Who was Mister Putin? An Interview with Boris Nemtsov

Russians can sense that Project Putin has reached its twilight. The prime minister would be well served by retiring before he is forced to. In an exclusive interview for openDemocracy, Mumin Shakirov speaks with former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Mumin Shakirov:

You are a former deputy prime minister and Yeltsin favourite, the youngest governor in the history of Russia, a former occupant of spacious offices in the White House and in the Nizhny Novgorod citadel... Did you ever imagine that you might spend the most recent New Year in a concrete cage?

Boris Nemtsov:

No, I never thought that at the age of 52 I would end up spending the New Year in a cold, solitary confinement cell as a prisoner of conscience.

Mumin Shakirov:

What surprised you most about being detained at the Strategy-31 demonstration on New Year’s Eve and subsequently being charged in a trumped-up case?

Boris Nemtsov:

I was taken to the Tver Department of Internal Affairs and a few hours before the New Year a major came up to me and said I would need a bottle of water and cigarettes. I said: “Is this a sort of New Year gift from the police?” And he said: “No, it will come in handy. It's been decided that you are spending the next 24 hours in our basement.” The cell was a stone dungeon, about one and a half by three metres, veiled in semi-darkness so it was impossible to read. There was no bed, no pillows or mattresses, just the floor. I asked: “How can you sleep here?” and he said: “You take off your clothes, pile them up somehow and go to sleep – if you wish, of course.” They took away my glasses, belt and shoelaces. I had my shoes for a pillow, and my ski-jacket for duvet, mattress and sheet. I spent 40 hours in this cell, and on 2 January I was driven to the courthouse where Judge Olga Borovkova – who is now infamous across the country – sentenced me to 15 days' detention.

Mumin Shakirov:

Who do you think took the decision to detain you?

Nemtsov Gaidar meeting

Boris Nemtsov (b. 1959) is a leader of the Russian democratic opposition and a former deputy prime minister

Boris Nemtsov:

The decision to detain me and other opposition figures, such as Eduard Limonov and Ilia Yashin, was taken by Vladislav Surkov, Deputy Chief of the Russian President’s Administration. It was a political decision. The idea to lock us all up in punishment cells, in concrete torture-chambers, in solitary cells with no mattress or bed was also Surkov’s. He has a specially trained man called Nikita Ivanov, and this gentleman provides unlawful, totally criminal links between Surkov and the Chief of the Moscow Administration of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev. I have this information from reliable sources.

Mumin Shakirov:

What is the greatest threat to the the liberal opposition, parties like the People's Freedom Party you formed with Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Vladimir Milov?  The Kremlin has the money and the skills necessary to bring about rifts between politicians. Is it possible that they might set you against one another?

The decision to detain me and other opposition figures, such as Eduard Limonov and Ilia Yashin, was taken by Vladislav Surkov .... By the way, a day before the bomb at Domodedovo, Surkov and his protégé Vasily Yakimenko were busy getting youth activists to phone my former prison cellmates, offering them three thousand dollars each if they publicly declared in interviews that they raped me in the cells. The kids, who were hard up, refused the money, phoned me straight away and told me everything.

Boris Nemtsov 

Boris Nemtsov:

Let’s take the example of Solidarity [opposition grouping set up in 2008]. I was there from the start  I have been part of it since it was started. We have survived detention and arrests; we’ve been tried and tested in struggle; many have dropped out. It seems to me that only the most dedicated have remained: people who are willing to sacrifice not only their material comfort but also their freedom for the sake of life in a free country. I am convinced that it was the right decision to form the Party of National Freedom, together with economist Vladimir Milov, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and independent politician Vladimir Ryzhkov. Many people today are disenchanted with existing parties and no longer wish to stick their necks out, yet there is a real demand in society for a democratic opposition. I know this from the way people respond when I talk to them, from the numerous comments on in the Internet, and from the response to my latest arrest. It seems to me that the attitude to a democratic opposition, including to me personally, has started to change.

Mumin Shakirov:

But didn’t the Kremlin actually manage to divide the opposition during the Strategy 31 demonstration? It certainly caused one activist, Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, to fall out with another, Eduard Limonov. You might even say the Kremlin did a “professional” job there, approving a rally by the liberals while banning one by Limonov’s people, the actual initiators of Strategy 31, and unleashing OMON troops on them.

Dissenters meeting

Boris Nemtsov: "The Kremlin is ready for any kind of foul play"

Boris Nemtsov:

Now is not the right time to sort out personal relations. I was very disappointed to learn of the disagreement between Alexeyeva and Limonov. Solidarity has done everything it could to resolve this conflict within the Strategy 31 coalition. Those people who are trying to create a rift among the opposition, whether consciously or unconsciously, are helping Putin stay in power. It is better to say good-bye to people like that. If you are on the attack, or going on a reconnaissance mission, you have to do it with people you can trust. The current Solidarity is dependable, although the possibility of being orchestrated by the powers-that-be is always there. The Kremlin is ready for any kind of foul play. Let me give you a recent example. A day before the bomb attack at Domodedovo, Surkov and his protégé Vasily Yakimenko [leader of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi], decided to organise another provocation. They got bastard-activists from Nashi and Stal’ [a Nashi offshoot] to phone my former prison cellmates and offer them three thousand dollars each if they publicly declared in interviews that they raped me in the cells. The guys who shared my cell in the remand prison phoned me straight away and told me everything. They are kids with a criminal record and yet they did not fall for this even though they needed the money. Novaya Gazeta wrote about this provocation [link in Russian]. And this shows that not everyone can be bought.  Surkov is in charge of these pro-Kremlin organisations, and undoubtedly he has Putin’s approval for all these foul tricks. They are clearly panicking and stooping ever lower.

