Freedom in Russia: Why Putin Won't Be Able to Stop the Rising Tide of Protest

Vladimir Kara-Murza sits for an interview at the offices of Reuters in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 13, 2017. Aaron P. Bernstein/REUTERS

Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza is a rare thing in Russia: an outspoken, uncompromising critic of Vladimir Putin who is—somehow—still alive. In February earlier this year, Kara-Murza made international headlines after apparently (it's impossible to prove) being poisoned by the Kremlin on the day he was set to fly to Washington. He was hospitalized and placed on life support, but survived. It was the second time it had happened to him in two years.

Undeterred, he remains a leading advocate for democratic reforms in Russia. He serves as vice chairman for Open Russia, an NGO founded by former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky that promotes civil liberties, human rights and freedom of the press in Russia. With a master's degree in history from Cambridge University, he is an established journalist, filmmaker and former editor-in-chief. And he is only 35.

Newsweek caught up with Kara-Murza at this year's Oslo Freedom Forum, a global conference that brings together dissidents, political activists, and influential figures. He discussed what it's like to fight for democracy in Putin's Russia, the dangers and the challenges that come with it, and his belief that change is on its way.

How has Russian press culture and freedom changed in recent years?

When Vladimir Putin came to power 17, almost 18 years ago, Russia had a vibrant free press; we had a real, pluralistic parliament with different political forces represented; we had real, competitive elections, and we had separation of powers. I mean, things were not ideal—we had many problems and many flaws in the political system, and the human rights situation was problematic too. But when Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia was basically a democracy.

There was certainly a free press, there was independent television, including national television, which was known for real, genuine political analysis and cutting edge political satire. There was this puppet show called Kukly. It was a really hard-hitting satirical show and every week, millions of Russians would tune in to watch this program that depicted political leaders, including Vladimir Putin. There was this episode I remember, at the beginning of 2000, just when Putin was coming to power, and it depicted Putin as little Zaches from Hoffman's fable [an early 19th century Prussian Romantic author]. It's a tale about a mean and unattractive midget who is suddenly made the center of attention and admiration.

In fact, Vladimir Putin's first major move as president of Russia was his war against independent media. Within his first three years in power, from 2000 to 2003, he shut down or took over every single national independent television channel. NTV was the first, then it was TV6 then it was TVS. The Kremlin established basically a complete monopoly over the air waves. If you watch Russian television today you will see that it has turned into a propaganda outlet. It offers laudatory, uncritical coverage of the authorities and dismisses political opponents of Vladimir Putin as traitors, foreign agents and enemies of Russia.

We still have some small pockets of media freedom in our country, but they are shrinking, shrinking and shrinking. It's under constant pressure. There are still some brave media outlets that still dare to have real discussion, like Ekho Moskvy radio, like a few newspapers like Novaya Gazeta, for example, and of course a lot of online outlets. Russian internet is largely uncensored—it's not like in China. There are increasing attempts by the government to try to control online content, but basically the Russian internet is still uncensored. We still have a lot of vibrant discussions online. But in terms of the traditional media, all of the airwaves, all of the national television, it is controlled by the state.

In the U.S., people have talked about parallels between the ways in which Trump is waging a war on the media, and has called the media the "enemy of the people." Do you think that's the beginning of a trend or do you think America couldn't slide into a similar position?

Frankly, I don't like it when people morally equate what is happening in dictatorial, authoritarian regimes and what is happening in democratic countries, whatever problems and criticisms we might have about them too. I think the situation is fundamentally different. I don't think it is possible for any U.S. president or any U.S. administration to destroy freedom of the media in the U.S., while Putin basically has been able to destroy freedom of the media in Russia.

If you look at the latest World Press Freedom Index, Russia is number 148 out of 178 countries: below Zimbabwe, below Venezuela, below Bangladesh. And in his first years in power, he really dedicated himself to destroying any of the major media outlets that offered alternative viewpoints, that held free discussion, or that allowed the opposition on air. Frankly, I don't think that's possible in the U.S.

Interestingly, it's something that Trump himself has tried to make equivalents about, saying "We have killers here as well" like they do in Russia. Do you think there is a danger when even the president is trying to say that there is a moral equivalent between what the U.S. is doing and Russia?

For now, there are enough Russians trying to meddle in U.S. politics. I don't want to be one more. I don't think it's my place as a Russian politician to comment on the U.S. domestic political situation. I would say though, that it's very important for the leaders of Western democracy, including and above all the U.S., to stay faithful to the principles on which their systems are based on, stay faithful to the principles of the rule of law, of human rights, of respect for human rights, of democracy—including in international affairs.

It's very important, for instance, when there are official contacts between Western governments and the Putin regime—and there are many—that these issues are raised, that they are not hidden under the carpet. When Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov say "don't interfere in our internal affairs," meaning issues of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, they are—how can I say this most diplomatically?—misspeaking. Because human rights, the rule of law, and democracy issues cannot be considered "internal affairs." That's explicitly stated in the founding documents of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which both Russia and the U.S., as well as every other European country, are members. So we expect those issues first of all to be adhered to, but also to be spoken about in an honest and open way.

Do you think there is a turning point going on in terms of protests in Russia?

