On 13 March, Grigory Yavlinsky gave an interview to the Czech media Forum24. The leader of the Yabloko party spoke about the situation in Russia against the backdrop of hostilities in Ukraine, explained what Putin’s policy was and what was the responsibility of the Russian elite and the nation as a whole for the developments.
– How would you comment on the current Russian-Ukrainian clash? After all, this is a tragedy for all of Europe. Do you think Vladimir Putin has decided to occupy Ukraine, or does he only want to bring it to its knees and turn it into a disintegrated state?
– The “special military operation,” as Putin calls it, of Russia against Ukraine is a huge tragedy. First of all, a tragedy for Ukraine. This is a terrible crime, innocent people are dying because of it. This is a tragedy for Europe, as it creates a huge and growing tension for it in every sense, and above all in the field of security. But in addition, this is a tragedy for Russia, this is its suicide. If we can say that the modern European state of Ukraine is being born in blood and pain, then at the same time we can say that the old Russia is dying. Certainly, this is a great tragedy for everyone, what else there is to say.
I don’t know if Putin has decided to occupy Ukraine or if he “only” wants to bring it to its knees so that it becomes a disintegrated state.
I think that he will not be able to occupy Ukraine for a long time and support some kind of puppet regime there. Russia does not have such forces. But [he can] apply the doctrine of limited sovereignty to it, the intention that has been evident over the past eight years. Actually, the failure of attempts to turn the Minsk Agreements into an instrument of political control over Ukraine has become one of the main reasons for today’s events. I think that bringing Ukraine to its knees is the essence of the policy of Putin and his associates. There is such a circle of people around him who, apparently, are the co-authors of this terrible story.
– What do Putin’s statements about the denazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine mean?
– As for demilitarisation, we are talking about Ukraine’s non-entry into NATO, but also, in addition, there is endless chatting, there is no other way to call it, about the deployment of some armed forces of some countries, or missiles. This is devoid of any practical meaning, since experts accurately assess that the existence of modern, in particular, hypersonic weapons removes the issue of where these hypersonic missiles are located, whether they are located in Germany or Poland. It doesn’t matter, the difference is calculated literally in a few minutes. Therefore, this is all either fiction, or phobias, dating back to some unknown sources.
As far as denazification is concerned, it is propaganda from beginning to end. Such a question does not exist objectively. Certainly, there are nationalist political parties in Ukraine, their rating in all elections is 1.5 – 2%. Their presence in the Ukrainian Rada amounts to only a few people. They do not have any influence. They can be noisy and very demonstrative with their marches, but there is nothing more behind this, and the vast majority of the population does not support them. The Svoboda party has the greatest support, and only in the west of Ukraine, and still on a scale of 5 or 6%, even there, but in general in Ukraine it is 1.5 – 2%, as I have said. Therefore, all the chatter about denazification is talk about nothing, it is just propaganda. It is assumed that such propaganda in Russia may be in demand and may be of value.
– I consider Ukrainians to be heroes opposing huge Russian dominance. How do those around you in Russia, I mean academia and intellectuals, feel about this?
– The stance of the Ukrainian population causes respect. If we are talking about Russian academia and intellectuals, then speaking about those who call themselves intellectuals, I can say that what is happening is largely their responsibility. [It is] their responsibility due to their unconditional and thoughtless support for a number of gross, unforgivable errors associated with post-Soviet reforms in our country. Their responsibility means ignoring for two decades the value, the true political meaning of voting in parliamentary and presidential elections, the desire to replace the value criteria of politics with political technological calculations and populism with a “liberal appearance”, and political incompetence combined with boundless self-confidence and unwillingness to admit responsibility. All this was especially conspicuous in the past year when they promoted postmodernist ideas like “non-political protest”, choosing a populist as an idol and frenzied campaigning in the 2021 elections for Smart Voting [choose anyone but the ruling United Russia political party], i.e. for communists and nationalists. This is, certainly, not about all without exception, but about a significant part. In general, I can say that, from my point of view, the Russian, so-called post-Soviet, intelligentsia bears great responsibility for what is happening. This is topic for a big and separate discussion. I repeat that, certainly, I am not talking about everyone, but this applies to very many people, especially those who have been present in the media landscape in recent decades.