Mumin Shakirov:

Not everyone in the ruling elite are happy with Putin, are they? He’s recently been under attack from every quarter, compromising information about him has appeared on the Internet, and he has been criticized by people closest to the centre of power, such as the economists Yevgeni Gontmakher and Igor Yurgens and even the Kremlin political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky.

Even people loyal to Putin sense that this is the twilight of Project Putin. Although this twilight is not yet visible in the ratings, a qualitative transformation of public awareness is taking place: just look on the Internet and watch the behaviour of the elite – all of it clearly shows that Putin’s era is over. What lies ahead for him is sheer nightmare and disaster. And he deserves to go down.

Boris Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov:

Everyone is unhappy with Putin, save perhaps his closest friends, members of the so-called Ozero dacha cooperative [this is the influential group united by country houses built alongside the Komsomolskoye lake near St. Petersburg - ed]. In only a few years these fellows turned from medium-sized entrepreneurs into dollar billionaires. For example, the Kovalchuk brothers have seized power over Gazprom; the KGB veteran Gennady Timchenko is now a trader who controls 40 percent of all crude oil exports; Putin’s former sambo coaches, the Rotenberg brothers, continue to get lucrative contracts, and there are a few more people like this. Russian business, including some major players, has demonstrated its loyalty, but deep down they do not want Putin to return to the Kremlin. Just look at the facts: for three consecutive years capital has been flowing out of the country, with some 40 billion dollars being taken out of the country in 2010 alone. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to another 14 years’ imprisonment – this was a pre-election move, partly to make cowardly businessmen sit up and shut up. Second, people around Medvedev, such as Igor Yurgens, are categorically against Putin’s second coming. They understand that for them personally it would mean the end.

Mumin Shakirov:

But Putin has one more resource – the United Russia party in the Duma, with deputies carefully selected by Mr. Surkov and approved by Vladimir Vladimirovich…

Boris Nemtsov:

You won’t believe it but even within his party of corrupt thieves there are not so many people willing to follow him until the very end. If Mr. Medvedev dared to sign a decree firing Putin, I believe that United Russia members would rejoice, it would be a repeat of the story of Luzhkov, the former Mayor of Moscow. Luzhkov was a pillar of this party, one of its founders, and yet within a few days everyone wiped their feet on him and spat on him. Putin has created a thoroughly rotten system and he believes it is possible to build this mighty foundation known as Russia on cynicism, thievery and lies. It won’t work. Even people loyal to Putin sense that this is the twilight of Project Putin. Although this twilight is not yet visible in the ratings, a qualitative transformation of public awareness is taking place: just look on the Internet and watch the behaviour of the elite – all of it clearly shows that Putin’s era is over. What lies ahead for him is sheer nightmare and disaster. And he deserves to go down. Personally, I am against retribution. There has to be a transparent process involving lawyers, prosecutors, with an indictment, and so on. And his fate should not be decided by judges like Viktor Danilkin, who passed sentence on Khodorkovsky, but by proper judges. Let the European Court send in judges in robes. I don’t want him to suffer the kind of travesty of justice Khodorkovsky and his friends have endured. Everything has to be done honestly.

I had a dream in which Yeltsin was trying to persuade me to join Putin. But I couldn't do that. That’s not how my mother raised me.

Boris Nemtsov

Mumin Shakirov:

And what is going on inside the tandem? Medvedev is a real human being, too. Surely he must see and hear all this? Especially, since he’s constantly on the Internet and on Twitter…

Nemtsov windsurfing

Nemtsov is a keen sportsman, and regularly played tennis with mentor Boris Yeltsin. 

Boris Nemtsov:

Dmitri Medvedev has been in the job of president for three years but he has never become one. He was hand-picked as a successor based on well-known criteria: loyalty and weakness. He is clearly an ambitious man and of course he wants to stay in the Kremlin, but he does not have great resources to make his wishes come true. As a matter of fact, he does not have much to boast about, apart from the Internet where he has a dominant position and from chairing some committees, like the Skolkovo project one. Putin has the siloviki, Putin has the governors, Putin has the government, Putin has big business, and all those groups know very well who is in charge. I estimate Medvedev’s chances to be nominated at 10 per cent and Putin’s at 90 percent. However, if you had asked me the same question a year ago, I would have estimated Medvedev’s chances at 1 per cent and Putin’s at 99. All these corruption cases: the scandal over Gelendzhik, where a billion-dollar dacha is being built for Putin; the yacht he received as a gift from Abramovich; the embezzlement of huge Gazprom funds and so on… Putin has no political or moral right to rule this country.

Mumin Shakirov:

And who do you think supports Putin in his circle and in the country as a whole?

Novosibirsk campaigning

In Novosibirsk distributing his critical report "Putin. Results. 10 years".

Boris Nemtsov:

It is the older generation, including quite a few state officials, people who depend on state sinecures. It’s those who hardly ever use the Internet and who watch pro-Kremlin TV.  Unfortunately, they are still in the majority. At the same time, some 40 million people use the Internet, this figure is growing, and the lion’s share, the young people, are better informed but the problem is that these kids don’t vote in elections unlike their parents and grandparents.

