The Man the Kremlin Can’t Kill: Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza

 /  April 6, 2018, 9:43 p.m.


Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prominent Russian director, activist, and leader in the opposition movement against the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He serves as vice chairman of Open Russia, an NGO founded to promote and encourage civic participation, constitutional reforms, and economic regulations in Russia to address the repressive and devastating legacy of authoritarian government. In the past three years, there have been two attempts to assassinate Kara-Murza by poison, first in 2015, and again in 2017. During the Spring Quarter of 2018, he is serving as an IOP Pritzker Fellow with the Institute of Politics. His seminars centered around the flaws of the longstanding practice of realpolitik between the White House and the Kremlin, the legacy of his colleague and dear friend, opposition leader Boris Nemsov (who was slain in 2015), and the necessary reforms that need to be made to achieve a more, free, fair, and democratic Russia post-Putin. He sat down with The Gate to discuss his thoughts on Russian propagandists, the relationship between Western nations and the Kremlin, and the need to avoid conflating the regime of Vladimir Putin with the country of Russia when discussing these topics.

The Gate: Ex-KGB member Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned and killed in 2006, British informant Sergei V. Skripal, poisoned in 2018, and prominent Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, shot and killed in 2015, are among the political dissidents of Putin targeted by the Kremlin.  You yourself have twice been poisoned, first in 2015, and again in 2017—why does the Kremlin want you dead?

Kara-Murza: First of all, it has been a long pattern going back years— those people who have in one way or another crossed the path of the current Kremlin regime, the Putin regime, for some reason have a very high mortality rate. This mortality rate is not explained by any normal statistical model. Dissidents have died of rare diseases, have been outright murdered, killed, and poisoned, including in other countries as some of the cases you referred to involved. 

This goes back even further. The KGB has been known to poison Kremlin opponents inside and outside what was then the Soviet Union. I wish that there was something new or surprising to this, but this has been a long standing pattern. This is the nature of the regime that we have in Russia today, a regime that does not tolerate dissent, different opinion, and equates itself with a country. You yourself said this in the question, the people the Kremlin considers to be against Russian interests—I do not consider myself to be against Russian interests, I’m a Russian, a Russian patriot. I knew no bigger patriot of Russia than Boris Nemtsov, somebody who risked everything to stand up for what he believed in, because he cared about his country too much to stand idly by, to leave and reside abroad, and to not be bothered, because he thought that what this regime is doing to our country is destroying our country, and destroying our country’s future. He felt he had to do something about it. This is the biggest form of patriotism there is, and he gave his life for it. He knew that what he was doing was dangerous and risky.

In my view, the people who are damaging Russian interests are the people who are stealing the rights of Russian citizens; these are the people who are in power in the Kremlin today. Those who are really against Russian interests are Mr. Putin and his clique. People who are finding it in themselves to oppose this regime are the people who are standing up for Russia and the future of Russia.

Gate: In the wake of the 2014 Ukraine crisis, political theorists debated the motivations behind Putin’s decision to annex Crimea. Was Putin compelled by a legitimate fear of Western expansionism in Eastern Europe? Was he motivated by personal interests, such as a desire to rescue his image in the wake of publicly derided sham elections, and a sanction-wounded Russian economy? Was he a rational actor throughout?

KM: First of all, I’d want to talk about Western expansion. That of course, in itself, is very much a fake construct, that has been created by the Kremlin for propaganda purposes. What Western expansionism? Russia is also a western country. We are a part of the European Christian civilization, we are a part of the “larger West”, if you want to use that term widely.

We are a European country. Our most secure and our safest borders are to our West—the borders with NATO and European Union countries. The biggest problematic areas that we have are in the South and in the East, so this whole construct from the beginning is bogus, and it is built for propaganda purposes by Putin and his regime for their own ends.

I think what he did in Crimea, and generally what he did against Ukraine in 2014, after the Ukrainians had their “revolution of dignity” as they call it, is, I’m convinced that if there were any geopolitical reasons, those were very much secondary. They could have been an added bonus for Putin to boast that he’s expanding his influence in the Post-Soviet sphere, as he calls it. But I think that the absolutely central motivation for him in attacking Ukraine in 2014 was his fear of a similar scenario repeating itself in Russia.

