Ilya Ponomaryov: eight of my acquaintances have been killed in a short time

Ilja Ponomarjov.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Russian opposition politician Ilya Ponomaryov was the only member of the State Duma who dared vote against the occupation of Crimea in 2014. The final tally came to 445:1. Today, Ponomaryov lives in exile in Kiev and says that he can return to Russia once Putin is no longer in power.

To what extent is a democratic opposition even possible in Russia?

A theoretical possibility always remains; the question is probability.

In all seriousness, the Russian opposition is fragmented. We have three arms of democratic opposition by which I mean those that want to dismantle the Putinist system and move toward parliamentary democracy. All have different views of the future but share a common goal in restoring free elections and democracy.

That said, the three groups are ideologically different. There are neoliberals who are seen as puppets in the West but are an influential group in Russia. And then there are leftists and nationalists.

There are also opportunists; for example, those who voluntarily fought for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, like (Igor) Strelkov. They are against Putin. They were with him for as long as they participated in the fighting, but they came back. They are armed and quite radical, and they are against Putin.

The neoliberals are visible in liberal Western media. While it is likely 99 percent of Russians would prefer Putin over that group. Even those who really sympathize with the opposition and dislike the current system.

The neoliberals are associated with the 1990s which is a time most people do not wish to return to as it was full of poverty and chaos. And those days are associated with the liberals, not Putin. Corruption and everything else started there.

I believe the left and nationalists have the power to provoke change. I do not like nationalists, as I’m an internationalist myself, but those are the two more popular groups.

If we want to spark positive change, we should not be talking about neoliberals but those groups. We need to find normal people in those groups and help them secure a foothold, so they would be seen as a realistic alternative.

I understand problems go deeper than Putin and it is the system that needs to be fought. What should be done?

The worst things are unbridled cynicism and corruption and lack of any kind of future vision. They are living in the present and cannot perceive a future.

You know what Louis XV said: “After us, the flood”. That is exactly how the Putin administration operates. It is a problem because they are killing the country’s future.

Today, I’m not even sure what will be left once these guys disappear. Putin has already managed to destroy Russia’s institutions. He has even managed to destroy the institution of president – there is only one institution now and that is Putin!

Once he is gone – and it will happen one day as he, too, is mortal – I do not know whether Russia will remain a single country, whether there will be dissolution, a bloody conflict or something else. He is destroying all manner of alternatives which is not healthy as it spells inevitable chaos once he is gone. Without continuance, it could be everyone’s war against everyone, and that is a dangerous prospect.

The most important thing today is to find an outlook for the future and an alternative. I believe the regime would collapse very quickly if people could see an alternative. Putin’s domestic priority is to do everything he can to remove any alternative.

What would Putin’s exit spell for Russia’s neighbors and the European Union for example?

I believe that Western countries first and foremost want stability and predictability. Even poor stability is still stability and can be used to make plans. Chaos is undesirable.

When I talk to Germans, French or Americans, they tell me that with Putin at least they know what they’re getting. He is a bad person but at least we know that he is. Crimea has ruffled so many feathers because it was sudden and upset stability. Nobody likes that.

He is corrupt but again, it is known. He violates human rights but that is also known. It is not news. Were he to return to his pre-2014 methods and stop the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, the international community would think: “Well, he is not one of us, he is bad but let the Russians decide.”

I believe that it is the Russians who must decide, and I do not want to see anyone intervene in Russia. What I would like to see from other countries is enforcing their own laws. When Putin’s cronies engage in money laundering abroad by stealing in Russia and using the money to buy luxurious real estate abroad, they should be prosecuted and punished according to the law.

You were the only member of the Duma who voted against the occupation of Crimea in 2014. How is it possible that a decision of this significance passes with the votes 445:1?

Everyone else was scared – it is quite simple! Even several of my close allies. There were three who refused to vote but did not dare to press the button to officially remain impartial.

I thought that if someone else voted against, I could remain impartial myself. I talked to several people and asked them whether they would be willing to vote no. I felt that it was politically imperative to stop a unanimous decision.

I toured my election district of Novosibirsk for two weeks, gathered a group of people on the street and allowed them to decide how I should vote. The result was usually 50:50 or 60:40 either way. It was before massive propaganda was launched, when people were still presented with pros and cons. I thought that if the people are divided on the issue, someone has to represent the other side!

We need to restore relations with Ukraine eventually. While Ukrainians currently hate being called our brothers, we have blood ties, and it is very bad we are fighting and killing each other.

Being an opposition politician in Russia is understandably not the most popular job in the world. Has your life been in danger?

It has from time to time. I see it as part of what I do.

About ten years ago, there was an incident where a prominent opposition member was badly beaten in the street by unknown assailants. I talked to other opposition groups, and they told me it was organized by an anti-extremist unit loyal to the administration that is made up of real bandits.

I went to the first deputy of the administration’s chief of staff at the time Vladislav Surkov and demanded justice: I said that the administration had organized the beating. He said that while they did not organize it, members of the opposition should realize they are a risk group. Surkov said it was a conscious decision and we should not complain.