Mumin Shakirov:

How do you think the government has handled its response to the latest, terrible incident in Moscow?

Boris Nemtsov:

Unfortunately, the government responded in the same way it has always done. It has refused to accept any blame, and attempted to implicate whatever scapegoats it could. In this case, the management at Domodedovo Airport and the local policemen were the fall guys. But the real reason why people died was the complete failure of the country’s counter-terrorist strategy.

You only need to look at the way the terrorist threat has developed over the eleven years of Putin’s reign. He began his political career, if you remember, in 1999 with a promise to “drown the terrorists in the outhouse”. As Prime Minister — that is, even before he became president — he was active in using a war in the Caucasus and the bombing of apartment blocks to improve his own popularity and personal rating. He was helped in doing so by the businessman and now sworn enemy Boris Berezovsky.

Now, take a look at the figures. In 2000, the number of terrorist attacks in Russia was 130. By 2009, the figure was 780. This translates to two attacks a day. Of course, most of these incidents took place in the Caucasus, where people are killed on an almost daily basis. But you can’t and shouldn’t forget the attacks on Moscow: in last year alone there were the underground bombings, and the bombing of a Moscow-St Petersburg express train.

Look again at what happened when Putin became President. He used the Dubrovka theatre siege to impose a regime of total censorship on TV; he went on to destroy NTV, and then TV6. He used the nightmare of Beslan to remove democratic elections of regional governors. In short, he “drowned” everyone apart from the terrorists.

But Putin is finding it more and more difficult to use attacks and terrorism to strengthen his own power. Why? Because thinking Russians have already cottoned on to the fact that this man is ill-equipped to deal with the terror threat.

Mumin Shakirov:

Why is it that the counter-terrorism strategy is failing?

Boris Nemtsov:

The budget of the secret services has grown exponentially over the last ten years. It is now almost 11 times the level it was in 2000, and stands in excess of 35 billion dollars a year.

It is no secret, however, that the secret services have priorities that are not generally shared by the country at large.

For them, priority number one is to protect the assets of the ruling gang. This is a task which sees them spend huge sums of money on aggressive battles with the opposition. All over Russia, thousands and thousands of special policemen are dispatched to round up peaceful opposition activists, shoving them into into z-cars and whisking them away to cells. The same special policemen — alongside KGB agents and other provocateurs — are then sent to harass the lonely pickets that are held to petition the release of illegally arrested activists.

Priority number two, meanwhile, is business, which means organising corporate raiding and protection rackets. The counter-terrorist campaign is something that is limited to words alone. Covert intelligence work is in tatters, and the national republics have been handed over to corrupt clans for them to lease out as they please. 

Priority number one is to protect the assets of the ruling gang. This is a task which sees them spending huge sums of money on aggressive battles with the opposition. All over Russia, thousands and thousands of special policemen are dispatched to round up peaceful opposition activists, shoving them into into z-cars and whisking them away to cells.

Boris Nemtsov

Mumin Shakirov:

There have been hundreds of terrorist attacks in the last decade, causing many thousands of deaths. Yet Putin’s approval rating has not fallen, indeed he has managed to strengthen his position. What is the secret? 

Boris Nemtsov:

There are two reasons. The first is the highly fortuitous economic conditions he has found himself working with, and namely record prices for oil and gas. Remember that the natural resources sector represents more than half total governmental revenue. It has allowed the regime to support its good self and, more significantly, to increase wages and pensions. The majority of Russians simply do not understand that all this is happening not because of some all-wise stewardship of the economy, but because hydrocarbon profits have allowed the government to cobble together a budget surplus. A lot of people forget that life under Brezhnev was also tolerable for this very reason.

The second factor at play is the dumbing-down of the population, achieved primarily with the help of controlled and censored news channels. The brainwashing techniques used would impress Goebbels, who has a very neat Russian equivalent in the person of Vladislav Surkov. They do it better than any of their Soviet predecessors. So the lying, the cynicism, the manipulation of peoples’ minds — all this has had a strong effect.

But the situation is changing. What has Putin managed to do? At the start, he told everyone Russia was facing a worldwide terrorist conspiracy. This was at the time of the theatre siege, Beslan and other such tragedies. For many years he got away with it, imploring people to show solidarity around the national leader. For a long time he was able to use the terrorist attacks as a cynical way of consolidating his power.

Now we are in what we physicists would call a “phase transition to the second order”. People have simply stopped believing him. Putin can’t blame Bin Laden for everything any longer. No one would believe him. He can’t say he doesn’t have enough powers at his disposal. No one could believe that.

The good news is that more and more people are thinking for themselves, especially in the cities. These people have come to the conclusion that Putin is very dangerous for their country. They see his main objective as money, property and power. Putin, on the other hand, is afraid that he may loose his property and freedom if he is denied power. And be assured: he will fight tooth and nail to defend both.

Mumin Shakirov:

I read a particularly shocking post on Twitter which said “Uncle Vlad, don’t blow us up please. We’re going to vote for you anyway”. Could such a scenario be true, could the attack really be the work of the government? 

