The Akunin-Navalny interviews: part III


Politician-blogger Alexei Navalny and writer Grigory Chkhartishvili (a.k.a Boris Akunin) conclude their dialogue with an exploration of what their country might look like after democratic change. What should be the priorities for a new and free Russia?

Boris Akunin Alexei Navalny
17 January 2012

Grigory Chkhartishvili, a.k.a Boris Akunin:

Now let’s talk about what all this is in aid of. Not about ‘smashing the world of violence to smithereens’ but about ‘afterwards’, about what kind of ‘our own, new world’ we want to build. How far do our ideas of a ‘well organised’ Russia overlap? And – the most important thing – we will look at the views of our readers on this subject.

This blog format is too limited in scope for even the outline of a programme for the reorganisation of the country, but let’s try at least to identify some priorities.

Which of our country’s problems do you consider the most pressing, requiring immediate ‘repair’? You don’t have to list everything; we’ll just get bogged down. Let’s say five. The most urgent.   

We’ll assume that Russia has already been through proper elections and has a legitimate parliament and president. What should they tackle first? It will be interesting to see if your five are the same as mine.

1)    Make Russia a parliamentary (rather than a presidential) republic; limit any one person’s rule to two five-year terms without the possibility of re-election in the future.

2)    Introduce radical changes in the personnel and working principles of law enforcement agencies. In their present state they are ineffective and discredit the state. I don’t know how this could be carried out in practice – I am no expert in this field. But it is obvious that the ‘purge’ needs to happen from the top down – as the saying goes, a fish rots from the head.  

3)    Raise the prestige of the judicial system, whose reputation has been horribly damaged during the Putin years. For this to happen, the most compromised judges should face criminal charges and the entire judiciary should be substantially renewed.

4)    Make it a criminal offence for representatives of the executive power to interfere in the editorial policies and work of the mass media. Democracy cannot function properly if the press is subordinate to government.

5)    Carry out proper reform of the armed forces. In its present state the country looks inadequately defended from potential threats. Our army needs to be fully professional and equipped with high-tech capability, and military service should be seen as a prestigious and envious career. And the reform should not be carried out by current generals.

Five points are of course too few. And ten would also be not enough.  I’m sure that our readers will add quite a number to the list. But now it’s your turn.

Aleksey Navalny:

 Before I get to my five headings for ‘rebuilding’, I want to talk about the core principles which should guide the rebuilders’ work. We have any number of work teams, each with its own plan of action, but nothing ever gets done.

I am firmly of the belief that people who have been elected to form a new government should not base their actions on any ideological dogma, but be guided by ethical principles and believe in people and common sense. I believe that people are capable of taking good decisions on their own, and should be trusted to do so, rather than having some ‘correct’ agenda forced on them from above. And by that I do not mean people in general, but specific individuals who are citizens of Russia today.

The main slogan for any reform undertaken now has to be ‘no lying, no theft’. 

The dismantling of the existing corrupt, authoritarian, mindless and failed model will not be completed in a day, or a year for that matter. But I have no doubt that if 20, or, even better, 50 figures could be found within the corridors of power who would be guided by that principle, then rapid and significant changes could take place.

This is the only realistic way to go. But let’s talk about concrete changes.

1)    In first place should be the creation of a judicial system — that is obvious.  No other reforms can be put into place without it. No battle with corruption can be won. New political parties will be no help, and newly elected governors will be as bad as the old ones. 

Note: I mean ‘creation’, not reform, let alone ‘raising the prestige’. Here I disagree with you completely. You can’t raise the prestige of something that doesn’t exist. How could you raise the prestige of Judge Borovkova? [Borokova sentenced opposition activists to short jail terms for taking part in recent anti-government protests – oDR] 

'The dismantling of the existing corrupt, authoritarian, mindless and failed model will not be completed in a day. But if 20, or, even better, 50 figures could be found within the corridors of power who would be guided by principle, rapid and significant changes could take place.'

Aleksey Navalny

These people are not judges at all, but a tool for purging society of ‘undesirables’.  That is how the government regards them; and it is how they regard themselves.

Human society needs a fair and just mechanism for resolving conflicts. There should be a place where arbitration can take place between conflicting parties, where justice can be had.

