Alexei Venediktov, the head of Russia’s leading opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, discusses with Novaya Gazeta the motives that drive the Kremlin elite and offers his own take of what’s happening now with the Ukrainian crisis.
Echo of Moscow radio station Editor-in-Chief Alexei Venediktov. Photo: RIA Novosti
In this interview, Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Russia's leading opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, talks to liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta about the current thinking in the Kremlin about everything from the crisis in Ukraine to the prospects of Maidan-like protests within Russia. In addition, Venediktov discusses the debates taking place within Russian society about Ukraine and offers his take on what can be done to avert further hostilities in the region.
Novaya Gazeta: People are horrified by what’s happening [in Russia as a result of the Ukrainian crisis], and these are the same people who vote for Vladimir Putin.
Alexei Venediktov: I see what is happening with our audience. Our audience (one million daily in Moscow, according to TNS Gallup) has become a lot more aggressive. This is evident by the phone calls and comments on our website. The public’s temperature is clearly rising. When you have a fever, your eyes glaze over and your opinions become radicalized. I’ve talked to sociologists who do private polls for the Moscow government. After the events in Ukraine, Russia saw a sharp rise in intolerance.
NG: Television infects people with hatred. Don’t the authorities realize that it’s not restricted to Ukraine?
AV: Some at the top have started to grasp it. When I meet with them, they say: “We gotta do something, Alex!” My reply is: “Do what? Just tone down the hatred!” Or, as my deputy, Sergei Buntman, says: “Let’s stick our heads in the fridge for a while.” I don’t talk politics with them, I just say, “Look, let’s cool off a bit.”
We did an interview with [Russia's leading opposition blogger Alexei] Navalny [who is under house arrest now - Editor's note]. Half the audience pounced on him for saying, “Crimea is ours” [regarding the debate in Russian society on Crimea joining Russia], and half attacked us for simply asking the question. We understand that the public is seething.
NG: People say it’s revenge for the humiliation Russia suffered in the 1990s, but most people who are “rising up” were knee-high to a grasshopper back then.
AV: Get away! What humiliation? It doesn’t matter. What does matter, you ask? The force of inertia. The extent to which the country can bear this reversion. Such obscurantism and isolationism led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Don’t think the only reason was the Saudi-engineered collapse in oil prices. The country was already uncompetitive. I agree with what [Head of state-owned Sberbank] German Gref said, although more often than not I take him to task. Luckily for us, we have the inertia of stability, the inertia of reserves, and the inertia of patience. Perhaps during the inertial fall the Russian “aircraft carrier” can be swung round towards competitiveness...
NG: Who will do it? How?
AV: The way it always is. A team of reformers turns up, usually from the Politburo. I know that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is surrounded by different points of view regarding development. I know that Vladimir Vladimirovich himself sees what is happening.
NG: Sure thing, if he’s the one orchestrating it.
AV: Everyone around Putin considers him a reasonable man, and many close by believe the president will understand the harm being done and change tack.
NG: Hasn’t he had enough time already to understand it?
AV: Everyone has his own pace. Putin looks at the opinion polls, sees the high level of support he enjoys, and that suggests to him that he’s doing all right.
But what’s going on in actual fact? Russia is under pressure from its Western partners, who have decided to sever the country from its Ukrainian brethren. That’s what Putin says in public and in private. He’s resisting. He believes that’s right. However, this resistance has consequences. But the heads of various sectors, including the military-industrial complex, understand that Russia will not survive another arms race, and are trying to convince him there are other options.
Consider his trip to Milan. He didn’t have to go — it was the prime minister’s call. Putin took it upon himself to go to Milan instead of [Prime Minister Dmitri] Medvedev, to hold talks and to promise to sign a gas contract. He could have decided not to put pen to paper and leave the “junta” in Ukraine without gas.
Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP
Now he’s planning to go to Australia for the G20, despite the fact that the Australians are publicly discussing whether or not he should be invited to attend the economic forum. It’s humiliating, but he’s going anyway — because Russia is in the global world and is part of the global world. Above all, Europe. His mistaken (in my opinion) view that everyone is out to humiliate Russia is understandable if you remember that his basic concept of the situation was formed during the international standoff of the Brezhnev era. But he’s attentive and listens to what people around him and partners are saying.
Putin is surrounded by countless people, all with different views on how to manage Russia’s relationship crisis with its partners. Putin still says that Poroshenko is a partner, Obama is a partner, Merkel is a partner, Cameron is a partner, Hollande is a partner. And it’s really the case, since half our trade turnover is with the European Union. I would never oversimplify things on that point.
