On March 20, 2014, when Russia's State Duma voted on whether to annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea into Russia, 445 of the Duma's legislators voted yes and one voted no. The "no" was Ilya Ponomarev, a longtime leftist politician and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Within a few months, Ponomarev was exiled from Russia and stripped of his legislative immunity from prosecution. Though he is still officially a Duma member, he now lives in the US and is attempting to organize a more formal opposition to Putin from outside of the country.
We spoke to him in Washington, DC, about the stability of Putin's rule, the Russian elites who help keep him in power, how things might change, and Putin's increasingly tense relationship with Europe and the United States. While Ponomarev believes change will come to Russia, he warned that it will take years — and believes it will likely come from a combination of Russian elites turning against Putin and popular unrest, not from the ballot box.
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Vox: Let me ask you about Crimea, and your vote in the Duma against its annexation as part of Russia. Did you know you were going to be the only one voting against it?
Ilya Ponomarev: Yes. I expected this.
Vox: So why did you vote against it?
Ilya Ponomarev: I thought there had to be somebody to show that it wasn't unanimous. Because if it was unanimous, that would be used later to restore relations with Ukraine [while treating the annexation of Crimea as irrevocable]. But if there was a split, that means you have somebody to talk to [in the Russian government about Crimea's status]. But of course, I understood that would significantly disrupt my activities in the country.
Vox: Did you expect the reaction to be as bad as it was?
Ilya Ponomarev: I expected they might try a criminal case for sure. I didn't expect that they would try to isolate me outside of Russia. I would rather expect the reverse — that they would try to contain me within Russia. They decided to go the other way.
Vox: Do you regret it?
Ilya Ponomarev: The vote? Of course not. This was my job to do this. So I consulted with my constituents, and I tried to do right.
Vox: After the vote, what was the reaction from your constituents?
Ilya Ponomarev: The most common reaction, pardon my language, is, "We disagree, but you are a true Siberian man with real balls." That was the most common phrase I heard.
Vox: I understand you're traveling to Europe soon. What are you working on there?
Ilya Ponomarev: I'm working with the Russian diaspora, which has been traditionally disorganized and hasn't had any kind of political agenda. It's very fragmented. That's a very dramatic contrast with the Ukrainian diaspora, because the Ukrainians are very well-organized. They were very active in terms of what was going on in 2004 in the Orange Revolution and the recent Maidan events.
The Russian diaspora is not like that. So I want to change it. I want to use it to develop a vision of Russia after Putin.
Vox: Within Russia, a big constituency for Putin's actions in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine has been the neo-imperialist movement and, to some extent, the Russian nationalist movement that sees these areas as rightfully Russian. Are these groups focusing much on the Russian communities in the Baltic states, in Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania?
Ilya Ponomarev: All Russian speakers. All those who might be seen as wanting to come back. But even the Russian community in Baltic states is divided. Take an example that I know well, Latvia, where we have the largest Russian community. There are people for whom Russian is a native tongue but who agreed to integrate in Latvian society and learn the language. That's about half of the Russian population there; they are citizens.
They still identify themselves as Russians. They watch Russian TV. The mayor of Riga is Russian, Nils Ušakovs. The party that is supported by these Russians, Harmony, is the number-one political party in Latvia. They get around 30 percent, 35 percent of votes. It's supported by these ethnic Russians in Latvia, but they are pro-Latvian. They don't want to join Russia.
But there are ethnic Russians in Latvia who are non-citizens, who say, "We don't want to learn Latvian language. It's not our fault that we live here, and they should respect [our rights]." It is a difficult issue of being a non-citizen in your own country, where you have been born. They are very much pro-Russian because they feel oppressed.
That community was supporting a local referendum to acknowledge Russian as a second state language in Latvia. The referendum failed, but a very significant number voted for it. And that basically illustrates the divide.
Vox: If Putin's going to leave office, are you looking toward the Duma elections coming up in 2016 or the presidential election in 2018 as how that would happen?
Ilya Ponomarev: Most likely not that fast, because it's impossible to use the existing electoral code and conduct free elections. We will end up with exactly the same system, and I think that without rewriting the constitution, without rewriting the basic political laws, it's impossible to create a workable system. You would need to have a kind of transitional president, during which these set of laws would be developed.
We have this with the president of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva, who was elected by all different political actors during the revolution. [Otunbayeva served as transitional president in 2010 and 2011 after the government was deposed.] She was a popular figure, and she was trusted by everybody to not abuse power and to not run as a candidate during the next election.
Vox: Sure, but the mechanism for that was a revolution.
Ilya Ponomarev: Yes, I would think that only a revolution would change things [in Russia]; I don’t believe any change will come through the elections.
Vox: Who would that come from?
Ilya Ponomarev: I think that would come from a combination of civil unrest in the streets and from elites who are already dissatisfied with what's going on, who would come to understand that it's really dead-end for them in this current system.
Right now, though, there are still hopes [among Russian elites] that a new American president will come into office in 2017 and that he or maybe she will end the sanctions.
Vox: Do people believe the sanctions will end specifically because Hillary Clinton would end them, or just that once Obama leaves, whoever comes in will change US policy toward Russia?
Ilya Ponomarev: The analysis in the Kremlin that has been propagated down, including to the [state] media, is the belief that the Americans are extremely rational and pragmatic. [In this view, the problem is only that] Obama is a lame duck and so he would not do anything, and he already has a personal issue with [Putin]. But as soon as he's out, the pressure would go.
Vox: But elites in Russia are unhappy with how things are going?
Ilya Ponomarev: Of course nobody is happy with how things are going. The sanctions are disturbing [to the elites]. The elites are nervous, and definitely don't want to live under such circumstances for a long period of time because it's a kind of personal instability for them. It creates insecurity. They want to settle this down so that these feelings will go. It hurts their business. Even those who are not under sanctions, they might come under them at any time.