If no such place exists in a country, then nothing else can exist either.

70% of current judges have worked previously for the Court Secretariat, the rest in the police force and public prosecutors’ offices. These are people who are reasonably well versed in procedural matters, but who see their judicial function as carrying out their bosses’ commands. They have never known anything else, and have no conception of how things can be done otherwise.

Judges should be pillars of the law, but also of ethics, integrity and public morality.  The words,’ he is a judge’ should be pronounced with respect and piety. But now they are the subject of gossip of the ‘look at him, his salary is only 80,000 but he’s just bought a jeep’ variety.

Judge Olga Borovkova has for many come to symbolise the defects of the Russian justice system. She was responsible for the custodial sentences handed out to democracy activists in the aftermath of December's disputed December elections.


Independent judges, elected judges (even at local and regional level), a full-scale jury trial system and a Constitutional Court - these are all real enemies of our present government. If you look closely at your five points, you will see that introducing any of them will immediately knock up against questions of the courts and the judicial system, so that is what you need to start with.

2)    Governmental reform

You can call this constitutional reform, if you prefer. The Constitution of the Russian Federation should be changed in such a way as to make the regeneration of autocracy impossible, whether by Tsars, General Secretaries or Presidents. No one in Russia - no individual, no party – should have a monopoly on power.

Yeltsin used the constitution to usurp power and create a comfortable life for himself and his family. Now Putin is doing the same thing, enriching his faithful henchmen beyond the dreams of avarice.

The federal centre, and the President in the first place, must share power, redistribute it to where people live – to villages, towns and cities.

It is local government that should take key decisions affecting everyday life: from the financing of local schools and hospitals to a smoking ban in public places; from purchase tax levels to issues of law enforcement (local police, petty crime and so on); from fines for traffic offences to the colour of the facades and roofs of buildings.

I can see no problem with the rules for everyday life in Moscow being quite different from those in Vladivostok. In Makhachkala people will be fined for topless sunbathing; in Yekaterinburg for parking on the left side of the street; in Nizhny Tagil, for selling vodka within the town limits.

'The ‘purge’ needs to happen from the top down – as the saying goes, a fish rots from the head'

Boris Akunin   

We live in a large country – each place has its own local character.

I want to emphasise that it is not our dodgy governors who should be given more power, but the next level down: mayors, town and village councils. Apart from anything else, there would be less risk of separatism (which has become a political bogeyman) without these petty tyrants of whom everyone is afraid.

To avoid their replacement by local, town Tsars, you have to exclude any possibility of political manipulation: the changing of election dates, the extension or curtailment of powers, the banning or removal from lists of candidates, the intimidation of electoral committees and other technical tricks perfected by our officialdom.

If a conflict arises at a local level which can not be settled locally, see Point One: everyone goes to court and a Federal judge adjudicates on it.  

Governmental reform should mean the restoration to citizens of their right to determine their own destiny and the destiny of their town. It is also essential to revive and simplify a tool of direct democracy (the referendum) at municipal level, and to restore the principle of the direct election of mayors and governors.

The question of censorship and interference in the work of the media that you mention belongs with governmental reform. The media are obviously not just businesses; they also have a vital role to play in society. Censorship is already formally banned; we just need to restore the meaning of words.    

It shouldn’t be too difficult to introduce a law that would send someone to prison for censorship and blacklisting. People should also be punished for accepting payment to write biased articles to order, especially if they contain political defamation. Journalists, editors and the owners of newspapers and TV channels should be disqualified from practising their craft for both censorship and ‘payola journalism’.

There should be restrictions on the ownership of the media by both the state and oligarchs, both at a national and local level: a local oligarch who owns companies of regional significance should not be permitted to buy up all the local newspapers.

No exceptions should be made, so that every citizen knows for certain that in Russia bribery means a prison sentence, and the phrase ‘law and order’ is not an abstract one.  In other words, corruption must be eliminated, root and branch.

3. Reform of the law enforcement system

This is a key area, although it is in many ways a by-product of the creation of a judicial system.

'What is the point of half the country being in uniform if Russia is one of the top three of countries with the highest number of murders (UN data)? We could have a hundred times fewer police officers, if they could spend their time protecting our citizens, rather than cooking up criminal cases to order.'

