Former Tomsk Oblast cultural department head Andrei Kuzichkin says policy of Putin's regime is built on special operations while Kremlin sees Western leaders as weak.
Kuzichkin fled Russia to Estonia at the beginning of 2014, obtaining political asylum in last August. While former high officials leaving Russia is no news, Mr Kuzichkin is a rare figure applying for political asylum abroad and granted the status.
He was forced to leave homeland due to being accused in embezzlement. He organised a trip for young representatives of minority religions into Israel. The tickets for the youth were covered by sponsors. Mr Kuzichkin went along with family but paid for the tickets personally. Afterwards, FSB begun to accuse him of embezzlement of part of the project’s money and he was sued. He says the accusation was based on a document allegedly signed by him, but he had never signed the paper.
Currently, the man 56 years of age is studying Estonian and teaching in a languages school in Tallinn.
-You fled Russia 1.5 years ago and applied for political asylum in Estonia. Why did you decide to leave homeland?
FSB wanted to blackmail me and I was convicted at court in embezzlement, the punishment was a ban to work at state institutions. I am a liberal and I did not go along with persecution against representatives of minority religions and homosexuals. Therefore, I was disliked by many.
After the court verdict I lost my position as head of cultural department and got a job at a university. FSB called my boss and asked: «Why does Kuzichkin work at your university?» After that I lost my job at the university. I went to work at a company. Two months later FSB approached my boss and asked: «Why does Kuzichkin work in this company?»
It became impossible to find work.
-Did you decide to come specifically to Estonia, or did you consider other countries as well?
The Russian penal service wanted to take away my passport. I realised that if I would hand over the passport, I would never get away from Russia. So I applied for Estonian visa, having lots of friends here.
In hindsight, it was the right decision. Of course it was difficult. I am 56, and it is difficult to start anew.
-Has FSB attempted to reach you in Estonia some way?
No, but they have talked to my family members in Russia. I gave an interview to Viktoria Ladynskaya, saying they have begun to close the oxygen taps in Russia. Half a year later, two newspapers in Tomsk found it. They wrote: «Kuzichkin has become a prisoner of «Geyrope».» One journalist claimed I was a bad person. After that, FSB workers visited my wife and son.
-So your wife and son are still living in Russia?
They were in Estonia for half a year but went back afterwards as my son wants to attend school in Russia. I don’t know about the future. I do not want to go to Russia, so hopefully they will come to Estonia.
-Recently, Postimees published your opinion article about the kidnapping of Eston Kohver. What kind of fate may Mr Kohver be faced with in Russia, in your opinion? Will he be put behind bars, or Kremlin opt to release him at some point?
There is currently a standoff going on between The West and Russia. Therefore, Russia is in need of political capital and Eston Kohver is part of that. Maybe they will want to use him to bargain, in the future, or something like that. At the moment, there are lots of Russian spies in Western prisons. It is therefore very dangerous for foreigners to travel to Russia.
-For whom precisely? For foreign state officials and journalists, or tourists as well?
Foreigners cannot feel safe in Russia. Thus, travelling to Russia is dangerous to all, but for especially for journalists obviously. If you start to ask too many questions in Russia, you will be extremely suspicious.
-In media, it has been speculated that the severe economic situation may lead to Putin being toppled. What, in your estimate, is the future of him and of Russia?
Putin will stay in power for quite a long time. And that not only thanks to the support of oligarch and the public opinion, but also thanks to Western leaders. I believe that Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and David Cameron just do not know what to do with Putin. For them, it is important who will rise to power after him.
If Putin should be followed by the ardent hater of the West [Russia’s deputy prime minister] Dmitri Rogozin, the nuclear threat will grow. But is has also been speculated that Putin’s replacement may be [Russia’s former finance minister] Aleksei Kudrin.
I know Kudrin very well, I have met him both in Tomsk and in Moscow. I do not believe Kudrin could replace Putin, being a liberal and too weak for Russia. Rather, it could be [Russia’s defence minister] Sergei Shoigu. Why Shoigu? Because the Russian society is in a situation where they want a heavy-handed leader. Russians fear freedom.
Putin enjoys the West not really knowing what to do with Russia. He sees the Western leaders as weak, and he likes that. Kremlin-controlled media helps show impact of Western sanctions in a way that popular support towards the president grows. The Russians are convinced that USA and Europe hate Russia and want to destroy it.
-Why do Russians fear freedom and need a heavy-handed leader?
We have not much experience with freedom. We could only enjoy it for a few years, at the beginning of the 1990ieas. After that, freedom again begun to disappear.
In 1991, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians came to the streets and demanded freedom. In Russia, people only came to the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg. Let me bring you an example.
When the Soviet Union was breaking apart, my wife’s brother was living in a small village in Tomsk Oblast. This is the way he described 1991: «I looked out the window and saw a new flag. It was not red, but white-blue-red... What happened?» In Russia back then, such a reaction was widespread.
-What is your opinion of Putin?
I liked Putin when I first met him in Tomsk, in 1999. Back then, he was acting prime minister. He was young and energetic. After the elections in 2004 I no longer liked him as he begun to push our party out of the way.
Putin has created a political system where laws are made by «the right people». And he personally is the «most right» naturally, believing in the use of force and looking down at the intellectuals. The system is built on the principle of «bow, or we will force you to bow». The methods of the system include deprivation of liberty and torture and confiscating assets of opponents. The system kills those who hinder «the right people» from doing secret deals. Means include polonium in drink (Aleksandr Litvinenko) or bullet in back of the head (Boriss Nemtsov).
What’s worst is that all are powerless against the system.
On top of that, Putin is power-hungry. Like Savisaar, for instance. Clinging to power unwilling to hand it to someone else, though feeble in health. For some people, power is the main thing in life.
-Might Putin organise something like East-Ukraine in the Baltics as well?
Naturally, Putin is not intending to attack the Baltics, being already at war with Ukraine. A war with Estonia would be a war with Europe and NATO. But he could destabilise Estonia’s domestic situation. As seen in Bronze Night, special operations are effective.
-What do you think: may you have problems in the future for what you said about Russia in this interview?
I don’t know. All is possible. Should I enter secret service, I might face the Aleksandr Litvinenko type of fate. But probably there will be no such problems for just expressing personal opinion. I will never shrink back from saying what I think.
Born April 1st 1959, in Tomsk Oblast, Russia.
University graduate as teacher of biology and chemistry. Afterwards, also acquired higher education in international relations.
Started working at Tomsk Oblast local government in 1996.
In 1996–2006, worked as communications manager at Tomsk Oblast local government.
In 2006–2012, culture department head at Tomsk Oblast.
Arrived in Estonia in February 2014, and was granted political asylum in August of that year.