Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute for Contemporary Development,… (Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles…)
MOSCOW — For four years, Igor Yurgens was one of the closest advisors of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The 59-year-old businessman reportedly was one of the main forces backing the idea that Medvedev should remain Russia's president for a second term; instead, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May.
On Wednesday, Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development, announced his decision to leave the Presidential Council on Civic Society and Human Rights, a step taken earlier by several prominent Russian human rights activists to protest what they said was the Kremlin's veiled attempt to manipulate the advisory board.
Why did you leave the presidential council on human rights?
The newly proposed rules to compose the council [by a public Internet] vote will most likely change the quality of the council for the worse. These rules provide a possibility to manipulate the process. The council members would often tell the truth the authorities wouldn't like.... We voted for the liberation of [imprisoned tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. Such people in the council obviously don't suit the Kremlin, which wants other people, more obedient.
It is a known fact that you and your colleagues insisted that Medvedev should have stayed in the Kremlin for the second term and that you encouraged him to do so. Has Russia won or lost with Putin making a comeback?
The way Putin returned to the Kremlin raised many concerns and made thousands of people take to the streets and protest. All this could have been avoided if the country had continued its course of reforms under the leadership of Medvedev. Now Putin has significantly corrected the modernization paradigm we prescribed. Putin's favorite word is "stability."
Opposition protests continue and grow more and more aimed personally against Putin. What will become of the protest movement? Can Putin find a way to make a compromise, or will he have to crack down harder on the protesters?
Putin is a lawful president elected by a majority of the population, whichever way one may look at the poll figures. And the visible irritation of some part of the population is not a national factor yet. As for the protest movement, it will … itself soon become less united as it can't hold together for long in one movement: nationalists, communists and liberals. They may reach some provisional goals, like stay together until some regional and maybe urgent parliament elections, but they will have to part company afterward.
The radical part of the protests blames Putin for everything. We warned Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] in the past more than once that people get tired of one face even regardless of politics in general. Twelve years is a cycle of development in Russia. Once every 12 years or so we always had some sort of a crisis with people getting tired of their leader. This is why the radical protest is so focused on Putin, whereas the moderate opposition talks about the crisis of institutes and systems.
What do you make of the growing pressure on the opposition from the law enforcement agencies: Apartments of protest leaders are raided and searched by the police, documents and sums of money seized; several activists are hiding abroad and one already is asking for political asylum in the Netherlands; dozens of people are arrested?
This crackdown, for which I see no real justification, is counterproductive. Protesters in the streets behaved themselves in accordance with the constitution and laws unless they were provoked by the police. The current repressive measures only prove that conservatives won the upper hand in the Kremlin after the elections. They think that they don't need a dialogue with the opposition, which they should ignore as they strengthen the regime and march forward. They have a wrong idea what democracy is all about.
The fact that they consider themselves beyond and above criticism, the fact that their activities can't be examined, checked and corrected by democratic institutions like parliament and courts in a true democracy, the fact that this power coalition has merged hard and tight with judges, police and security forces, is throwing the country badly out of balance and needs to be corrected.
Is Russia losing its influence abroad by clinging to the last to the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria and to Tehran, which wants no compromise with the West?
My position on Russian foreign policy is more nuanced than that. In some aspects, Russia is not behaving so shortsightedly as some might think....
Our Western partners said to us that that it was all about the open sky over Libya. They didn't tell us anything about the open ground over Libya then, which resulted in a direct military involvement in that country and the death of its leader, [Moammar] Kadafi, who might have deserved his death but certainly not in the way it came to him. Now we have every right to feel deceived when they ask us to vote for a similar resolution on Syria or Iran.
[Putin] may still end up as a real peacemaker for the region. But in the short term we should expect a certain distancing to prevail between us, Western Europe, NATO and the United States, mistakes made by all sides. And this distance will persist until at leastthe U.S. presidential election.
What do you think of the fate of the reset in the Russian-U.S. relationship, which appears to be all but buried now?
I think that the reset in the relations will continue with some nuances added. What we should expect now is some kind of a revamping of the reset if Obama wins the election. If Mitt Romney comes to the White House, the reset will be initially subjected to some serious invectives but eventually a desire for a constructive cooperation will prevail. We will survive this difficult period we always experience in election years.