and Russia when Russia’s government respects the principles of democracy and the rule of law at home, and also behaves as a responsible citizen on the international stage.

GJIA: One thing that doesn’t get discussed as often is Russian relations with China, specifically the Belt Road initiative and China’s efforts in creating infrastructure. Where do you think the Putin administration stands on the Belt Road initiative?

VKM: When it comes to relations between the Kremlin regime and China, in my view what the Kremlin is trying to do fundamentally contradicts the basic national interests of Russia. As a European and majority Christian country, Russia is part of Western civilization. Our natural allies are countries in Europe andin the wider West who belong to the same civilization as we do. What the Putin regime is doing is trying to pretend that those countries are actually our enemies, and that we should instead seek partnership with others, like China. In reality, our most stable and our most secure borders are in the west with the countries of NATO and the European Union. Where we do have potential problems is in the east and southeast. Not only is there a big difference in the population density on the two sides of the border between China and Russia, but also, in many Chinese schools, they have maps showing parts of the Russian Far East and Siberia as future Chinese territory. Turning us away from our natural allies in the West and towards the Communist dictatorship in China directly contradicts the long-term national interests of Russia. As has already been seen, in this kind of relationship, we can only be a junior and subservient partner; for example, the Power of Siberia pipeline project has clearly become detrimental to Russian economic interests. In the long term, attempts to pivot Russian foreign policy east put us in a junior and subservient position to a powerful communist dictatorship.

GJIA: Given the threatening environment you work in and your personal experiences with threats to your life, what motivates you to continue your work despite the danger?

VKM: I don’t think that we have much choice. Russia is my country; I care about my country, and I cannot just stand idly by and watch the prospects of my country be destroyed by an authoritarian, kleptocratic regime. If I do nothing, I will be complicit in the destruction of my country. A few years ago, I was making a documentary film about the Soviet dissident movement and the people who resisted the Communist regime in Soviet times. I interviewed one woman, Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who was one of the seven people who, in August 1968, came onto Red Square in Moscow in August 1968 to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. All of these people who came out to protest were sent to prisons, internal confinement, or to the worst form of punishment, psychiatric hospitals. I asked her what motivated her to do what she did knowing what the price would be, and she said going to that demonstration was a selfish act, because she wanted to have a clear conscience. I’ll never forget those words. If we just stand by and watch what the Putin regime is doing to our country without doing something about it, then whatever happens would be on our conscience as well. I certainly cannot let that happen.


Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza currently serves as vice chairman of Open Russian, an NGO which promotes civil society and democracy in Russia. In 2012, he was elected to the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition, and served as deputy leader of the liberal democratic People’s Freedom Party from 2015 to 2016. Mr. Kara-Murza is also the author of two documentaries, They Chose Freedom and Nemtsov, both of which document political dissent in Russia. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in history from Cambridge University.