Russia and Ukraine are very similar. When democracy is successful in Estonia or the Czech Republic, it doesn’t mean much for Russia. Ukraine and Russia however, are similar in so many ways. We have centuries of shared history, shared culture, very similar language, same religion—we are very much alike. And so the sight of a corrupt, authoritarian strong man [Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych], fleeing from power—literally fleeing in a helicopter while hundreds of thousands of people are demonstrating on the streets of the capital, as happened in Ukraine in 2014—that was an analogy too close to home frankly, for Vladimir Putin. He was afraid that if he didn’t act, as he saw it, to prevent the success of the Maidan protests in Kiev, there would one day be a Maidan in Moscow. It would only be a question of time before Russian citizens would begin to ask themselves, “Why can our neighbors, who are so similar to us in many ways, freely elect and criticize their government, and we cannot?”

I think that everything that he has been doing against Ukraine since 2014 has been driven by his motivation to prevent, and stifle the success of the Ukrainian democratic revolution, in an attempt to prevent a similar scenario happening in Russia.

Gate: In 2015, you and former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov presented the U.S Congress with the “Nemtsov List”. In the document, you named multiple State-employed journalists and media figures who had contributed to an atmosphere of “hatred, intolerance, and violence” towards Boris Nemtsov in the months leading up to his assassination in Moscow. Is the manipulation of media designed to promote the political agenda of Putin among the Russian people, or does it serve the purpose of projecting a specific kind of strongman image unto international audiences?

KM: First of all, let’s call things for what they are, these are not journalists, these are not media figures, these are state employed propagandists. These are people in the vein of Julius Streicher who was convicted by the Nuremburg Tribunal after the Second World War, who was the founder of Der Stürmer, a pro-Nazi propaganda newspaper. These are people like Ferdinand Nahimana, who was editor and chief of a radio station [Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines] that was instrumental in inciting the Rwandan genocide.

These are not journalists. These are propagandists, and propaganda can kill. We saw that in Moscow in the February of 2015.

The atmosphere that made it possible to assassinate the leader of the opposition right in front of the Kremlin Walls did not come out of nowhere; it wasn’t created out of thin air. It was created by specific people with specific names, who were employed by the state, and who were working for state “media outlets”, state propaganda bodies, such as Channel One, Rossyia Channel, all nationwide television networks in Russia are directly controlled and governed by the state.

These are state employees who use state resources to spread hate and intolerance against those who oppose the Kremlin. They’ve been doing it for months, and years, against Boris Nemtsov. They’ve been calling him a traitor, accusing him of being an agent, and saying that he would have welcomed German troops into Moscow if he had been alive in 1941-- all this mind boggling nonsense, but it’s more than just nonsense, because propaganda can kill.

When Prime Minister Kasyanov and I brought that message to the U.S three years ago, we considered what they had been doing to have been incitement—in this case incitement to murder. We believe that it is high time for Western democracies to shut their doors to people who incite, spread hate, and preach hate, against opponents of Vladimir Putin.

Many of these people, while they’re doing what they’re doing, spreading this virulent, anti-Western propaganda, engaging in hatred and incitement against opponents of Vladimir Putin, they themselves very often want to enjoy nice, Western lifestyles. For instance, Vladimir Solovyov, who is one of the main propagandists on Putin’s state television—likes going to New York City, and strolling around Central Park. Dmitri Kiselyov, probably the main propagandist on state television in Russia, he went to vacation in Amsterdam in the Netherlands a few years ago—by the way, he is blacklisted now by the European Union. Another propagandist, Aleksey Pushkov, who is also a member of the Russian parliament, is now black-listed by the United States. We hope this process continues, and that more of these people are added to these lists.

There is a phenomenal hypocrisy, at the basis of all of this—again, the people who spread hate, and engage in incitement, both against the domestic opponents of Vladimir Putin, those who advocate for democracy, human rights, and universal values in Russia, but  also against the West, and including the United States, these people themselves want to come and enjoy a nice Western lifestyle—that’s the definition of hypocrisy. This goes wider than just propagandists—for many years, I have been involved in the international Magnitsky campaign, which is a campaign to persuade parliaments across the democratic West, both in Europe and in North America, to introduce targeted personal sanctions, visa and financial sanctions, against individuals who are complicit in corruption and human rights abuses.

