Lyudmila Alexeyeva: democracy must have a chance in Russia

First published in Upnorth

(Photo Toomas Volmer, courtesy of Open Estonia Foundation)

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran Russian human rights champion and a winner of European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought in 2009, visited Estonia in March. Alexeyeva was invited to Estonia by Open Estonia Foundation and she got a dignified reception there: she was invited to talk at the Estonian Parliament, the Riigikogu, and she was personally welcomed by the President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Alexeyeva gave a public talk at the Radisson hotel to a full conference hall, where she talked about the activities of her civil rights movement, “Article 31” as well as the state of democracy and civil society in Russia in general.

Alexeyeva emphasized that the human rights situation in Russia was not quite similar to that in the Soviet Union that she had been forced to leave in 1970-ies (she has been engaged  in rights activism since the post-Stalinist “thaw” and the first Samizdat). Now, she says, there is a certain degree of freedom of speech, as small independent newspapers and radio stations are allowed to exist, but the vast majority of media, including the TV-stations with large nationa  audiences are under strong government control.

Alexeyeva also regretted there were no fair democratic elections in Russia. However, given the impact of state propaganda, the lack of genuine democracy and the poverty of the nation, the growth of the civil society is encouraging in her view. The activity of citizens gives hope of a more democratic Russia in the future: in Alexeyeva’s  words, there are signs that the leaders can no longer ignore the public opinion as the pressure from the grassroots is steadily growing.

I met Lyudmila Alexeyeva in Tallinn on March 12, 2010.



We often hear that democracy in Russia is just around the corner, but yesterday you spoke that there is practically no democracy in Russia, just an imitation of elections where the citizens have no real chance to influence the outcome.

Russia is of course an authoritarian state, but I’d call it “soft authoritarianism”, especially when compared to the Soviet time. But we are not a democratic state, basically all necessary elements of democracy have been destroyed. We have no real elections, neither on the federal nor on the local level. The results of the elections are decided beforehand by those in power, they try to organize the pre-election campaign so that it leads to their desired results, the opponents of their candidates, especially the popular ones, are barred by most idiotic excuses and through courts. If even after all those measures the results are not the ones they want, the election commission simply falsifies them.

We have a lot of proof for it, because they do it in a very rough, clumsy way. And experts will explain afterwards why they believe that the elections have been falsified. Those statements are published in the kind of publications that I read but most voters do not read. Still, if you ask ordinary voters if the elections are fair, 90% would say that they are not. Even the people most loyal to those in power understand that our elections are not fair. They are arranged  so that we lack a real possibility to vote power-holders out of office. We cannot remove the president or the parliament parties that we don’t like.

I am a relatively active citizen, but I did not vote in the last presidental elections, just because it is against my dignity to take part in such a procedure. Why participate if you know the results in advance. If you ask any ordinary Russian about the elections, they’ll tell you: nothing depends on us. The same was said in the Soviet times. But in the Soviet times people said it humbly. Now the same thing is being said with indignation, because in the 1990-ies we had elections. I wouldn’t say they were flawless, but people realized that something could depend on their vote. Now that is gone, and people are angry. This is the difference in the psychology of the Soviet man and a contemporary Russian.

At the same time you say that civil society is getting stronger. How is it possible that civil society is getting stronger while there is no real democracy?

Because  our civil society is relatively new. It was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, less than 20 years ago. A strong civil society cannot develop in such a short time. I am surprised to see how quickly it grows, because we have no democratic tradition. We are very poor, most people live in poverty. Poverty always lowers people’s civic activity, and power-holders manipulate people’s minds through mass media, mostly TV. And they frighten and intimidate people. Therefore the conditions for the development of a civil society are very unfavorable. But it keeps growing, and therefore I believe that soon the bureaucracy and our leaders no longer can completely ignore the public opinion.

There are already some signs of it. For example, in 2003-4 public opinion was regarded much less. Elections, political parties, and the independence of non-governmental organisations – in those years there was none of it. The only real right we had left was the right to go abroad. Now there is some kind of public opposition. Mr. Putin did not pay any attention at all to what people thought. But he can’t go on like that any more.