Aleksey Navalny 

Here you have the same problems: the country in effect lacks any law enforcement agency – the entire system is geared to protecting thieves and swindlers from law-abiding taxpayers.

What is the point of half the country being in uniform if Russia is one of the top three of countries with the highest number of murders (UN data)? We could have a hundred times fewer police officers, if they could spend their time protecting our citizens, rather than cooking up criminal cases to order.

The reform has to be cardinal, not merely cosmetic like Medvedev’s reform of the Interior Ministry and FSB.  How to go about this is not hard to fathom: there are plenty of examples to draw on, both positive and negative. Some are very recent (Georgia); some have a longer history (USA, Hong Kong, Singapore).  

4. A national anti-corruption campaign

Obviously, both the judicial system and law enforcement points contain elements of this, but there needs to be a comprehensive and targeted campaign against corruption. The public needs to see and feel that it is happening. It should involve show trials (but fair ones) and prison sentences. It should also include the weeding out of all those families with one foot planted in Gazprom and the other in the FSB. It should mean a retuning of the relationship between politics and economics that has created ‘warm spots’. It should limit the finance allocation function of officials and imprison those who have already abused this function.

Those are the main things I feel it is important to mention at the beginning of our dialogue. However, I want to say that in general I don’t see any point in listing problems in order of their importance. That can only lead to crude discussions about whether the provision of accessible and high quality education for all should take precedence over an effective and combat ready army.

From my point of view, the creation of a judicial system that can deliver a just settlement of conflict between individuals and groups, along with the reform of our political power structures, will provide a basis on which we can build a state fit for our modern world.  But let’s discuss some more problems, without any unnecessary points system.

G.Ch. A points system is necessary, not to solve some of our top priority problems, but some of the second and third priority ones. Our dialogue is an invitation for public debate. And what interests me, and, I am sure, you, are the opinions of people who read this. As a politician, you need to know which problems people see as the most pressing. So this is what I propose. We have both had our say. Now let’s give our readers theirs.

The blog format allows us to put forward up to 15 points for discussion. So far you and I have come up with six (I still insist that guaranteed media independence is a separate issue from constitutional reform). I would add four more points that didn’t make into my ‘Top 5’, though they are incredibly important. I leave another four points up to you.

So, here is my contribution:

Reform of the Health Service

No commentary needed, is there?

Pension Reform

The elderly should not live in penury. It’s a national disgrace.

An end to our commodity-based economy  

A revival and development of our country’s scientific potential

Otherwise the previous point is invalid.

What would you add?

A.N. Okay, here, in ‘telegraphese’, are my additions to your suggestions.

Deregulation and de-bureaucratisation

The abolition of archaic or corruptive rules and procedures. In New Zealand you get building planning permission in a week. Here it takes two years. To claim expenses for business trips you still need to get a stamp on a business trip certificate! 

Efficient management of state property, in the first instance by applying  the highest standards of corporate management in companies under state control and influence.

Official company stamps are the oil that greases the Russian bureaucratic system and are required for the execution of the most mundane business tasks. For Aleksey Navalny, deregulation should be an essential first step for any new democractically elected government.

In Russia state controlled companies make up 53% of market capitalisation for the Top-90 major companies and everywhere there is hideous chaos and embezzlement. The use of well-established rules and procedures will significantly improve the situation in the short term.

Regulated, rather than illegal, migration.

The abolition of obligatory registration for RF citizens moving to other regions, and a ban on discrimination on grounds of place of residence or registration for RF citizens.  At the same time a visa system to be introduced for citizens of Central Asian countries, where most illegal migrants come from. You want to come and work here? No problem: all you need is a work permit, insurance, a visa and a guaranteed minimum wage.

A restoration of the role of education (secondary, professional and higher). in social mobility  

We have a university here on every street corner. Everyone has a higher education diploma, none of them worth a penny. Where you studied, how well you studied – it’s all meaningless. A diploma to hang on a wall should have a price, not in the sense of how much you bribed the selection board, but as evidence of the effort you put into it, and at the same time it should have a high value. 

G.Ch. Good, now we just have to wait and see what ‘repair plan’ for Russia our readers come up with.

Part I can be found here

Part II can be found here

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