I want to stress here that I do not mean sanctions against Russia. I’m Russian, I do not advocate for sanctions against my own country. These are specific individual targeted sanctions on people who are perpetrators of corruption, and human rights abuses. So under the premises of the Magnitsky Act, which is passed now under the U.S., in Canada, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and which we hope to spread to more countries, those people who violate, attack, and undermine the most basic norms of democracy and the rule of law in their own countries, will no longer be allowed to enjoy the privileges of Western countries that have democracy and the rule of law.

And again, on their part, this constitutes enormous hypocrisy. These are the same people who deny Russian citizens the most basic democratic rights and freedoms—themselves, they want to send their kids to study in Western countries, for their wives and mistresses purchase yachts, villas, and mansions, and open bank accounts—this is phenomenal hypocrisy on their part.

But on the part of Western countries—in our view, this constitutes as enabling. This is because if you welcome the people who perpetuate human rights abuses in Russia, onto your soil and into your banks, you are, in effect, enabling human rights abuses and corruption in Russia. We hope that this stops.

Gate: The Sinclair Broadcast Group has recently come under fire for the widespread usage of pre-written scripts for a multitude of TV anchors across the country. Critics have accused Sinclair of contributing to the “fake news” narrative promoted by President Donald Trump—the notions that mainstream news media outlets are not trustworthy sources of information. What is your reaction to this controversy, given your advocacy against the Kremlin’s propaganda?

KM: First of all, I think that there is absolutely no comparison between anything that’s going on in this country and in Russia. I’m not saying that there aren’t problems here, it’s not my place to comment on them, it seems that there are enough Russians trying to meddle into U.S domestic policy and I don’t want to become one more, as Americans are perfectly capable of dealing themselves with this issue. But I do want to make this point that there is no comparison, between whatever problems you all might have here, and the full fledged authoritarian kleptocratic regime that we have in Russia. When people try to make those comparisons, it’s actually pretty offensive. Here you don’t have people who oppose the President being killed, or put into prison, so there is absolutely no comparison. The problems here are on a totally different scale, a totally different planet, to what we have.

Gate: President Trump recently drew ire for congratulating President Putin on his recent re-election to a fifth term as Russian President. What are the potential consequences of this camaraderie between these leaders for the U.S’ legitimacy as a global promoter of human rights, democracy, and liberal norms?

KM: This has been a long and unfortunate tradition of Western leaders, not just in America, but in Europe also, picking up their phones and congratulating a dictator on a sham election victory. We do not have elections in Russia. What we have are preordained spectacles that are made to look like elections, but there is no substance there, no real competition, no level playing field, and no real contest.

I can talk for a long time about how this process is controlled and managed at every stage from access to the media, to applying pressure and coercing voters during voting, and rigging the final vote tallies.

But we don’t really need to speak about that because the defining feature of the so-called election that we just had in Russia two-weeks ago, was that it was rigged long before the first polling place was even opened. There were two major opposition figures who were planning to run against Mr. Putin in 2018—one was Boris Nemtsov, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and the other was Alexei Navalny, a prominent anti-corruption activist, neither of them was on the ballot. Boris Nemtsov did not run because, as you know, he was killed three years ago, and Navalny did not run, because he was deliberately barred from running by a trumped up court conviction that the Russian authorities issued against him. It’s not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot.

For leaders of the democratic West to legitimize this sham, to call Putin to congratulate him—in effect they are congratulating him on stealing an election, because that is what he did. As I mentioned this is a long and very unfortunate tradition. This was done by President Bush, this was done by President Obama, this was done by many leaders in Europe, we see that this continues to be done by the current U.S President, and many other leaders of the Western world.

I recently had an op-ed on this in World Affairs, about how unacceptable it is for the leaders of Western democracies to dignify and legitimize this so-called election, this charade, this sham that Putin has staged. I think this goes to a deeper issue that too many leaders in the democratic West still do this, after everything that has happened, and this is astonishing, Putin has been in power for almost two decades now, he’s done now almost everything including open military aggression against other countries, including trying to interfere with the political processes in other countries, as you know too well here, including the first formal territorial annexation in Europe since the Second World War, which he’s done in Crimea.