For example, Putin said in mid-2000s that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the right decision by Stalin, because it postponed the war against Germany – so he was right from the political point of view as it was in the interest of the state. From the moral point of view – Putin apparently has no such criteria, he paid no attention to the moral side. But recently in Poland at the Katyn memorial he admitted that the pact was immoral. I am sure he did not want to say that but he had to. Because he now represents a state that cannot completely ignore the opinion of its own citizenry or the West.

Another example – Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of our Duma, said about the plans of Moscow city government to put up the portraits of Stalin for the celebrations of the victory anniversary of WW II that it was a wrong decision that United Russia did not support. Why did he say that? I am sure it was a test of how the society would react. The society reacted very strongly. Now they act as if they made that decision up there. They still don’t understand that it is a merit in a democracy, if a leader speaks publicly: ‘I change my decision because the public opinion is against it’. They fear  that it is a sign of weakness, so they act as if there were no protests and it’s their own wise decision. Our society is much more clever and honest than our government.

So the pressure of public opinion has real political influence, while elections do not?

Yes. Through elections we cannot influence things, or maybe we will be able to, if the pressure grows strong enough. For example there were elections of the meer in Derpent, Dagestan. It was all arranged for the official candidate to win, and many stations simply remained closed. But in others that were open, people queued for the whole day to vote. And there were tanks in the streets, those who voted against the official candidate were beaten up, there was a total chaos even in Russian terms. The powerholders’ candidate won, the opponents sued the results, and the court decided the elections had to be retaken, that they were not fair. Why did they do it – because there was a national scandal. That means they slowly-slowly move forward because they have to take the public opinion into account. I could bring many more such examples.

Regarding the events in Kaliningrad, I think the organizers of the meeting there made a big mistake. Their governor, Georgiy Boos, is a real bastard, he turned the region into a closed shareholder society, he just makes money out of his position. He closed hospitals, anything that the citizens need but that won’t benefit him, was closed down. So people hate him and want to get rid of him. If they had gone to the streets demanding that the governor be removed from office, I am sure he would have been removed. But they demanded that both Putin and Boos be removed, and as a result Boos was not removed.

There has been talk about democracy not being suitable for Russians, that “the Western values” have no place in the Russian culture. But you say that people stand in queues to vote and they want to influence decisions. How would you respond to the argument that Russia does not need democracy?

Those opinion polls are done by journalists who serve the power. They try to convince us on TV that we have our own way, we don’t need democracy. I cannot say that all of our society demands democracy.  But a significant part of the people understands the need for democracy, in spite of all that propaganda. And another significant part of our citizenry, the less educated and less thoughtful part, they generally accept the slogan: the West is different, we have our own way. But this is how the argument goes: – Do you support Putin? – Yes. – How do you like our economic policy? – It’s terrible! – Or education? – Horrible! – How are things with the militia? – Catastrophy! – The army? – Devastation! – So why do you support Putin? – Oh, I do support Putin! Because they say on TV that Putin is a wise and important man. And they don’t realize that Putin is responsible for everything they don’t like. But after some time they’ll think again.

In 2004 the elections of governors were cancelled, they are now centrally appointed. Still if you ask if the governor should be appointed or elected, more than 60% of people think that they should be elected democratically. About 20% say they don’t know. So a clear minority supports that decision of Putin. They do support democracy, don’t they? They don’t know it themselves – they say they are against democracy, but when asked a concrete question, they support more democratic solutions rather than the contrary.

The claim that Russia does not need democracy is obviously not spread only in Russian media. Some people say Western people are naïve with regard to Russia, and a lot of money is spent to influence Western opinion about Russia.

They do spend a lot of money. We have a special TV-station, Russia Today, that tries to present Russia as a much more democratic country than it actually is. It is a channel in English and it is broadcast abroad. I am often asked to give interviews – they can show that of course we  have democracy, as you can see Alexeyeva on TV! But it’s people in the West who see it, in Russia they don’t. They do use a lot of resources and energy to affect Western opinion. But they are doing much worse than in the Soviet time. They have much less success. In the Soviet time, I was amazed in America about those poor people in the West, the anti-American “peace movements” that were active in Europe.