Boris Nemtsov:

I read the same suggestion on blogs and Twitter feeds — that Putin had a hand in the incident, and that it is all just the start of the election campaign. Personally, I don’t believe that. I think that people can no longer be fooled the same way that they were in 2000. And if it was really like that, Putin would have engaged in a “blood” PR operation on the day of the bombing. He would have travelled to Domodedovo airport, given officials a summary dressing-down and so on. But he didn’t do anything like that. Instead, he quietly summoned the Minister for Health Tatiana Golikova and ordered her to provide medical assistance and pay compensation etc. That said, the fact that people are prepared to believe in even the most odious and nightmarish versions of Monday’s events does go to show just how much people now distrust Putin.

Mumin Shakirov:

There are many Russians who link the “evil” 1990s with “young reformers” such as yourself. What do you say to those who accuse you of causing all the excesses that accompanied the reforms?

Nemtsov with Yeltsin 

In Autumn 1991, Boris Yeltsin appointed Boris Nemtsov as governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast. On more than one occasion, Russia's first president hinted that he viewed his namesake as a possible successor. Several years earlier, as a young and successful physicist, he met Andrey Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner. The meeting produced an indelible impression on Nemtsov.

Boris Nemtsov:

In the “evil 1990s”, I was elected deputy of the Supreme Soviet, governor and senator — at that time, you see, we had real elections. When I took charge of the Nizhny Novgorod region, it ranked 55th in terms of social and economic development; by 1997, when I left to join the central  government, it was among the top ten. There are a number of key things I am proud of. First, I am the only governor who managed to collect a million signatures against the war in Chechnya while Yeltsin was still alive. Second, I am proud of the fact that under my governorship two thousand kilometres of roads were built, and churches, monasteries, mosques and synagogues were restored. By the way, the late Patriarch Aleksy awarded me the Order of Saint Daniil of Moscow, First Class. It is the only award I really cherish. Third, some of the things I did laid foundations for future nationwide programmes; I introduced a simplified tax regime for small businesses; I launched a housing scheme for young people; I was the first to install a mobile phone network in the province and opened up this market to competition. During the “evil 1990s” not a single hit assassination took place in Nizhny, and the economy was open. And the final thing I am proud of is that our province was nicknamed the “territory of fearless journalists”. Thanks to the openness I presided over, investments started flowing into the region and new enterprises were created. Surely the people would not have voted for me if it had not been for these achievements. And lastly, I did not lie or steal. I would not be giving you this interview otherwise.

Mumin Shakirov:

When the 1998 crisis took hold, you were deputy prime minister and your comrade-in-arms, Sergei Kiriyenko, was prime minister. Anatoly Chubais also spent a few years in the White House. These facts are undeniable…

There is a myth spreading about how, in the 1990s, we democrats were pals with oligarchs while Putin was fighting them. It was exactly the other way around. We did not let Berezovsky get a foothold in Gazprom, we did not allow him to take over the Svyazinvest company. Yet Putin used to go to his birthday parties and bring flowers to his wife. It was Berezovsky who lobbied for Putin to become president and then financed his campaign.

I believe people will learn the truth because truth is the best PR

Boris Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov:

In my capacity as deputy prime minister, I was not responsible for finance. I actually learned about the default from Interfax news (as, by the way, did the then head of the tax agency Boris Fedorov). We were in shock. We met in my office at 9.00 a.m. and there was nothing we could do. By the way, Yeltsin, who knew about this, fired everyone except for me and Boris. He said: “Get out, all of you! Nemtsov and Fedorov stay! You had nothing to do with this.” Later I submitted a letter of resignation myself, stating that I did not wish to work with the new Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov. My view was that one should work as part of a team. When I meet people, I tell them everything as it is, just like I’m telling you now. But there is this propaganda, this general rumour spreading about the 1990s having been evil; this myth is being perpetrated about how we were pals with oligarchs while Putin was fighting them. It was exactly the other way around. We did not let Boris Berezovsky get a foothold in Gazprom, we did not allow him to take over the Svyazinvest company. Meanwhile Putin used to go to his birthday parties and bring flowers to his wife. It was Berezovsky who lobbied for Putin to become president and then financed his campaign: he gave him 25 million US dollars and Abramovich chipped in with a further 25 million. There is this aberration of history of the 1990s, spread by Putin. I believe people will learn the truth because truth is the best PR. Putin will be on trial soon: on 16 December he declared on nationwide television that we (Nemstsov, Kasyanov and Ryzhkov) stole billions in the 1999s together with Berezovsky. We are taking him to court and the first hearing is scheduled for tomorrow. We will present irrefutable evidence of Putin’s friendship with Berezovsky and will demand that Putin present proof of how we and Berezovsky were guilty of theft. And if our distinguished Savelovsky Court screws up, we will take it to the European Court. These court investigations will also help people understand what really happened in the 1990s.

Mumin Shakirov:

So what was your role in the government in those days?

Boris Nemtsov:

I only worked in the White House for a year and a half but even during that time I had some successes. First of all, I abolished the corrupt system of managing budget funds by prohibiting them from being kept in commercial banks. I also managed to introduce an anti-corruption law for state purchases, and launched the first tenders. Third, we put a stop to the criminal exports of raw materials and the sales of oil started to follow transparent rules, related to output and export quotas. And, most importantly, while I was the minister responsible for fuel and energy, oil was at barely 10 US dollars per barrel, and still we managed to save Russia. Things were difficult, what with social unrest, strikes, the war in Chechnya, the “default”, and still – let me repeat – we did save Russia. Can you imagine Putin with oil at 10 US dollars per barrel? The price of oil has recently reached nearly 100 dollars. Why should I be ashamed of this period? On the contrary, I ought to be proud of it.   