We are indeed a risk group. We are at war with Ukraine and people are dying. Someone dies every day on the front, assassins kill at least one person every month in Kiev. Eight good acquaintances of mine have been killed in the past four years. It is a lot.

The murders are usually not investigated thoroughly as they are political. It is easy to point the finger and say Russian special services are behind them and difficult to really investigate these crimes.

Talking about the recent case of Arkadi Babchenko, I received hints that I was on the list of people who were arrested.

So yes, I’m careful and take precautions, but it is a part of our life.

Are you safer in Kiev than you would be in Russia?

I don’t know, it is hard to say. They might not kill you in Russia. There have been cases, like those of Boris Nemtsov and Anna Politkovskaya, but more often they just send people to prison. With the whole of law enforcement in your pocket, it is much easier to catch and imprison a person than it is to kill them. It’s easier to kill outside of Russia.

As we know, Ukraine is a country at war. Large portions of the border are under nobody’s control, and it is extremely easy to send killers over the border or use Russian security services’ agents stationed in Ukraine to do the job.

Therefore, I cannot say Ukraine is the safest place to be, but at least it is a place where I can do something and be useful. I could hide out in the United States, but I would feel like I’m wasting my time.

To talk about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, was it a message to spies who have defected and people like you who have been critical of the authorities?

That was a sad story for me. Skripal was a true traitor, not a hypothetical one. We (members of the opposition – ed.) are all regarded as national traitors – a phrase Putin has borrowed from Adolf Hitler.

Skripal really was a traitor. He was working for the British intelligence and gave up the names of several Russian spies in America who were then caught. He literally betrayed his country for money, and his views had nothing to do with it. I do not have a high opinion of him.

There is an unwritten rule in the intelligence world: if someone is caught, they are caught. And if an exchange is organized, the other side will not try to retrieve the person to be exchanged.

As far as I know, Skripal’s case was the first example of one side going after an officially exchanged spy in another country. The reason for the attack is not clear.

Something like that happened to Aleksandr Litvinenko, but there are obvious differences there.

Firstly, Litvinenko escaped and was not exchanged. Secondly, he worked with British intelligence, and thirdly, he was working on a project very close to Putin. It concerned an organized crime group in Spain that had a direct link to the mayor of St. Petersburg’s office where Putin was working as a deputy. It was clear Litvinenko was murdered for giving information to Spanish law enforcement.

Skripal was inactive. He was retired in a rural part of Britain. To me, it rather looks like a terror attack with symbolic meaning. We cannot say the order came from Putin, but it definitely came from the top of the Russian security services.

I believe it was clearly tied to elections. Support for Putin had started to fall, and they needed a small victorious skirmish to mobilize voters.

They had a fanatical obsession with Putin getting at least 50 percent of all votes, not just votes cast at elections. They got 50.02 percent in the end. The Skripal incident could have contributed around 5 percent.

How do you see the future of your political career? You are currently acting from a distance.

My political career is frozen for as long as Putin remains in power. We are incompatible. The country is too small for the both of us. He must disappear from power before I can go back. And I will be going back, I’m one hundred percent certain of that.

Today, my priority is working in Ukraine. I’m bringing investments into the country as I believe Ukraine’s success can increase the likelihood of changing things in Russia. We need to turn Ukraine into a success story, so we could show Russians how Ukraine removed its villains from power and prospered. This has not happened yet.

We have seen increased tensions between NATO and Russia in recent years. Do you perceive NATO as a threat to Russia as a citizen?

Threat can have several meanings. Do I see NATO attacking Russia? No. NATO is a defense organization and always has been.

Is the organization an adversary of Russia? Yes, because most NATO members consider Russia their adversary. It is believed Russia needs to be surrounded, controlled and the alliance’s members protected from it. So yes, Russia and NATO are adversaries. It is clear that only one country is aggressive today – Russia. It is sad but true. We all need to act to put an end to it.

In my ideal world there would be a single military alliance made up of all progressive powers, including Russia. I want my country to join NATO to face global challenges one day. I really believe that countries sporting similar roots should work together, and Russia is definitely one of them. Looking in the mirror, we are far more similar to Estonians, Americans or the French than we are to Chinese of Indians for example.

Responsible politicians on both sides should strive for such a broad alliance. It will happen one day – and it would not be the Soviet Union or an imperialist union but a union between equal friends and independent countries that would benefit all its members.

How should Western countries deal with Russia?

Communication needs to follow values, not pragmatic interests. You cannot criticize Putin on the one hand and construct Nord Stream 2 on the other. It sends the wrong message.

Putin knows full well that rhetoric is one thing and actions another. And they are moving in opposite directions.

There needs to be steadfast, specific and clear pressure on ending the war in Ukraine. We need fast opposition to money laundering, clear principles for trading with Russia. Ukraine’s choice to move closer to Europe needs to be openly supported.

The idea today is that everything depends on the Ukrainians. We can provide the tools, but it is the Ukrainians who must act. In truth, it is a common goal. It is very important to demonstrate that the guarantors of Ukraine’s territorial integrity keep their word. They are not keeping it today.

If we want the world to be a safe place, we need to be consistent and honest from start to finish. We are unfortunately far from that today.