As Russia prepares for the presidential race, can you tell us about the current mood among your fellow voters?
The people I talk to aren't happy with how the country is being run by the current president. There's a deep-rooted understanding that the outcome of the election was determined months ago and that everything's being done to the pave way for Putin's next victory. I believe this approach, which opposition politician Alexei Navalny incidentally shares, is wrong. There's always a grain of unpredictability in an election — maybe not in the final results, but in certain locations for sure. So I tend to say this to the people: Let's hang in there a little longer and see how it all plays out.
What are the Russian people unhappy about?
They're unhappy about high food and utility prices, despite the fact that Russia possesses an abundance of natural resources. They're dismayed about restrictions on imported goods, the result of recent Western sanctions against the country. Many Russians have great difficulty getting by because salaries and pensions are low, while prices seem to be forever on the rise. So if the elections were held in a normal competitive environment in which opposition candidates could participate on Putin's level, and if those candidates had been given a fair chance to run their campaigns over the last couple of years, then we'd see a completely different political picture now that would be reflected in the upcoming election's results.
Are you implying that the current contest, featuring eight standing candidates, is merely imitating a free and democratic election?
As a matter of fact, with the exception of Navalny, who wasn't allowed to run, all of the people who wanted to participate in the election have participated and continue to participate today. However, several of the political lightweights and "wannabes" who failed to collect the required number of signatures to enter the campaign didn't make it onto the final list of candidates.
If Navalny were given the green light to run for presidential office, would he stand a chance against Putin?
The election would certainly be more interesting with his name on the ballot. But I doubt whether his participation would have produced any astonishing results. He's not well known outside the largest Russian cities. And, to tell the truth, those whose support he enjoys don't vote in the numbers that many would wish.
Are you talking about the country's youth?
Yes, some of whom are underage, to be frank. They worship him as an intrepid fighter against corruption, which is rife throughout the country. But young people don't participate in large numbers in Russian elections.
It's amazing that Navalny, beaten up and detained multiple times, stays in Russia. Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two big names in the Russian opposition, have both left Russia — a decision that may have saved their lives.
It's a pity that Kasparov and Khodorkovsky live outside Russia today. In fact, I know both of them on a personal level. However, it would be wrong to say that Navalny is the only opposition leader left in Russia. He's one of a few. As for your remark that Kasparov and Khodorkovsky were afraid for their lives here, the latter, to the best of my knowledge, was forcibly removed from Russia after being pardoned by Putin. As far as I know, he settled in Switzerland. Should he ever come back with Putin still in the Kremlin he'd see new accusations brought against him. No doubt about it. Meanwhile, Kasparov did indeed believe his life was in danger here and I respect his decision to leave. Being a politician and going against the Kremlin has become very dangerous in Russia. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov proves that. He was also well aware of the danger, but preferred to stay in Russia and paid the ultimate price.
Do you believe the Kremlin is behind Nemtsov's assassination?
Like many others, I don't have any proof. But given the hatred he ignited in Putin personally, I wouldn't rule it out.
Yet you have to agree that the majority of Russians support Putin, despite the tangibly lower standards of living that followed the Western embargo. How do you explain this?
I'm not surprised by this at all, considering the massive viewership of the many media outlets controlled by Putin. Having said that, despite the enormous resources employed to polish the image of the president, I feel his ratings are dropping. I wouldn't be surprised if they are below 50 percent by now. As a member of the St. Petersburg City Council and the chairman of Yabloko's faction within it, I meet a lot of people from different walks of life and most of them are complaining about Putin. I don't pay too much attention to the poll results that the official media disseminates. If they're not rigged in their entirety, they're at least heavily adjusted in favor of the Kremlin.
Do you believe Putin will win in the first round of the election?
If voters who want change in the country come out and vote for the other candidates, and not for Putin, then I think the probability is quite high that we'll witness a second round of voting. Unlike Navalny, who I believe was wrong in urging people to boycott the election, I'm encouraging everyone to come and cast their votes.
The Muscovites and Petersburgans are known for their rebellious spirit, but those living in the provinces are said to be overwhelmingly in favor of Putin, whom they see as the guarantor of stability in the country. Do you agree with this notion?
Not at all. As a matter of fact, people understand stability differently throughout Russia. They want stability in their supplies, stability in their social security, stability in their comfort, and so on — all of which they can't expect from the current leader. Russia's economic crisis, a result of Western sanctions, has taken and continues to take its toll on the lives of ordinary citizens who see Putin's affluent cronies getting richer every day. And contrary to fostering patriotic feelings, Russia's military action in Ukraine and Syria has generated disapproval across the country. Many people want that money to be funneled into things that improve their deteriorating quality of life and their local infrastructure.
Who is likely to make it through to a second round, if it is held?