I’m not even talking about the numerous abuses of basic norms and rule of law and human rights in Russia—the election rigging, the media censorship, the political repression, yet after all of this, there are still leaders in the democratic West who are trying to make deals with this authoritarian ruler and trying to be friends with him. First of all, in my view this is immoral, for any leader of Western democracy to try to make deals with an authoritarian dictator, behind the backs of the Russian people who are denied the right to freely elect their own government, behind the backs of other countries that are being attacked and threatened by Putin’s regime. Also, apart from being immoral, it is in my view also very short-sighted, because if the last two decades are not enough to show the extent of Putin’s corruption, I do not know what will.

This goes for the U.S.:, let’s remember President Bush who looked into Putin’s eyes and got a sense of his soul, and President Obama who declared a reset with Putin, and praised the great work he’s done on behalf of the Russian people. And so what we see here today here with the current U.S., administration is basically a continuation of what we saw before. And we know what this led to—the horrendous abuses of human rights and democracy in Russia. This led to the Kremlin trying to interfere in the affairs of other countries including, again, military incursion, the annexation of Crimea, and the fact that now the relationship between Moscow and the U.S. is the worst it’s been since the heyday of the Cold War. We are here today because for so many years, instead of standing up for their values and their principles, and for what their countries are actually supposed to stand for, many leaders in Western democracies instead, chose to try to befriend a dictator, we saw the results of that. I do not know why so many people want to repeat the same mistake over and over again.

Gate: Mythologies are an important aspect of how nations and peoples conceptualize of who they are. What kind of new national mythos might Russians champion as an alternative to the currently entrenched tradition of oppressive, strong man, hyper-nationalist politics?

KM: Well of course, this myth as you describe it, that’s very much one imposed from above. The authoritarian regime in Russia has not arisen from the free choice of the Russian people—Putin is not a democratically elected President, he’s a dictator. In fact, here I’m speaking as a historian, I’m a historian myself by education— there has been this long held stereotype that Russians are just not made for democratic rule. They have to live under a dictatorship, or autocratic “firm hand”, etc. This stereotype is very well entrenched and has been around for years, it’s very shallow. To me as a Russian, it’s frankly insulting to suggest that there are some people who are uniquely unsuited to live under democracy for some reason.

Most importantly of all however, it is not true. If you look at the track record of the Russian people’s attitude towards democracy, you’ll see that every time the Russian people actually have a choice, in a more or less free election, between dictatorship and democracy, they always chose democracy. This happened in 1906, the first Duma election, in 1917, the elections of the Constituent Assembly, and in 1991, the Russian Presidential election—every time the Russians could choose, instead of being told that they are not suited to democracy, how much they need a firm hand, they chose democracy.

Let’s keep in mind that this mythology, as you correctly put it, that Russia just needs or is made for the strong hand and the stern whip, this is shallow, this is insulting, and has no basis in reality. I have absolutely no doubt that when the time comes, when that day is finally upon us, and when the Russian people are free to go and choose their own government in a free and fair election, they will make a wise choice.

Gate: What should be the most important priority for Russian political, economic, and pro-human rights reforms in the coming post-Putin period? Should activists fight for ambitious projects of structural reparation for past injustice, or try to establish a sense of normalcy in the wake of an authoritarian regime?

KM: We cannot establish a sense of normalcy unless we deal with the effects of decades of authoritarianism, which we’ve now had in Russia. In the 1990’s, the last time Russia underwent unsuccessfully, a democratic transition, a lot of mistakes were made. The major mistake was not to fully account for the past crimes of the Soviet regime. We had no lustrations [purges of Soviet officials from government], no trial of the old system, no full opening of the archives, like they did in other post-Communist countries, and certainly in Eastern Europe, we didn’t have that. The result of that is that just 8 years after the Russian democratic revolution of 1991, a former office of the Soviet Security service, a man named Vladimir Putin, came to power. This would have been impossible if we had undergone that process of reconciliation, lustration, and cleansing, of elements of the corrupt Soviet regime from government.

This has taken forms in different countries; South Africa had the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions after Apartheid. Many Eastern and Central European countries had their own lustrations and de-communizations, Germany had de-Nazification. We had some small steps, but they were incomplete and in no way enough and we saw the results of that. This was the first major mistake.