– Can you imagine a coup against Putin?
– No I can not.
– How strong are the protests in Russia?
– The protests are so strongly suppressed that it is not possible to estimate the number of people who would be ready to take to the streets. The repressions are so systemic, harsh and all-encompassing, that the protests are drowned in them, and people who come out to the protests come under very strong pressure. This does not have an impact on politics in Russia, but it has a very heavy impact on the fate of these people. All this is happening against the backdrop of incredible propaganda, which is absolutely dominant in Russia.
– Do Russians even know what is going on in general? How does the media work? What is on TV?
– They don’t know very well what is going on. Even fewer understand what is happening. I would like to emphasise: the scale of propaganda and lies in Russia is absolutely outrageous. To be honest, I have never even seen such a scale of propaganda and lies and I don’t remember such for the past 60 years. Even in Soviet times there was no such scope of absurd propaganda and lies. Today, literally all television channels are engaged in boundless propaganda. There is not a single somewhat independent television channel in Russia, not a single somewhat independent radio channel. There is, perhaps, one newspaper in Russia that tries to write the truth, but also not completely, because it is under enormous pressure from censorship. This is exactly what happens, this is how the media works.
What is on TV? Television spreads hatred, lies and cynical, senseless (or rather without any signs of truth) propaganda. I am talking about this with great intensity, because this has been going on for a very long time. Vladimir Putin, along with the so-called “liberal managers” and part of intellectuals we have just talked about, destroyed independent television already at the very beginning of his tenure in power, in 2000-2001, we are talking about the NTV channel. Soon there was no independent television at all.
– Do Russians have news from the Internet?
– Yes, as long as the Internet is working. However, the Internet is so diversified and there are so many propaganda and all sorts of fake channels, fake pages, fake information, that is, also lies and propaganda, that it is extremely difficult to figure out what to read and what not to read, what to focus on, and even more so in a war, it is just completely impossible for an ordinary person. Therefore, I would say that one should not overestimate the possibilities of obtaining information from the Internet, either now or in the near future.
I can tell you briefly: look at the role the Internet played in organising such protests, for example, as the Yellow Vests in France, or Occupy Wall Street, or the Arab Spring. The Internet was of decisive importance in terms of organisation there, however, none of these protests led, not only in the long term, even in the medium term, to the results that the people who went out to protest were striving for. Therefore, the Internet certainly plays a role, but it has limited political significance.
– Can you imagine that Putin would actually use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or Europe?
– Yes, I can imagine that. But I won’t comment on it.
– The Russian army is also stationed in Belarus and Lukashenko is now a de facto vassal of the Kremlin, and Russia occupies part of Ukraine. Putin often talks about the tri-nation — the great Russian nation, made up of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. How strongly does this imperial narrative resonate with so-called ordinary Russians?
– Well, it is a simple construction. This seems obvious to people, because Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians are very close. But what follows from this? Many people think this way, so what? After all, if you are my brother, I do not have the right to forbid you to marry. Why should I take your passport away from you? Why should I force you to live the way I want it? For example, Czechs and Slovaks are, as I understand it, very close nations, but this does not mean that one of them can dictate to the other how they should live.
Therefore, in the narrative about the great Russian nation (I really don’t know how “great”), which includes Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, there is nothing new or special. Literally nothing follows from this in the modern world.
After all, what is the essence of the conflict with Ukraine? That Ukraine wants to be a modern European state. It wants to have an independent judiciary, it wants to have an independent parliament, it wants to have real elections, and it wants to be able to change the President from time to time. It wants to be a law-governed state, and it wants to have a real market economy. Certainly, it is quite difficult to achieve all this and it takes a lot of time, but Ukraine is striving for this, it wants to be, I repeat, a modern European state, and this is precisely the reason for the attack from Russia. This is precisely what Putin does not want to allow Ukraine, so that it become an example for Russia in this sense. That’s what the fight is going on against – against a European Ukraine.