Mumin Shakirov:

And is there anything you feel you should repent of?

Boris Nemtsov:

I have never done anything disgraceful, but there have been mistakes. I dismissed the Mayor of Nizhny Novgorod in an undemocratic way. He did not pay his taxes and I regarded it as undermining the region. By the way, I have apologised to him. It was a mistake to go to Moscow in 1997 and accept a government post. I should have behaved differently in my relations with the “family” and Yeltsin. I would stop at nothing trying to prove one has to keep one’s distance from the oligarchs. I should have acted with more caution. But my key mistake was made after I arrived in Moscow: I should have taken on the siloviki instead of Gazprom. Because all this rot, this absence of order in the country, none of this really stems from the economy but from the rotten law enforcement agencies. I underestimated this. Why did the government end up in “default”? I have come to the conclusion that we did not have our backs covered sufficiently to be able to take key decisions. We were surrounded by enemies, and there was nothing we could do. The oligarchs, having become intertwined with the special services, were able to do with us whatever they liked.

Let me repeat – we did save Russia. Can you imagine Putin with oil at 10 US dollars per barrel? The price of oil has recently reached nearly 100 dollars. Why should I be ashamed of my time in government? On the contrary, I ought to be proud of it.   

Boris Nemtsov

Mumin Shakirov:

How many times were you disappointed in people? Over the past decade you have lost quite a few friends.  People like Anatoly Chubais, Irina Khakamada, Sergei Kiriyenko have deserted you.

Boris Nemtsov:

Yes, that is true. All of them, except for Khakamada, opted for a career instead of political struggle. I do not condemn them. For example, Kiriyenko, who comes from the same parts as me: he was in a position of power under the communists as a Komsomol official, then again under Yeltsin, and then under Putin. He’s a sensible fellow, climbing the technocratic career ladder.  Chubais, of course, is a highly ideological person but nevertheless his absolute priority is his career. He believes that Putin is basically a blessing whereas I think Putin is a disaster. And I cannot work with someone whose views I don’t share and whose actions I don’t condone and regard as extremely dangerous for the country. People say to me: “You’re a bright, educated chap, you’ve got some experience, why don’t you join Putin!” I even had a dream in which Yeltsin was trying to persuade me to join Putin. But I couldn't do that. That’s not how my mother raised me. And if there is a choice between my reputation and my career I will always choose my reputation. I am convinced that I am much happier and freer than Kiriyenko and Chubais. I believe that my behaviour is strategically right and that I will prevail whereas I doubt that they ever will. I don’t wish them any ill; but they will have to answer for their actions and deeds anyway.

Mumin Shakirov:

But still, there have been compromises in your life. In 1999 your team of “young reformers” – Chubais, Gaidar, Nemtsov, Khakamada and Kiriyenko – went into the parliamentary elections with the slogan “Putin for president, Kiriyenko for the Duma!”

Nemtsov arrested

Nemtsov believes that the decision to detain him, and other opposition figures, few hours before the New Year was taken by Vladislav Surkov, Deputy Chief of the Russian President’s Administration.

Boris Nemtsov:

It was not I who proposed Putin as a candidate for president, it was the party. There was a heated discussion within SPS (the Union of Right Forces); three of us – Chubais, Gaidar and Kiriyenko  – were “for” Putin and Khakamada and I were “against”.  They won 3:2 and as team members the two of us said: “OK, since you won, we will support Putin.” I did not find it too difficult at the time. It was 1999, Beslan, Kursk, Nord-Ost and the plundering of Gazprom were still in the future. And Putin was working with Anatoly Sobchak and Boris Yeltsin. I thought at the time that he was ready to continue the reforms. So, in view of all this, why was I “against Putin”?  I didn’t like his background, the fact that he was a KGB veteran.

Chubais and I had a very difficult conversation in 2008 when we decided to dismantle the SPS. I said to him: “I know all your arguments for the current regime, and I believe that strategically you and your Right Cause will fail. Why? Because your voters can feel the deceit and lies in their bones.” He told me that I understood nothing and that I was romantically inclined. We had a row, and simply went our separate ways.

Boris Nemtsov

Mumin Shakirov:

In hindsight, do you think it was a mistake to support him then?

Boris Nemtsov:

Yes, I do. My only consolation is that I have never voted for him personally. Voting is an intimate matter; I walked into the voting booth and didn’t put a tick next to Putin’s name.

Mumin Shakirov:

But a few years ago you lost another group of supporters. The Union of Right Forces broke up and your party colleagues Leonid Gozman and Boris Nadezhdin allied themselves with Surkov and founded the pro-Kremlin party Pravoye delo (The Right Cause).

Sochi mayoral campaign Nemtsov

Campaigning as a candidate in the mayoral election in Sochi, Nemtsov was denied the opportunity to rent space for speeches, he had trouble buying advertising space in local newspapers, and his campaign brochures were seized by the police under questionable pretexts.