The second major mistake was to go, in the early 1990’s, for a super-Presidential power structure. Under our constitution, the President basically has enormous power, and is not checked by other branches of government. Even when we had a real Parliament, one that was democratically elected and pluralistic, it was still not very powerful. I think one of the major reasons that those mistakes were made was not through bad intentions or malicious design, but because the people who came into power in the 1990’s were not ready for the transition. This is because the communist regime collapsed in 3 days. It had stood for 7 decades, and it collapsed in August of 1991 in three days.

But this is how things usually happen in Russia, as it did with the 1905 revolution, 1917 revolution, and the 1991 revolution. If you look at all these big political upheavals, they always begin very suddenly and unexpectedly, when nobody is prepared. The result of nobody being prepared is that so many mistakes are made. We cannot afford to not be prepared the next time Russia embarks on a democratic transition, which will happen.

I find it really funny that people now speak as if the Putin regime were invincible, around for decades and forever. That’s what people thought about the Tsarist Empire, that’s what people thought about the old Soviet regime--where are these regimes today? Again, things in Russia change quickly and unexpectedly. It is our task, as a responsible opposition, to be preparing for that future change and transition today. When changes start happening, it’s already too late to start sitting down and figuring out what to do next. This is a major part of the work that we are doing at my organization, Open Russia, to prepare for that future transition. The way that we are doing it is first of all by working on some of the substance of the future reform. This involves proposals made by working groups on energy sector reform, de-monopolization of the economy, and on constitutional reforms.

The other way we are working on this is by working with the younger generation, the democratic and civil society activists, especially people who are your age, who will be responsible for that future post-Putin transition. We have several training and educational projects directed specifically at them—civic and political education projects to try to help them get involved, become active and informed citizens, and try to empower them.

This is probably the most important aspect of what we are doing today. If you want to talk about substance, I think one of the most important things that will have to be done after Putin’s regime exits the state in one way or another, which will happen because nothing lasts forever, is a shift from the super-presidential power structure to a much more balanced, democratic, and Parliamentary system.

It has been shown in dozens of studies of the years that Parliamentary systems are much more conducive to protecting democracy and democratic institutions than Presidential systems are. I think that it’s pretty telling that if you look at Europe today, there are only two countries in Europe, where the parliamentary principle does not apply, where the executive is not accountable to parliament. One of them is Russia, and the other is Belarus—that should speak for itself.

Gate: Looking forward how should Western states like the U.S and U.K respond to Russian election meddling, aggression, or assassination attempts? Should the long held hesitations on the overt promotion of democracy, EU economic integration, and pro-Western regimes by Western states be lifted or maintained?

KM: In your question you said Russian meddling and Russian aggression—please don’t equate Russia and Putin, because they are two different things. Too many people in the West do that—I am a former journalist myself, I understand shorthand, it’s easier for readers to say Russian rather than to say Kremlin or Putin, but it’s not the same thing. Don’t equate a country with an authoritarian clique that misrules that country—they’re different things.

On the substance of the question, for years we have had this phenomenal double-standard and hypocrisy right at the heart of the Putin system of, whereby the people in the Putin regime, the oligarchs and the officials around Putin, the same people who have been abusing, attacking, and undermining the basic norms of democracy in Russia, have been themselves enjoying the privileges, opportunities, and perks of democracy in the West.  So they, in effect, have been stealing from Russia but spending that money in the West. This has been going on for years, and on the part of Western countries, this constitutes enabling, because if you welcome the perpetuators of corruption and human rights abuses in Russia in your countries and in your banking systems, then you are enabling that corruption and abuse in Russia.

And this needs to stop—more countries should follow the lead of the U.S, Canada, and the Baltic countries, and introduce Magnitsky Laws, and make it clear that all who are complicit in human rights abuses and corruption in their own countries will no longer be able to receive visas in Western countries, own assets in Western countries, and use the banking systems of Western countries—five countries as of today have done this—the U.S, Canada, and the three Baltic States. However, these countries must also step up the implementation of the Magnitsky Laws, because it’s not enough to have them on the books, they need to be active and practically implemented. Those countries that haven’t still passed them should follow that lead and pass them. This would finally send a clear message—better late than never—that the crooks and the human rights abusers will no longer be welcome.

The featured image is provided by the Institute of Politics. The original image can be found here.

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.


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