– The current Kremlin ideology is a special mixture of traditional Russian imperialism, pan-Slavism, Soviet Bolshevism and Eurasianism. Putin talks about a “historical Russia”. Is it just rhetoric? Or are we witnessing an imperial revisionism that could lead to a big war?
– These are very old categories, from the 19th – the first half of the 20 century. In fact, they have virtually nothing to do with modern life in the middle of the 21st century. It is like a hammer, a hoe, a sickle or some kind of an arbalest versus modern computers – it is about such a gap. The Luddites were denying the new realities in such a way when they destroyed the machines so that they wouldn’t cut jobs.
Putin’s policy is a policy of breaking with time and reality. This is a policy of misunderstanding of time, and loss of understanding of the future. It is devoid of connection with history and with the moment in history in which we live. The third decade of the 21st century and the categories you have just mentioned do not overlap. This is just rhetoric, divorced from the realities of the modern world. Well, but we can see that a war can grow out of this rhetoric.
Indeed, there are people who are so out of touch with reality that they believe in it. They believe that the most important thing is territories, and not at all the minds, souls and hearts of people. That’s it. After all, there is no desire to make Russia so strong and prosperous that Ukraine wants to join it, instead, there arises an idea to force Ukraine to the knees by force.
Last summer, on 12 July, Putin published his doctrine, which ran in detail about his understanding of the situation with the post-Soviet states, a week later my answer to him was published, in which all these issues were examined in detail.
– In recent years, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has often spoken about Eurasia and the post-Western world, mentioning cooperation with China and India. Isn’t this too short-sighted, given the future of Russia?
– You are right, it is short-sighted and devoid of a sense of reality. Neither China nor India, by and large, are particularly interested in cooperation with Russia. Russia means 2% (before the new sanctions) of world GDP, and China is not very interested in it. In fact, China is seriously interested in Ukraine because it would be good for it to have platforms in Ukraine and Belarus for trade with Europe, strong points, so it is very reserved about Russian ambitions. However, in the context of confrontation with the United States, China is playing the Russian card.
There is also a nuance in relations with India: India has very warm and friendly relations with the United States, but now there is an authoritarian regime there, and Putin wants to show that he is cooperating with it.
– Is the Russian elite really committed to a Eurasian identity?
– The Russian elite would like to receive income in the conditions of those oligarchic, corporate and mafia order that exists in Russia today, without responsibility to society and equality before the law. Is this a “Eurasian identity”? After all, they want to live in the countries that are modern European states. Therefore, the elite earns in Russia, but until recently they have been buying housing, keeping their money, continuously having holidays, and always wanted to be just in the West. Therefore, what kind of Eurasianism is there and what kind of special identity can be there…
– Putin, apparently, regrets that the countries of Central Europe, including the Czech Republic, after 1989 did not go the “Finnish” way, but became members of NATO and the European Union. However, for us Czechs, the collapse of the Soviet-Russian empire was the greatest geopolitical miracle of the 20th century. And yet, should we be afraid of Russian aggression and attempts to subdue us?
– As for the threat to, say, the Czech Republic and Central Europe in terms of possible Russian aggression and attempts to subdue, I think that today there is no such threat. This is not included in any plans in any context. Today, in my opinion, there are no such appetites in the Kremlin. However, much will depend on what happens to Ukraine. If Ukraine is really brought to its knees, then it is difficult to predict the further development of events now.
– The term West is not a geographical designation, but a circle of civilisation. And Czechs, like Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Lithuanians, etc., have been part of Western history for centuries. Milan Kundera wrote about Central Europe as a “kidnapped West”. Do Russian political and intellectual elites reflect this fact? Ethnolinguistic references to the Slavs are ahistorical and irrelevant. What do you think?
– The West is really not a geographical concept, it is a modern civilization, it is treu. Therefore, Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, they have been part of European or, if you like, Western history and [way of] living for centuries. There is nothing new in this.