Boris Nemtsov:

The Union of Right Forces always consisted of two factions, a Nemtsov faction and a Chubais faction. The Nemtsov faction was based on principles and ideology whereas the Chubais faction was pragmatic, existing by the rules of realpolitik. Gozman and Nadezhdin belonged to the Chubais faction. Their decision was predictable  – but just look at the outcome. The Right Cause lost every election. They never gained more than one per cent of the vote. A party established in an atmosphere of lies, cynicism and manipulation has no prospects. Chubais and I had a very difficult conversation in 2008 when we decided to dismantle the SPS. I said to him: “I know all your arguments for the current regime and for the agreements, and I believe that strategically you and your Right Cause will fail 100 per cent. Why? Because your voters can feel the deceit and lies in their bones.” He told me that I understood nothing and that I was romantically inclined. We had a row, and simply went our separate ways. I went on to start Solidarity and they set up the Right Cause. And what’s the outcome? Solidarity is the leading opposition movement in the country. It is us Putin is fighting, it is our books and speeches Putin is banning, it is me that Putin is throwing behind bars. And the Right Cause no longer really exists as an organisation, even though they are receiving funding, they have offices, they are allowed to appear on TV, they take part in elections but they do not exist. So who is right? Nemtsov or Chubais?

Mumin Shakirov:

Let me ask a banal question: why is Khodorkovsky in prison?

Boris Nemtsov:

Putin understood very well that Khodorkovsky has political and social ambitions but he did not know how to fight people who are intelligent, strong and rich. Putin is a man with a totally criminal mentality. And the minute he sensed that Khodorkovsky was a threat to his power, he decided to destroy him. That’s basically it. Mikhail’s claims regarding a dubious sale of Northern Oil to his competitors or YUKOS funding of the communists, SPS and Yabloko are not what this is about. After all, I was present at all those meetings with businessmen in 2002 and 2003 and I saw everything. Of course, Khodorkovsky did irritate Putin, but the real reason is that Putin sensed Khodorkovsky’s strength and felt he was a threat to his own power. He did not know what to do and chose a course that is a travesty of justice. And now he suffers from “Khodorophobia”, and he suffers from it severely. He believes Khodorkovsky to be scarier than Bin Laden and Basayev, and as soon as he’s due to come out of prison, he has to take everything from him, including his personal property and put him back in prison. And all Putin’s public statements about Misha’s “arms being covered in blood up to his elbows”, “a thief belongs in prison”, it’s just an over-the-top reaction. It is all unlawful and unprovable. Even the prosecutor Lakhtin did not hesitate to say so.

Mumin Shakirov:

And why do you think Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov was “dropped” by his people while Khodorkovsky wasn’t?

Boris Nemtsov:

Luzhkov is rotten and Khodorkovsky is real, 100 per cent. I’m not saying Mikhail is an angel, but he’s real. Why is Luzhkov rotten? He devoted all his activities, particularly the second half of his time in office, to enriching himself and his wife. Whereas Khodorkovsky behaved in a way that was rather human, and people appreciate his strength and courage. The fact that Vasily Aleksanyan who was mortally ill, Aleksei Pichugin who was sentenced to life imprisonment, and Svetlana Bakhtina, a mother of two children, all refused to testify against their patron demonstrates an exceptional courage that not everyone is capable of. And in general, the public attitude to Khodorkovsky is different from that to Luzhkov.

Mumin Shakirov:

How will this story end? Will there be a third Khodorkovsky trial?

Boris Nemtsov:

That is the worst-case scenario. I very much hope Mikhail will walk free but it won’t happen while Putin remains in power.

Mumin Shakirov:

And what is Medvedev’s view of this matter?

Boris Nemtsov:

Medvedev would have set Khodorkovsky free within two minutes if it weren’t for Putin. He has to fire Putin first.

Mumin Shakirov:

Can that be done? 

Boris Nemtsov:

Medvedev is just terrified of Putin: his hands, feet and knees are shaking. Everything! Although, to be honest, if he did what I suggest and fired Putin, Medvedev would be in no danger now that everyone has understood what Putin stands for.

Mumin Shakirov:

I wonder if you might be underestimating Putin. He is still strong and may turn out to be a tough guy, don’t you think?

Boris Nemtsov:

No. You need balls to be a tough guy.

Mumin Shakirov

How do you imagine this could be done? 

Boris Nemtsov:

First of all, he must do a very simple thing: he has to summon heads of the major nationwide TV stations – Ernst, Dobrodeyev and Kulistikov – to the Kremlin. And he has to say to them: “I’m about to sign a decree whose content you must not distort. And the self-censoring lackeys that you are, from now on you will listen to me and you will say what I tell you to say. And if you don’t, I shall destroy you. Good bye!” That’s the first thing that needs to be done. But all of it has to be done within one hour. They all have to sit in the waiting room, together with the Duma speaker Gryzlov and FSB head Bortnikov. That’s what I would do. All this should be publicised. Next Putin should be summoned and told: “Good bye! Tomorrow you’re moving out of your dacha, you will have no money and means of communication, you’re not allowed to work with anyone and if you misbehave I’ll have you arrested. That’s it, full stop.” 

Mumin Shakirov:

Something like that happened to Khrushchev: the comrades got together, there was a plenary session, he was dismissed and off he went onto the scrapheap of history. But what about the compliant parliament and the loyal senate?

