MOSCOW — Mikhail Kasyanov served as Russian prime minister from 2000 to 2004. Friendly to the West and outspoken on the need for democratic reform, he was stripped of his job as then-President Vladimir Putin gradually centralized power. Since then, Kasyanov has taken up a prominent position among Russia's dwindling opposition, running for president until the Central Election Commission early this year accused him of forging signatures and banned his candidacy. The Times interviewed him this week in his office.
Many in the West believe that Moscow deliberately provoked a confrontation over Georgia's breakaway republics. Who do you believe is responsible for the eruption of armed conflict?
The Russian Federation relentlessly provoked the conflict in every way, and unfortunately the Georgian leadership gave in and used armed force. In response, the Russian Federation, instead of fulfilling its peacekeeping mandate, started a large-scale war against the independent sovereign state of Georgia. Not only the disproportionate use of force, but in fact a full-scale war.
What was the strategic purpose in recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Russia is, so far, almost alone in the recognition.
It was obvious that the Russian authorities were amazed by the reaction of the civilized world. And they continue today on one hand to be afraid of isolation, and on the other hand making threats, saying, "We won't sell you oil." But, in fact, they are scared. . . . That is why it's crucially important that countries of the civilized world act in unison.
They clearly think that the current world can be guided by techniques used in the Soviet Union, in a totalitarian state. It's totally unacceptable.
How does Russia view the development of friendly relations between the United States and former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia?
The propaganda streaming today from television screens and newspaper pages is, in a simplified way, calling on the nation to rally together and to protect the motherland. Hinting that war is on the threshold, that the enemies are knocking on our gates and that Russia is surrounded by enemies who want to break Russia into pieces. The current authorities want the citizens to say, "Oh, thank God, anything but war." They want to cover the problems they've created in the last few years . . . by alleging that evil forces surround Russia and dream of its destruction.
Do you believe that Ukraine will join NATO, and if so, how will Russia react?
I don't doubt that sooner or later Ukraine will join NATO. Today, Russian behavior has provided many more arguments to convince the people of Ukraine that they need to join NATO to protect themselves. . . . Today, when Russian authorities have discarded all democratic masks, it is quite obvious that these authorities pose a threat to Ukraine. I can't rule out that Russian authorities would use some economic leverage against Ukraine. And that would look extremely shameful for the Russian Federation.
What do you think would happen if Ukraine were to push Russia's Black Sea fleet out of [the Ukrainian port of] Sevastopol?
Given the current situation and relations between Russia and Ukraine, when the current lease expires, of course Ukraine will insist that it should not be renewed. It's obvious.
You were a prominent member of Putin's government early on, but are now one of its most outspoken critics. What's changed?
They completely did away with separation of powers and replaced it with the so-called power vertical. Since then, there's been no independent parliament and no independent judicial system. Mass media have practically all been taken under the control of the authorities or the people close to them. Citizens lost their constitutional right to get access to an independent point of view. The system of elections was radically changed.
This is why I stopped all my contacts with the leadership of the country and chose to return to politics and take up opposition activities. I consider it my job to let people know what's going on, because every day the number of people who can speak the truth and who are not afraid of doing so decreases.
You were banned from running for president earlier this year after more than 13% of the signatures you needed were ruled invalid by the Central Election Commission. Why do you believe this happened?
They realized I would be the only independent candidate, and, as a result, I was denied registration on an invented technicality, not because the signatures were not authentic. Because the authorities felt a growing threat.
It seems like the authorities have a steady hand on power. Is it realistic for you to talk about replacing them?
The current leaders are driving the country into a dead end. Problems in the country will be obvious in the near future, especially in the economic and social spheres, which are of primary concern to citizens. Inflation is rising in the country in this year. . . . I claim that the current Russian authorities don't enjoy the support of a majority of Russian citizens. As soon as conditions for daily propaganda disappear, Russian citizens will understand the essence of the current regime.