What is happening is not, strictly speaking, a conflict with the Russian people. This is a conflict with the regime. I hope and believe that the Russian people will have a political system worthy of their contribution to world civilisation. Therefore, I believe that Russia has a future only as a European country. It is a European country and is, and Russia’s culture is European. By the way, the underestimation of this factor by the European and Western elites is a serious and profound mistake. Fencing off from Russia will not go. It is clear that the future of Russia is inextricably linked to Europe. In fact, Russia is a European country – in the Russian Far East, in Kaliningrad, in Moscow, and in the Urals, this is exactly the case.
Any talk of Russia being some other civilisation is talk about nothing, it is just fiction. The more such discussions are held, the more dramatic the way out of this situation will be. As I have said, now Russia is committing suicide precisely as a European country, but there is no other future [for Russia] than the European one, based on the priority of human rights, on the fact that respect for a person and human life are the most important values, on the fact that justice means living in a modern law-governed state, on the fact that it is necessary to have real private property, and not a merger of property, government and business, as happens in Russia as a result of the erroneous reforms that took place in Russia in the 1990s. That’s the answer.
Not only the countries of Eastern Europe are European countries, but Russia is also a European country with a tragic fate that began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution. Perhaps what is happening now is such a tumultuous end to this entire period that began almost 105 years ago.
– I hope that there is still a large number of free-spirited citizens left in Russia. Or is it just an optical illusion? What do you think, what is the responsibility of Russians as a nation for what regimes have dominated Russia in the last two centuries?
“I believe in our people. It has been only thirty years as we left the system of totalitarian communism, in which we lived in more than twice as long. Post-Soviet modernisation has not yet succeeded and ends tragically. Now we are going through a very difficult time, and the responsibility for what is happening now is multilateral. This applies to both the Russian intelligentsia elites and the people, and this also applies to the Western and European elites.
Well, tell me, was it not clear that Ukraine needed a plan of a large-scale Western economic assistance like the American Marshall Plan after the Second World War for Europe? And then, perhaps, what is happening now, would not happened. But no one wanted to do it. After all, I remember what happened in the European Commission, when Russia cut off the gas supply through Ukraine, and then opened it, and everyone went skiing again. I can give many such examples. Therefore, the reasons for what is happening, they lie not only in plane what Putin is doing, but also in the plane of why he can do this. This concerns Russian citizens, this concerns the Russian elite, but I reiterate: this concerns the European and Western elite too.
But, if answering the question, what is the responsibility of the Russians as a people for the Putin regime, I think that the responsibility is complete.
As for the Soviet regime, this is a different story, there was a belief in justice, which did not materialise. After Gorbachev, there was a belief that it was possible to create a European state in Russia, which, as I have already said, due to erroneous reforms, also turned out to be impossible. After that, the responsibility of Russians for their attitude to the political system, politics, the way elections are arranged in Russia, and participation in them is [their] full responsibility. Ultimately, the full responsibility rests with us, including [the responsibility] for this tragedy that is now taking place. But most of all, it lies on those so-called intellectuals who are leaving Russia today shouting “Who could have thought?”, “No one could believe it!”. But they were told about it, they were warned about it. However, clowning, senselessness and their self-confidence played a role in the fact that the result turned out to be such as it is.
I just would like to say that the Russian experience shows that power, generally speaking, is a reflection of the elites: what are the elites, what are the intelligentsia in Russia, such is the power, and Putin is a reflection of this elite.
– How can we, the states of the West, help the Russians in the struggle for freedom so that this would not be perceived as a brazen interference?
– You have enough intellectual potential in the West, universities, specialists. Just be serious, smart and responsible, be honest and do not replace politics with clowning. It is enough. And then you figure it all out for yourself. I can’t give you advice, and I don’t want to.
– And what would you say to the Ukrainians who became the object of aggression of the Russian Federation?
– On behalf of those who are categorically against all this, I can say: forgive me, if you can. I know it is impossible, but I have nothing more to say.
13 March, 2022