Presidential Elections and the Situation in Russia with Denis Bilunov [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

What is going on in Russia on the eve of the presidential election? Was Alexei Navalny assassinated? And what impact does the Russian war in Ukraine has on Russia itself? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with Denis Bilunov, a PhD candidate at Charles University, a founding member of the Prague Russian Antiwar committee. In 2005-2015, he was a public person in Russian opposition, the organizer of mass protests in 2011-12, and the Executive Director of the Solidarnost movement (led by Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov).

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): Let us start with the sad news of the death of Alexei Navalny, which caused a great outrage in the West. Do you think it will have any influence within Russia?

Denis Bilunov (DB): Many people were shocked by the news. I took it personally because I had been interacting with Alexei for quite a while. We had our stories, we argued, we did something together. He was someone I knew. When he opted to come back to Russia after prison, we were aware of the fact that he is not safe, but still, I did not expect that the regime would make this horrible decision just to kill him in cold blood. Well, I’m quite sure that the decision was made on purpose. It was not just a consequence of health issues. unfortunately, we can say that he was intentionally assassinated by the regime in prison.

Speaking about consequences of this event in Russia, let us just have a look at what has been happening in the recent days, when Alexei’s mother came to this faraway place demanding the body of her son – the regime did not want to give it back. And it is quite clear why – because they are afraid of a public event in Moscow, a funeral, and people coming to pay the last tribute to him. The emotional reaction of people who supported Alexei, who liked him, is strong.

When I heard the news, at 1 p .m. Prague time, I posted an emotional post on my Facebook account, saying that we have to react and that I am going to be in front of the Russian Embassy in Prague at five, so if someone feels like me, they should join in. When I arrived, there was a crowd of several hundred people, who somehow got the news and made a decision to come within several hours.

Of course, that is Prague, but in Moscow there is much more people. And yes, people are afraid, but still, this is a funeral. The regime refusing the right to come to a funeral is something new, but I do not think they are prepared to cause problems. So, the reaction would be significant. Within a few hours after the death of Alexei Navalny, his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, made a very powerful speech at the Munich Security Conference.

LJ: Do these events indicate the start of a transformation of the Russian opposition scene? Will Yulia Navalnaya become a political force of her own in the Russian opposition?

DB: I do not know Yulia as much as I knew Alexei, but as far as I know, she definitely did not have any intention to join Alexei’s efforts. So, at this point, her decision to follow up Alexei’s cause was a big surprise for me, but I respect decision a lot this and I definitely support it. I would also urge all my opposition colleagues to support it as well.

Unless there are some complications, because it is quite typical not only in Russian political exile, but also among every other exile in the world. I talked a lot to my Turkish and Indonesian colleagues, and they say it is the same everywhere that politicians in exile always have their jealousies and competition among each other. Unfortunately, there will be problems of this kind also in this case. Still, we have to make an effort and get rid of these complications and, hopefully, we will manage to act together, with Yulia as the leader. I hope she will have enough energy and skills to do this job for quite a long time.

LJ: Speaking of the opposition abroad, Aleksander Morozov from the Charles University in Prague, where you are based at the moment, wrote that political community, media community, and geopolitical community that left Russia quite quickly resumed its activities, but failed to create significant political representation for itself. He described the situation in which there exist certain offices of Khodorkovsky, of Navalny, Kasparov, and other powerful figures, but it does not necessarily create a political structure – even if those offices cooperate. Do you think that there is an alternative course of action for this effort? What sort of role do you see for the Russian emigrants? And how the said obstacles can be overcome?

DB: It very much depends on the perspective, because in the case of the majority of people you have just mentioned, their paradigm is quite simple. They say that if Ukraine wins, then Russia will change, so the only thing we have to do is to urge the world to help Ukraine as much as possible and that as soon as Ukraine wins, then there will be a window of opportunity for us and for the democratic change in Russia.

This paradigm is something I could understand it in the first months of the war. However, unfortunately, in the course of recent months, I have to say this paradigm is not that optimistic. And it is not about whether Ukraine wins. I hope it does and I will do everything I can to help. But the problem is that the Ukraine’s win will not change Russia.

If you recall, Saddam Hussein lost his first war in the Gulf War, which was critical defeat for him. As a result, he was put under sanctions and humiliated. However, somehow, he managed to stay in power for another 12 years. And that is my point. We have to be prepared for a similar scenario. Unfortunately, under current war circumstances, it is even more likely that the regime would stay in power for quite a while – at least five, seven years, or maybe more.

This is why we have to look at the Cuban diaspora and learn how they managed to cope and to build a stronger community in Florida, becoming maybe one of the most influential diasporas in the United States. This perspective implies that our main focus of people who are outside of Russia should be put on getting Russian nationals who are out of Russia together.

We are talking about several millions of people and some of them are definitely not the supporters of the opposition – especially in countries like Germany, there are many Putin lovers. Therefore, trying to consolidate like-minded people like us and to get together at least hundreds of thousands of them is a big challenge. As far as our opinion leaders are concerned, they do not consider this approach as their first priority and, instead, they are focusing on what is happening on the battlefield in Ukraine and inside Russia, helping those who are still in Russia, because the leaders themselves are going to be back there too in about one year or two.

This is, however, a wrong perspective, because I would definitely like to help Ukraine as much as we can, but we cannot help more unless we are well organized and well established. So, our first priority should be convincing Russian nationals living outside of Russia to get together because by default people they choose their personal strategies, and they do not think about getting together politically.