Boris Nemtsov:

They will all take an oath straight away, saying: “That scoundrel and scum Putin, he’s ransacked the country and duped us all. Now we are a party of corrupt thieves.” All those who felt offended because they did not receive billions from him will gather straight away saying he was scum because he gave money only to his friends. There will be a flood of revelations. He will be gone within a minute. They have no “Solidarity” you see! When I was arrested there were “Solidarity” pickets outside the prison. Everyone supported me. They did it out of conviction, whereas all this is based on rubbish, and nobody will come to his rescue, except perhaps for Timchenko and Kabayeva.

Mumin Shakirov:

I wonder if you might be underestimating Putin. He is still strong and may turn out to be a tough guy, don’t you think?

Boris Nemtsov:

No. You need balls to be a tough guy.

Mumin Shakirov:

But you can’t say he’s not sharp, just look at the clever way he’s working the West.  He’s managed to push through the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the football World Cup, and most recently he has brought BP back to Russia tying it firmly to Rosneft

Nemtsov Clinton

After his release from detention, Boris Nemtsov urged the West to refuse visas to top Russian officials and their relatives to encourage more respect for democracy and civil rights. "That list must start with Putin's name. He is the man who has trampled upon and torn apart the Russian constitution," he said. (photo: Nemtsov appears together with Bill Clinton at the 4th annual Yalta European Strategy conference). 

Boris Nemtsov:

There is this term “Schroederization”, which roughly translates as privatization of eminent Western politicians and business leaders. Yet remember one thing. While Mr. Schroeder is the key lobbyist for Putin’s projects in Germany and Europe, his reputation is rock bottom both in the West and in his home country where nobody, even his party comrades, can stand him. There is also the former Finnish prime minister who is involved in Gazprom projects. They wanted the former US secretary of trade Donald Evans to join the board of directors of Rosneft. He refused; his reputation meant more to him. The Kremlin is spending a lot of money on PR in the US, buying up lobbying companies to represent its interests in Congress. But in the West there is public opinion. I think Putin enjoys about the same reputation in the West as Lukashenka. And any political actors that remain linked to Putin can’t expect to have a decent career in their own country. Not everything can be bought with money.

Mumin Shakirov:

We could argue about that. But what about Ukraine? You are a frequent visitor there. Has it succumbed to Putin’s money under Yanukovych? They seem to be getting on quite well.

Nemtsov Tymoshenko

"Yulia Tymoshenko looks far more natural [in opposition] than in the Cabinet of Ministers.”

Boris Nemtsov:

No. Ukraine does not want to become part of Putin’s Russia. For them sovereignty and independence are unshakeable values. They believe that Moscow has been hanging over them ever since Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s times [in the 17th century], that Kyiv is now free at last and this value is beyond dispute. Another matter is the “Putinization” of Ukraine that is proceeding apace: television and the opposition are once again under pressure, Yanukovych’s opponents are persecuted; electoral laws have been amended to the advantage of the ruling party. Worse things are in the offing: the constitution is about to be repealed, the role of parliament will be reduced, and power will be concentrated in Yanukovych’s hands. All this is “Putinization”. Yanukovych relies on the support of the very specific Donetsk or Eastern clan, on businessmen of Rinat Akhmetov’s ilk, and he also has the support of some of the Kiev oligarchs, such as Igor Kolomoysky. But these guys don’t want to be absorbed into Russia, they don’t want competition from our oligarchs. However paradoxical this may sound, Yanukovych is much more difficult for Putin to deal with than, for instance, Viktor Yushchenko. The former president did not have major business backers. He was backed by Western Ukraine, which has no major business to speak of. And by the centre, which also did not have much business. That is why “Putinization” is a real problem and real threat for Ukraine.

Mumin Shakirov:

So Yanukovych says one thing and does another?

Boris Nemtsov:

No. Yanukovych’s goal is to concentrate power in his hands, to suppress the opposition and stay put for as long as possible.

For many years Egypt was ruled by the dictator and corrupt thief Mubarak. What is the difference between him and Putin? None! Except that one of them is 80 and the other nearly 60. Our man simply has luck on his side. Oil is at nearly 100 US dollars per barrel but if it goes down to 10 dollars as it did twelve years ago, I can guarantee that within days the centre of Moscow would turn into Cairo.

Boris Nemtsov

Mumin Shakirov:

Do the events of 11 December mean Russia is under the threat of fascism?

Boris Nemtsov:

Russia is pregnant with fascism. I will give you my honest opinion of what I would do if had the chance. I would change the North Caucasus policy, and would stop relying solely on the cynical buying of these corrupt clans. I did make an attempt to do something there within constitutional limits and not on Putin’s terms. One of the causes of terror is simply the fact that people feel totally violated and cornered, not by Putin but by these criminal groups. Second, I think nationalists rather than fascists should be represented in the Duma. It would be much better for them to have seats in parliament, just like their counterparts in some European countries.

Mumin Shakirov:

What about Zhirinovsky, who has had a seat in parliament for many years, is he not a nationalist?

Boris Nemtsov:

No, he is a clown. What I mean are the people from DPNI – the movement against illegal immigration.

Mumin Shakirov:

Aren’t you playing with fire? 

Boris Nemtsov:

I was in prison with them. I read their journal Voprosi nationalizma [Nationalism Affairs]. I talked to one of their leaders, Vladimir Torr. Sure, it was an unusual experience. I don’t agree with almost everything they stand for. They want a Russian Republic, the separation of the Caucasus from Russia and so on. This is war! Well, let them have a faction in the Duma, rather than rallies in Manezh Square. Nationalist factions exist in the Austrian and Dutch Parliaments; they oppose migrants and want to limit migration. I am convinced that in free elections Russian nationalists won’t gain a majority in parliament. Our people defeated the Nazis and have developed a good deal of immunity to such ideologies.

