Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, discusses with Russia Direct the challenges of the Russian opposition and the Kremlin’s inner circle.

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny talks with press, in Kostroma, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Photo: AP

On the sidelines of last week’s Gaidar Economic Forum, Russia Direct talked to Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, about the major problems facing Russia’s opposition and the Kremlin’s inner political circle. In addition, Gozman gives his take on Russia’s major geopolitical challenges in 2016 and offers a piece of advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin.       

Russia Direct: What is the major problem of the Russian opposition today?

Leonid Gozman:  If you allow me to be a dissident among the Russian oppositionists, the problem is that we see the same people for many years and some people are tired of the same figures. Look, we have many people in Russia, million of millions who disagree with the current political course. We have million of millions who would appreciate liberalization of the country.

But we do not see those politicians who can aggregate these attitudes among the millions of those who support liberalization and the tens of thousands of those who vote for these people or take part in demonstrations. And this is the problem. The Russian opposition is much larger and much more serious than the Russian opposition leaders.

RD: Well-known and respected political analyst Evgeny Minchenko warns of internal tension within the Kremlin’s inner circle, what he calls Politburo 2.0. And he sees that as one of the major political risks. What is your take?

L.G.: There is not just the risk of tensions in Politburo 2.0, there is serious tension [there] already. But these people are not brave enough to do something [and bring changes].

 Read Q&A with Evgeny Minchenko: "Why Russia's political elites need to play a more subtle game"

After all, a more or less peaceful transformation of the Soviet Union into a group of independent states took place, mainly, because in the Soviet Politburo there were several persons of dignity like Alexander Yakovlev [a member of the Soviet Politburo, who was called the "godfather of glasnost," he is seen as the intellectual force behind the reform program of glasnost and perestroika — Editor's note], Eduard Shevardnadze [ the de facto leader of Soviet Georgia from 1972 to 1985 and as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991 Editor's note ], Boris Yeltsin and, partly, Mikhail Gorbachev.

I don’t see people now around Putin. There is a joke in this regard about him:

Mr. President came to a restaurant with his friends. The waiter asked him what he would prefer — meat or fish; the President said “Meat!” The waiter asked: “Vegetables?” And the President said: “Well, vegetables will have meat as well.”      

RD: What are the most important challenges for Russia?

L.G.: It is unpredictability. [Russia] depends on the factors we cannot control. I mean oil prices, because Russia is too much connected to oil prices, unfortunately. And it is a shame for the country to be so dependent on oil prices, on the decision of Saudi Arabia’s prince. Are we are a great country or we are not a great country?

I think we are really a great country. But we are the great country, which is in a very humiliating position. And it is not because of Saudi Arabians or Americans; it is because of our own leadership, which is responsible for this position. Other challenges include the war in the Middle East, the war in Ukraine, both of which are also unpredictable.

The main challenge for the Russian leadership is the problem of the legitimacy of this system, because, you know, for Obama, he should be accountable before voters, because people voted for him. President Putin can say the same, but who will trust him? 

Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy. Photo: Russia Direct 

RD: So, what would you recommend to President Putin?

L.G.: If I can advise President Putin and if I believe he really cares about the country, then my advice would be like this: We are not the first, and maybe not the last authoritarian system, which found itself in a very deep crisis.

History gives us some positive examples of finding solutions — Poland, Chile, Spain, South Korea, Portugal and other countries — in all these cases the authoritarian system could convert itself to democracy without blood and revolutions, which is always disaster.

In all these cases there was understanding among leadership that it must change the country. And there were arenas for negotiations with opponents [in the government], which we don’t have in modern Russia.

 Related: "The Kremlin's political nightmare postponed, at least in 2016"

We had them previously, in the late 1850s, when Tsar Alexander II said to his people: We need to make a reform from the top; if not, it will come from the bottom. And he, Alexander II, understood that it was impossible to prolong the same situation [of the structural crisis]. But President Putin, I am afraid, doesn’t understand this.