Since the end of March when we saw those mass protests across the country, across Russia, I think that really is a turning point. Both for Russia and the Putin regime. Because despite all this pressure, this intimidation, this crackdown, and despite the propaganda and despite the very genuine threats that anyone who opposes the Putin regime faces, tens of thousands of people went out to the streets across Russia, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, across 11 time zones, to say "no" to this corruption, to the impunity for this corruption, to the autocracy, to the disregard for basic rights and freedoms of the individual. Frankly, to say "no" to the sheer arrogance of the same group of people that have now stayed in power for nearly a generation, almost 18 years.

The most hopeful thing about those protests is who these protesters were. The vast majority of the people who went out onto the street were young people, representatives of the young generation, representatives of tomorrow's Russia, the people who will shape Russia after Vladimir Putin, people who are now in their twenties and some in their teens, you know, university students, high-school kids—the "Putin generation," in fact. These are people who were certainly raised, and in many cases were born, under the Putin regime. People who don't remember anything else, who have no memory of anyone else being in power.

I have to remind myself of this when I go around Russia to attend the many events of the Open Russia movement—where we hold open discussion, debate, roundtables, film screenings and so on. When I speak to these young people, I sometimes have to remind myself that they don't remember anything except for Vladimir Putin. This is all they know, their entire lives. And it's that generation that is increasingly saying, " enough, enough, we've had enough of this." Frankly, I don't think there is much Mr. Putin can do about that. When I look at the faces of those young protesters around the country, I'm very hopeful about the future of Russia.

Do you think Putin is less popular than he was, or do you think people are just more empowered to come out and protest?

I think it's absolutely meaningless to talk about popularity or opinion polls in an authoritarian regime. Just imagine: You're a Russian sitting in your apartment, you know everything that's going on in the country, you know opponents of Putin are denounced as traitors and foreign agents, you know people are sitting in prison for their political views, people are beaten up and arrested at peaceful demonstrations, and so on and so on. And you get a phone call or a knock on your door from somebody claiming to be from a polling agency, and they ask you: "Do you support Vladimir Putin?" What are you going to say? This is completely meaningless.

I think a much better way of judging what this government actually is, what this regime actually is, is by its own actions. They like to say that they have 86 percent, 90 percent approval in opinion polls. Really? If you really had 86 percent popularity, why would you need to rig elections? Why would you need to put people in prison for their political views? Why would you need to break up peaceful opposition rallies? No. That is the behaviour of a government that is weak and that is unsure of its own position. I think that is a much better way to gauge the true standing of Vladimir Putin. It's really important that the media in the free world, in the Western world, stop repeating this stereotype about Vladimir Putin being "popular."

I think these increasing protests around the country [showed that] – [they took place] despite great odds, I have to remark. When we had those mass protests at the end of March, they took place in 84 different towns and cities across Russia, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. In most of those towns and cities, the rallies were "unauthorized," so the authorities made it clear that anybody who goes out to these rallies could be subject to attention and arrest, and people still went. People still went in their tens of thousands across the country. And increasingly we see that their interest in being citizens, their self-awareness as citizens, with certain rights and freedoms, is becoming stronger than fear. And that, I think, is a turning point.

Why do you think that's happening, that people have this conception of citizenship?

The bottom line is, every people wants to live with freedom, with dignity, with respect, and with the rule of law. Under Vladimir Putin we have none of that. People are basically voiceless subjects, with no right to elect their own government, with no opportunity to voice their criticism without the danger of arrest or other times of harassment, with parliament being a rubber stamp, with elections being fixed. This has been going on for years —more than 17 years, Vladimir Putin's been in power.

Now people are saying "enough," especially the young and especially people who travel, who see other countries where people have those rights, are treated as citizens, are treated with dignity. It's mostly about that. It's mostly about dignity, about being treated as fully fledged citizens with a voice, with a right to express one's opinions, not as voiceless subjects who are going to be told what to do. There are increasing numbers of people across Russia who demand to be treated as citizens.

And you know, for a short while Mr. Putin will be able to control this, he will be sending riot police and the National Guard to put down these demonstrations. They will be arresting people, harassing people and threatening people. I mean, they're doing that, that's what they've been doing for many years and they continue to do this—but you know what, at some point, this is just not going to work anymore. Because when you have tens of thousands of people coming out across the country, I guess you can still send riot police, beat everyone up and arrest everyone. But when this stream really turns into a river, when we have hundreds of thousands of people beginning to come out and voice their protest, there is nothing they will be able to do.

And for you personally, how does fear balance your desire to speak out? Has that changed at all? How do you deal with that fear day to day?

Well, I'm a normal human being. Of course it's very disconcerting when someone tries to kill you twice in two years. But we go on, we have to continue doing what we're doing, because it's for the sake of our country, for the sake of the future of our country. We think this regime is a dead end, it's robbing our country not just literally—in terms of the egregious corruption—but also in terms of its future, and that's probably even more damaging. And I think it's our responsibility to do something about it. If we see what's happening and do nothing about it, then we're complicit. We don't want to be. There are many people across Russia who reject the Putin regime and everything it stands for—its corruption, its authoritarianism, its aggression toward the outside world—and I think those of us who are the leaders, the public faces of the opposition, we have a duty, a responsibility, to carry on.

There is no better gift we could give to the Putin regime than to give up and runaway. We're not going to do that. Sure, it's not easy, but we have to carry on, and we will carry on, and I know in the end we will prevail because the truth is on our side.