Vladimir Ryzhkovhas been co-chair of RPR-PARNAS since 2006. He was a member of the Other Russia coalition and an active speaker during the 2011–2012 Russian protest rallies. He spoke to EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
What brings you to Brussels?
I came together with other opposition leaders: Vladimir Milov, leader of ‘Democratic Choice of Russia’, Sergei Davides from a new party called ‘5 December’. Ilya Ponamaryov, representing ‘Fair Russia’ party. We conducted consultations with various political groups in the European Parliament, with the European Peoples’ Party group, with the Socialists and Democrats, with the liberal ALDE group. And we will hold ... a meeting with the European Conservatives and Reformists group.
The topics we discuss include the negotiation of a new basic treaty Russia-EU, now in preparation, visa liberalisation and abolishing the visa requirement between Russia and the EU, the development of humanitarian and cultural contacts.
Of course, we discuss the current state and democracy and human rights in Russia and hot topics such as the Magnitski case [Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian attorney working for a UK firm, accused of tax evasion and tax fraud. He died in police custody in 2009.] Basically these are consultations between the Russian opposition and different political groups in the European Parliament.
How did you depict to your interlocutors the political situation in Russia, what appears to be a backslide in terms of democratic standards. I’m referring also to recently adopted legislation aimed at silencing civil society…
At our meetings we describe two processes ongoing in Russia. One of them is positive. The good news is that Russian society rapidly changes and we see that the support for democracy, human rights, freedom, media freedom rapidly grows.
We can say that today’s Russian society asks for freedom, democracy and human rights than in the previous decade, when all supported Putin and only cared about consuming, travelling to Turkey or Cyprus, and not caring about politics.
Now the situation is different. It changed over the 2009 crisis, when people understood that the existing economic model doesn’t allow for growth to continue. In that period corruption boomed, prices skyrocketed, and people started to ask for change. The big protests in Moscow and other cities over the last year clearly show that society demand this change.
That’s on the positive side. The bad news are linked to Vladimir Putin and his administration. The situation of human rights, of freedom of speech, of the work of NGOs sharply deteriorated over the past year. A lot of people were arrested for participating to protests, several leaders of the protests have been charged for criminal offense, I can mention Alexey Navalny [a blogger], Sergei Udaltsov [the leader of the Left Front movement]. Many unconstitutional laws have been adopted such as the ‘espionage law’, the law against foreign agents, the law on internet censorship, unprecedented for our country. Now they target not only NGOs and opposition, but what is called ‘Modern art’: I’m referring to the Pussy Riot case, but also many other cultural projects.
In short, what is going on is a crackdown on human rights, on civil rights, on minorities. But I was impressed that MEPs from the three political groups we already met know well what is happening in Russia and that they are worried about the developments. We discussed what is possible to be done to stop these negative developments and help strengthen democracy and freedom.
But is there something the European Parliament could do, except adopt a resolution…
We realise this. But the European Parliament is part of the European political system. We understand that it is not possible to build a European position fast. But it should be possible if we are consistent in our efforts.
One of the things that we could do is to make sure that a text reaffirming democracy and human rights should be introduced in the new basic treaty Russia-EU and be binding for both sides. Our interlocutors supported such an initiative.
Another thing is visa liberalisation. You are aware that the Russian authorities push for introducing visa-free regime for the holders of ‘blue passports’, that is, the service passports delivered to representatives of the administration. We are against this; we consider that ordinary citizens should be the priority, not those privileged from the civil servants, the special services and the police.
Thirdly, we would like that human rights become a constant agenda item in all EU-Russia summits and meetings.
Also, we discussed the fact that Russian corruption becomes a problem not only for our country, but also for the EU. According to financial experts, in the course of 20 years €700 billion of dirty money has been transferred to the EU. I think that most of these €700 billion are now on EU soil. In Cyprus, in France, in London. This is dirty money. But there is no existing mechanism for control, for disclosure of information, for transparency, for arrest of the culprits, for the return of the money to the country of origin.
But this Russian dirty money is influencing the European Union, it is corrupting its élite. We consider that similar to the USA, the EU would adopt its ‘Magnitski act’. [The Magnitski Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on 14 December 2012, is aimed sanctioning Russian officials linked to the death of Sergei Magnitski.] That is, an instrument capable of punishing the corrupters and those responsible for human rights violations.
You are probably not yet aware of the latest news from Moscow, that the investigative committee on the Magnitski case has closed the investigation, with the conclusion that Magnistki died by himself, that nobody is to be blamed for his death. Magnitski was refused medical assistance, he was killed in jail, $230 million were stolen from the budget, officially by two criminals who were killed, the money disappeared without a trace and nobody is answerable.
Like in the times of Stalin…
Exactly. Moreover, the dead Magnistki is undergoing trial for tax evasion. That’s why we suggested that Europeans should think of their own Magnistski Act. This would not be a punishment against Russia. But it would be targeted against concrete persons, responsible for crimes, corruption etc.
And the last thing we suggest is that we start looking again at political prisoners in Russia. On 6 May 2012 a peaceful protest took place, and now a court case is ongoing against 24 participants. They are accused of “mass disturbances” in spite of the fact that nothing of the kind took place, there was only violence from the police. But 24 are under investigation and 15 are in jail, and will stay in jail a year or so until the trial. We think that the European Parliament should look into those political prisoners in Russia, who reappeared 20 years after the collapse of the USSR.
Let’s come back to those €700 billion of Russian money into the EU. Are you sure of the figure?
It’s not me who has put forward the figure, this is a figure presented by London analysts, by EU experts. It’s €700 billion for 20 years. But only last year the capital flight from Russia $60 billion. One year earlier the figure was of $80 billion. Only in two years $140 billion flew from Russia. And about half of this money has been stolen from Russian taxpayers.
Let me give you an example. In 10 months the Sochi winter Olympics will take place. The sum spent so far for these Olympics is of $50 billion. In comparison, the Beijing summer Olympics cost $40 billion, and the last winter Olympics in Vancouver only $1.6 billion. Do you realise the scale of theft? According to my party $20 billion have already been stolen from the Sochi Olympics, and most of this amount is already in EU banks. That’s why we say we need mechanisms to fight corruption. What we had so far was only words.
What you say frankly surprises me. The EU and its member countries say that they control the situation.
They are absolutely not in control of the situation. The fact that they have received those €700 billion and that they cannot say where they are shows that they are not capable of controlling the situation.
And what is EU doing?
This is a good question. You should ask them: what do you do to keep you busy? The latest events in Cyprus are also revealing. As soon as something was decided for this money, politicians interfered and the vote in Parliament didn’t pass. Today Putin says “we are ready to buy your banks”. An operation is ongoing to save this corruption money.
What do you think will happen in Cyprus?
I think that what is going on is that a multi-billion Russian assistance is being offered to Cyprus. This assistance will be at the expense of Russian taxpayers. I’m not against, but I would like to know why does Russia offer this assistance and what benefits it would obtain in exchange.
No explanations are provided today, which confirms the suspicion that some concrete money of concrete people is being saved. Maybe Russia can help, but transparency is needed, arguments are needed. Why do you help those people and not someone else? No answer is provided and this fuels suspicions that this is again a corruption scheme and a defence of private interests, not of the interests of Russia.
If Russia has so many billions to spare, why don’t spend them on those Russians who need help?
Indeed, in our country we have 700,000 children without parents. We are the Number 1 country worldwide in this respect. Why not help these children, help the families that would take care of them? But instead, we are helping Cyprus, without any kind of explanation.