I don’t know how they deluded people, but I was amazed about their naiveté. Now there is nothing like that. I don’t know if it’s because they lack the know-how, or don’t have enough money now, but the West is much better informed about contemporary Russia.

However, at a recent conference in the US, there was an American political scientist who explained to us how popular Putin was in Russia, how wise his politics was and that all that his opponents said was a lie, because of his high ratings in opinion polls. But I explained how people were happy with Putin on the one hand, but on the other hand they were unhappy with everything he did. That political scientist either didn’t tknow it or didn’t want to pay attention. Maybe he is just naïve, or maybe he is pathetic.

Russian political analyst Lilia Shevtsova wrote in Foreign Policy that Western politicians and intellectuals do not offer Russian liberals enough support. What do you think people in the West can do to help democratic Russians?

Mass media in the West should describe the situation of Russia as it is, and allow themselves to criticize what is going on, in politics as well as economics. You don’t need to be a specialist in economics to see that public money is used to save the businesses of friends of the leaders, those great oligarchs. Instead of letting them go bankrupt, they are saved, but small enterprises that create jobs, that really are responsible for the economic flourishing of the people, not just Putin’s friends, they do not grow,  because the conditions are so bad: corruption, reiderstvo and bad laws that serve the interests of monopolies. As small enterprises go down, unemployment grows. Our leaders are illiterate not just politically, but also economically. It’s not just that they are authoritarian and don’t care for the people, they are bad managers in economics as well as politics.

You said there is some freedom of speech, compared to Soviet times, that small newspapers can function independently although the big ones are controlled?

It is not so that all big media are controlled but all small ones are independent. Most of the small media are also dependent, there just is a little part that are independent. It is enthusiasts that work in very difficult conditions, for very small money. The journalists who want to work independently, they lose in their salary, compared to those who serve the state. TV channels pay well enough for them to buy expensive cars, have nice vacations – they are not exactly rich people but they live broadly. But those working for independent newspapers take the subway, and have their holidays in a near-by village.

As many journalists and human rights activists have been killed in Russia, aren’t you ever afraid for your safety?

Yes, journalists do get killed. It depends for which media you work, in provinces the threat is real to everyone. As for me, I am 82 years old. People die one day anyway. It is better to get shot than to lie in a hospital in pain for half a year after a stroke.

I might reconsider it if I were 40 years old. Or if my children were in Russia. If your family is threatened, there is not much you can do. In this sense, today’s Russia is more unpredictable than it was in the Soviet time. In the Soviet time you knew what could happen, one did not get killed. There could be jail or labor camp, I got the “most humane” punishment – I was sent out of the country. But anyway, then we knew what could happen to us and what kind of risks we took. Now it’s totally unpredictable.

Your movement’s goal is to establish real freedom of assembly, to enforce Article 31 of the Russian constitution in practice. If that will be achieved, what will happen then?

That is a very significant goal, it shows that the civil society fights for its rights. If the right to gather is granted, everything changes – the power of the people to demonstrate in the streets will be a real political power to be reckoned with. But as long as we don’t have that power, it actually helps us that the authorities try to prevent us from assembling, this way we get much more attention – who would otherwise notice us standing on the street corner? So the militia does us a great favor by intervening with our meetings. We are trying to educate them, the citizens as well as the authorities. But it is easier to educate the citizens, it is much harder to democratically educate the authorities.

You could have remained safely in the US. What made you come back to Russia, and what keeps you still going?

I’ll be doing this as long as I am able to, I have been doing this for 45 years now and I see no reason to quit while I still can do it. I never wanted to go to the US in the first place, I was made to leave, so when the Soviete Union collapsed I went back to Russia – because I could. I don’t intend to leave again, although my sons remained in the States. But if I lived in the US, I’d be probably doing the same, only under more comfortable conditions.

I do believe Russia will be more democratic in 10-15 years, democracy will advance because it has to, people make it to. It is not about the personality of the president, it is about the civil society. Democracy and the rule of law flourish wherever there is a strong civil society, that’s why I believe democracy must have a chance here too.

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