I wish that person was Grigory Yavlinsky, Yabloko's chairman. To put aside my affiliation with the party, he's a worthy contender who is very educated and has an impeccable reputation. With Putin in a much better position than the others, I don't see a clear standout candidate among the rest.
How do you rate the chances of Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg and a mentor of Putin? She's also a celebrity television anchor, a journalist, a socialite and an actress, dubbed by many as Russia's Kim Kardashian.
Like many others, I can't take her seriously. Her campaigning seems to me to be part of a show. In the past she's never brought up the issues she's talking about now. So her participation is part of the showmanship, part of political conjuncture.
The Russian Communists have two candidates on the ballot: Pavel Grudinin, the leader of the Russian Communist Party, and Maxim Suraykin, the chairman of the Communists of Russia. How do you view their chances at the polls?
Suraykin isn't very well known and he can't expect any significant support in the election. As for the other candidate, Grudinin, he is a controversial figure because he is a major capitalist with a huge business empire under his control. How can a multimillionaire industrialist be a fierce fighter for the rights of Russian workers? This is the paradox of Russian politics.
What do you think of the chances of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another perennial presidential candidate and the somewhat eccentric leader of the Liberal Democratic Party?
I don't take him seriously. Those who vote for him do so jokingly. He possesses neither an electoral program nor any principles. Everything he does hinges on showmanship and political buffoonery. Unfortunately for Russia, there are people whose personal understanding of the country and the world in general align with the message of Zhirinovsky. So when the candidate says that Russians under his leadership will wash their boots in the Pacific Ocean, many nod hilariously.
Yabloko, the social liberal party you represent, was once a rising force in the Russian political landscape, but it has fizzled out over the past few years. That the authorities allow its chairman, Yavlinsky, to run in every presidential election conjures up an image of free elections in Russia. Do you agree?
Indeed, Yabloko has had better times than now. Those pre-Putin times were better not only for Yabloko but for the whole of Russia, its fledgling democracy and the media too. What Putin did first when he came to power in 2000 was to annihilate the free press. Yabloko had a larger representation within various chambers of power before Putin's arrival. Yet we're the only Russian opposition party that has stuck around throughout the Putin years. Although our political gains are nothing like they were before 2000, we nevertheless have factions in the regional parliaments of Pskov, St. Petersburg and Karelia, and hundreds of our party members work in local legislatures. Unfortunately, Yabloko is hindered by having no lawmakers in the Duma (Russian parliament). The last time we had any deputies in it was back in 2003. Our mayor recently was unlawfully removed from the mayoral office of the city of Petrozavodsk. Against the backdrop of these constraints, Yabloko does okay.
What are the most prevalent topics candidates bring up in the campaign?
Sadly, besides Yavlinsky, none of the candidates speak about Russia's foreign policy. They overlook the fact that the slump in the Russian economy is not only an outright result of Western sanctions, but also the aftermath of the country's headstrong foreign policy. If it weren't for the annexation of Crimea, the intervention in Ukraine and Russia's presence in Syria, sanctions would never have been applied and the Russian economy would be in a much healthier condition now. The losses Russia incurs from sanctions is assessed at 3 trillion rubles ($52.1 billion). It's had a crippling effect, you have to agree. Instead of looking for new enemies, Russia desperately needs to search for friends.
Let me play devil's advocate for a moment and echo the Kremlin ideologists. The Western embargo hasn't brought Russia to its knees …
I don't think that was ever something the West aimed for. From the many conversations I've had with different Western politicians, I've concluded that the world wants a peaceful, predictable and thriving Russia, one that can be respected for its rich cultural and historical heritage. It's preposterous to think that the world, including the United States, seeks to put Russia on its knees. It's a bogeyman intended to scare small children and the most uneducated. A submissive country belongs in the 17th and 18th centuries, not today. Having said that, though, I realize extremely well the economic and political influence these countries are exerting.
Do you see a Russia without Putin?
I certainly do — and very clearly. Russia without Putin will be a democratic European country that adheres to international law, respects human rights and lives in peace with its neighbors. It will be a country where its citizens freely elect their authorities and punish it at the ballot box if it doesn't pay attention to the interests of the voters.
Is Russia ready for a leader who could enact these principles? Would he or she have nationwide support?
That will be decided after Putin retires. But if you were to stop a man on the street anywhere in Russia and ask him if he wants a higher salary or pension, you'd certainly hear him say "yes." If you ask him whether he wants the authorities to be more accountable for their actions, you'll again hear "yes." And if you ask him whether he wants his son to be sent to fight in Syria, he'll definitely say "no." That said, I realize that Putin will do everything he can to make sure that his successor continues his policies. But things do change at some point in history. I hope that change in Russia will come sooner rather than later.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the participants. They do not reflect the position of Stratfor.