They think about integration in the societies of their new countries and of personal problems – about jobs and organizing their new life. When you say, ‘we are opinion leaders and we are going to change Russia very soon’ they say, ‘okay, maybe, but we have other problems here’, so if you want to unite them and get them together you have to think about their problems and communicate with them directly. We have to be aware of this political challenge and do something about it.

LJ: Is there still a room for the legal opposition inside Russia that can challenge Putin? Or are we talking about dissidents only from now on?

DB: We live in the post -industrial world with access to the Internet, so you cannot just put the society on hold. Something is always going to happen. In such a huge country, with a lot of conflicts inside and different groups of interests, there will be some politics anyway. But people would adapt to what is happening and that is a passive compromise. For us, people who are outside of Russia, this kind of compromise sometimes seems unacceptable.

It is too much of a compromise. I have my personal limits as well, and if someone says, ‘Okay, so let us vote at least for someone else against Putin, let us pick one guy, like Davankov, or Kharitonov (the communist candidate), and accumulate our votes behind him just to demonstrate there is a strong will for an alternative’. Unfortunately, those clowns that remain on the ballot are not appropriate candidates. Before, someone would say that Duntsova and Nadezhdin were not appropriate, and so it did not make sense to support them. It is, therefore, a question of one’s own flexibility.

Duntsova and Nadezhdin were at least a good attempt, while the communist candidate was definitely not. The Kremlin is aware of this fact. This is why they blocked Duntsova, and then Nadezhdin. Meanwhile, the communist candidate is still on the ballot. This way of thinking is quite common among all those who support eventual democratic change in Russia.

At this point, I would continue monitoring what is happening in Russia. There are still people who are brave enough to find a way to oppose the current regime – some of them are my friends. We, definitely, have to help them, so we cannot deny any opportunity, any path of compromise for them.

Still, our main challenge is here, and we need to build a strong community. From this position we would help them more, which is my vision on how we should proceed. People often underestimate the fact that elections can play an important role even in autocratic regimes, such as Putin’s regime.

LJ: Do you think that these elections will affect the course of the regime? What are Vladimir Putin and people around him thinking right now with regard to elections, but also other political challenges?

DB: The assassination of Navalny was a decision. At this point, the question is why was it made? And why now? If Putin needs to keep the democratic facade of the election, why would he kill Navalny right now? This looks completely illogical, but there is, actually, some logic to it, because if we remember the Prigozhin’s mutiny, we have to presume that there is a serious tension inside the Kremlin among certain groups – and Putin has always acted like an arbiter. But if they think about certain redesign of the system of power after the election, while there are serious conflicts inside, maybe eventually this conflict would have some serious implications – and the losing side would play also the Navalny’s card.

Those who were thinking about it two months ago, could have concluded that maybe Navalny, even in prison, could be a potential danger. Therefore, they eliminated this threat in case of certain implications. This means that maybe in summer or autumn, some significant redesign of Putin’s system of power might occur. I am not sure exactly what we are talking about, but something is definitely going to happen.

LJ: In the recent interview by Tucker Carlson with Vladimir Putin, it became obvious that he is really obsessed with history, as he was referring to some very obscure events from the Russo-Ukrainian-Polish history of 17th century. Is that his personal interest or is he using history to rationalize the Russian regime and the war in Ukraine and to be able to control the society? Is it possible that Russia will enter negotiations? Or is our only hope for the change of the regime that, at some point, Putin will die?

DB: First of all, any attempts to explain or justify your present or future actions by means of referring to some historical patterns, or something that happened in the Middle Ages or in the 19th century, do not make any sense. However, it is not only Putin who does this. There is a lot of people who try to explain their position, making references to the Middle Ages, national mentality, and so on. So, I am quite skeptical about it.

People change very quickly and my personal experience of the early 1990s says that the typical homo Soveticus of the end of the 1980s converted in months, if not in weeks, into something completely different. Especially now, with the internet communications which dramatically changed the world, all the patterns are not really valid, and we have to think about the way this new postmodern world works and how it is going to work in the future, because it is something really different.

Going back to Putin. Maybe personally it is not only about propaganda for him. Maybe he believes in these things that he refers to and probably he was influenced by some people around him (Orthodox priests, or ideologists like Dugin). Still, he is by nature a very cynical person. So, if he believes in something, it does not mean his actions would always be based on that. And so, we have to take all these Putin’s statements about history as propaganda and nothing else.

If he dies, it does not mean that the regime will change. Yes, it will change, of course. But people around him have already formed a certain social group maybe that still has the intention to follow up and to continue in the same line, more or less. They may put a stop to the war, but they would not change the nature of the regime inside Russia. And that is very important for us, and we have to think how we are going to deal with that.

LJ: What are the potential scenarios for Russia? Do you see any potential developments that might end or put a pause to the Russian war in Ukraine?

DB: It is a matter of international politics, of course. The crucial point is what is going to happen in the United States and in the European Union, because, obviously, this is critical if they continue to support Ukraine at least at the same level. Ukraine claims that they have to get even more support.

I have a lot of respect for Ukrainians, because the easiest thing President Zelensky could have done is to just resign in the first weeks and to secure his own personal future. But pushing through is not only his decision, but a decision of the Ukrainian nation. And we have to help them for as long as they want to continue the fight. However, we also have also to bear in mind that the Ukrainian society is changing as well.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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