You know what, I’ve had occasion in my time to attend private discussions and read some of the transcripts. I can confirm that there’s some serious wrangling going on. The president always has the final say, but on each item — from the National Welfare Fund to Ukraine — various proposals are put forward, some fairly extremist. You can’t say, “The boyars are bad; the president’s good.” It’s a team with a leader.
NG: Most people do have proposals. But the aim of the political process is not to address any of them, but to find enemies who can be blamed.
AV: All these propaganda efforts have a short-term objective — the here and now. They come from people who are either misguided or in search of a shiny medal. “We are the most committed, the most faithful, and walk a little in front — even of you,” they say. In actual fact, these people are destroying the country, pitting one part of the population against another, any minority, be it ethnic, sexual, or ideological. What’s important is that it engenders civil confrontation. It’s what led, for instance, to the clash on Maidan in Kiev. Maidan doesn’t have to happen in Moscow; it could be in one of the country’s republics. During the authorized “Russian Marches,” we saw people again shouting about the Caucasus.
NG: Is that a consequence of Ukraine?
AV: I spoke about it back in January, when the country was still under Viktor Yanukovych — I called it the “Ukrainian syndrome.” Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the day before Putin’s inauguration, was a proto-Maidan. Why was the crackdown on Bolotnaya unusually brutal? Because he saw how Maidan had toppled a legitimate president and unleashed a civil war. When Putin says, “I will not tolerate a Maidan,” he is not referring to Maidan itself, but to the consequences of the toppling of legitimate power and the country’s descent into civil war. He plans to avert such scenario by any means.
NG: In Russia, “any means” is always the army.
AV: The army is an option. I don’t know what his aim is. I don’t know what will happen. A year ago I could not have imagined that anything would happen with Crimea, Donetsk or Lugansk. No one could, expect perhaps the Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, who wrote reports and sent telegrams from Kiev saying that Yanukovych was wobbling. He wasn’t taken seriously. Zurabov is a very observant man. When I went to visit him in November-December last year, he said: “Alex, take it from me, Yanukovych will not see the month out.” “Come off it,” I said. “He’ll reach an agreement with us and the Europeans. He’s a crafty one.” “I tell you, he won’t last another month. And it’s not clear what will follow.”
Pro-Russian rebels fill their ballots in voting cabins at a polling station set up inside a rebel military base during rebel elections in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, November 2, 2014. Photo: AP
NG: Is it clear now?
AV: What’s clear now is that the region, stuffed as it is with weapons, will not be short of parties interested in prolonging the instability. What happened with so-called “Novorossiya” (New Russia)? Militias took control of the coast to Mariupol. And since there’s no border with Ukraine or Russia, there are no border guards. A smuggler’s paradise that Colombian warlords can only dream about! It means that the war involves a number of forces. Not only Russian and Ukrainian, but also those who profit from instability. It means that people with cash to spare will keep trying to provoke conflict by playing the militias off against each other and everyone else. It’s an important region for them, and is becoming a Black Sea transit route. It’s common knowledge.
NG: What can be done about it?
AV: I don’t know the extent to which this breeding ground can be contained. Send in the Russian Black Sea Fleet or the U.S. Sixth Fleet, or let both stand side-by-side, ship-by-ship. I think both Moscow and Kiev want the area to be brought under control.
NG: But the rebels will hardly allow that to happen...
AV: There aren’t any! Please don’t pluck these rebels out of thin air! Without Russia’s assistance there wouldn’t be anything there. Nothing’s happening in Kharkov or Zaporozhye, for example. And their so-called Russian-speaking populations are just as large.
NG: It’s not happening just yet. But imperial ambitions are not likely to fade.
AV: Vladimir Putin, in my considered opinion, is an extremely careful and cautious man. That’s his strongest quality. He bases his decisions on prudence. True, I haven’t spoken to him for almost a year. He’s changed during this time, and I’m not familiar with this Putin, so I won’t predict anything. Or rather I predict the worst-case scenario, because I don’t see how this wound can be healed. It’s easy to get into a conflict, impossible to get out.
NG: Is there any desire to get out?
AV: As regards desire, we can’t say exactly. But in a broader sense, yes, of course there is, since isolation from the world at large and its values is bad for Russia. And I know for certain that Putin did not set out to provoke a confrontation.
NG: We won’t waste space on quotes from his anti-Western speeches...
AV: It’s all rhetoric. What about Obama’s rhetoric, in which he places Russia somewhere between Ebola and Islamic State? Politicians’ rhetoric should be viewed with skepticism and irony.
The interview is an abridged version of an earlier one published in Russia in Novaya Gazeta.