I conducted a bit of research when I was in prison. I shared a cell with a Moldovan, an Azerbaijani, some Armenians and an Uzbek. I told them about the DPNI ideology, and they were prepared to kill Torr. But I said: “Leave him alone, he is a sort of political prisoner.”  He was on his best behaviour, and our cell was actually a model of internationalism, a veritable Soviet Union. I asked the nationalists: “Tell me, are there problems between the Islamic world and the Russians?” And they said: “Yes, there are. And you wanna know what to do about them? You have to sit down and talk. Exactly the way we are talking to you here in prison.” It was there in prison that I got the idea that they should be allowed into parliament.

Clearly, you mustn’t let the real fascists in: those who kill, measure the size of people’s noses, and so on. That obviously mustn’t happen! By the way, one of my cellmates, an Armenian who has been imprisoned many times, told me that if a skinhead ends up in prison, he is immediately turned into an “untouchable”. Prison is totally internationalist, with its “thieves-in-law” Georgians, Armenians, and so on. It is a mirror of society. A radical one but a mirror nonetheless.

Mumin Shakirov:

So you think they should be allowed to let steam off in parliament?

Boris Nemtsov:

Yes, because parliament has to be a place for discussion once again. There are three political forces in Russia and they ought to be represented in the Duma. Our country is very left-leaning and so one of the forces should be the Left. But it should not be led by the current CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is a dead, smelly cadaver. There should be some normal representatives of the Left. The second force is the liberal democrats, i.e. my party; and the third one is the nationalists. Let there be three factions in the Duma in various combinations. If fair elections were allowed, the Left would get some 40 per cent of the vote, we would get more or less 20 per cent and the nationalists a further 20 per cent, and the rest of the seats would go to various centrists and independents (provided, of course, that half of the seats were allocated in single mandate electoral districts as was the case before Putin). That’s the kind of parliament we would have! 

Mumin Shakirov:

On Monday the latest Strategy-31 meeting went ahead on Triumfalnaya Square, with protestors shouting “Vova [Vladimir], go away!” You stood up on stage and warned the Kremlin and Putin about the example of Egypt. Luckily, this time nobody got detained.

Boris Nemtsov:

The parallel simply suggests itself. For many years Egypt was ruled by the dictator and corrupt thief Mubarak. What is the difference between him and Putin? None! Except that one of them is 80 and the other nearly 60. That’s the only difference! Our man simply has luck on his side. I keep repeating this, but it’s important. Oil is at nearly 100 US dollars per barrel but if it goes down to 10 dollars as it did twelve years ago, I can guarantee that within days the centre of Moscow would turn into Cairo. That is why we don’t want a revolution, we want peace and what we are saying is: “Putin, retire!”

About the author

Mumin Shakirov is Moscow based, former Liberty Radio journalist. He is also a book writer and film director.

Read On

Boris Nemtsov web site  (in Russian)

Interview: Boris Nemtsov. Why is a subtropical gangster's paradise hosting the next Winter Olympics? , by Joshua Keating, Foreign Policy, March 1, 2010

Putin and Gazprom. An Independent Expert Report. By Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov.

PUTIN: What 10 Years of Putin Have Brought. An independent expert report by Vladimir Milov and Boris Nemtsov. Unofficial translation from the Russian by Dave Essel

First Person. An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
With Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov.Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.Illustrated. 207 pp. New York: PublicAffairs.

Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution, Peter Baker and Susan Glaser, Scribner; First Edition edition (May 31, 2005), 464 pages

Putin's Russia (Revised Edition) [Paperback], Lilia Shevtsova (Author), Antonina W. Bouis (Translator), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Rev Exp edition (January 2005), 457 pages

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Nemtsov office

Boris Nemtsov (b. 1959) is a leader of the Russian democratic opposition and a former deputy prime minister of Russia. He was born in Sochi, graduated from Gorky State University and received his Ph.D. in physics.

In 1990, Boris Nemtsov was elected to Parliament as a candidate for the anti-communist “Democratic Russia” movement. Between 1991 and 1997 Nemtsov served as Governor of Nizhny Novgorod region, where he earned the reputation of a successful free market reformer. He was re-elected as Governor in 1995 with 58 per cent of the vote. In 1997, President Boris Yeltsin invited Nemtsov to Moscow and appointed him as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia – a post he occupied until 1998 (in 1997 simultaneously serving as Oil and Energy Minister). In 1999 Nemtsov became one of the leaders of the “Union of Rightist Forces” party and was once again elected to Parliament. He served as Deputy Speaker of Parliament in 2000 and as leader of the “Union of Rightist Forces” from 2000 to 2004. In 2004 he actively participated in the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution”, and after its success became an advisor to President Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2006).

In December 2008, Nemtsov became one of the leaders of “Solidarity”, a new pro-democracy opposition movement that includes Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Lev Ponomarev and other prominent opposition figures. Two years later, Nemtsov and three other leading opposition leaders announced that they were setting up a new Freedom Party coalition, under the banner of "Russia Without Tyranny or Lawlessness". In January of this year, Boris Nemtsov was sentenced to 15 days in prison after taking part in a Strategy-31 demonstration on New Year's Eve.