Vox: Who are these elites? Are there key people who, if they lose faith in Putin, could be important in determining what happens?
Ilya Ponomarev: It's a significant part within Russian elites who can open the gates of the Kremlin in a critical situation. They are within business, the establishment, law enforcement. Nobody wants to fight against their own people. They would never make the first move, but they will join the winning side.
That's why it has to be a combination [of elites and a popular movement to effect change]. People on the streets need to protest. That's what was happening in Ukraine. You know, Maidan [the 2013 Ukrainian revolution] would not have happened if it was just people on the Kiev streets. It happened only because it was a combination: people at the top, the inability of law enforcement to really fight, and mass popular movement.
Vox: What's stopping that from happening now?
Ilya Ponomarev: People are not ready. It takes time. You have to mature to that idea.
People, at the end of the day, are pretty rational. So they always weigh risks, especially risks to themselves. And if there is doubt, they'll always be waiting whether any change is real or not. So they have to start to feel that the change is real. That has to be in the air, the sense that it's real. That something is going to change.
Vox: Is there a belief among the elite that Putin, even if they don't love him, can at least maintain stability and keep all the internal forces in line?
Ilya Ponomarev: Yes, some people actually afraid that without Putin it would be a turn for worse. That’s a possibility; that is a very valid fear. A lot of these Novorossiya people [who see much of Ukraine as rightfully part of Russia and may have fought in eastern Ukraine] are real fighters or are real 100 percent fascists. That’s really scary for a lot of people.
One of the usual Putin lines of propaganda is that he never says he is good. The message put out to the [Kremlin] media might say, "Yes, we are bad, but those who might come after us are worse."
He never says, like, United Russia [Putin's political party] is good. He says, "Yes, it is corrupt. Yes, it is incompetent. But look at the opposition. They are even more corrupt, they are even more incompetent. They are associated with the '90s, and in the '90s it was worse than we have now, so you better stick with the lesser evil."
Vox: And the elites find this message compelling?
Ilya Ponomarev: Yeah, many people do. We have seen so often in our lives that it can always be worse. People are really afraid.
The opposition is focused too much on negative things. Like, okay, [opposition figure Alexei] Navalny is against the corruption. Okay, we are all against the corruption. It's pretty self-evident that we should fight corruption.
That's why Putin is saying Navalny is as corrupt as all the others. That's his message. People say, "Probably that's not true, but still I don't know. He's against corruption, we like him, but how?"
Vox: Is there anyone you think is providing a compelling alternative message in Russia right now?
Ilya Ponomarev: Right now I don't see many people do this. There was a prototype, called Club 2015. It was organized by a group of Russian business people in 1995 who were developing this 20-year vision for Russia.
It was never actually implemented inside Russia despite the fact that four members of the club, who swore that they would promote the ideas of the group, all have prominent positions right now. For example, Olga Dergunova, one of the members, is now chief of the government agency that manages state property.
But another member became a key person for reforms in Georgia, under [former Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili. It was extremely successful, and helped to defeat corruption and jump-start reforms. And that came from that [Club 2015] vision.
Vox: There seems to be a view in Russia that the US and Europe are somewhat divided over their approach to Russia — for example that Europe is only going along with sanctions because Obama has pressured them into it. Is there an effort by Russia to widen this possible division?
Ilya Ponomarev: In general, [the view is that] this current administration thinks this all should be a European affair. They have their priorities in the Middle East, which I think is a mistake.
Putin recognizes this lack of attention and lack of strategy and is trying to play on the contradictions. Europe is not very capable as a union in terms of foreign policy, and Putin is trying to increase the possibility that this union could fall apart. He is financing right-wing parties, he is financing separatists.
Vox: A fear that I hear from people who work with NATO is that Putin is trying to, as you say, heighten contradictions between the US and Europe, and particularly between the US and Germany, over the degree to which NATO should counter Russia's actions in Europe. And that part of what he's trying to do, not just in Ukraine but maybe also in the Baltics, is to force a split between Europe and the US that will divide NATO. Do you think that's right?
Ilya Ponomarev: That's obviously his strategy. The weaker part of NATO is not right now contradictions between Europe and US, but contradictions within Europe. Within the neutral countries of Europe, like in Germany.
First, inside Germany there is a greater degree of anti-Americanism, and Putin is playing on this. It's 19th-century anti-imperialism that has been translated into anti-Americanism. Putin, again, is trying to use this concept of lesser evil, that you should ally with the lesser imperialism to fight the major imperialism. And a lot of people who are ultra-left and ultra-right tend to agree with that position, and that is facilitating this kind of thing.
Also it's important to see that in Germany, Social Democrats and Socialists [two major political parties] are traditionally affiliated with labor unions. And that's all about jobs, and jobs are about economic cooperation with Russia. I hear all the time from German Social Democrats, "Our economic interests in Ukraine, they are minuscule, and our economic interests in Russia, they are pretty large. Of course, we understand that Ukraine is right and Russia is wrong, but, speaking pragmatically about the interests of Germans, common Germans, we should still be with Russia."
Vox: That view also seems to be much more popular with German voters, one of saying, "Let's not get involved in this, because it's really just a fight between the US and Russia that could be costly to us, and let's stick with our economic interests."
Ilya Ponomarev: Yes, absolutely. And [the Kremlin] plays on this all the time. They are trying to show Germans that you'd be better off forgiving Russia for all wrongdoings, because that would be to your benefit.
Vox: The most extreme version of this that I hear in Washington is the fear that Putin could try to split Germany from NATO once and for all by hinting that he might do with the Russian communities in Estonia or Latvia something like what he did in Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. And because Estonia and Latvia are NATO members, this would force Germany to choose whether it was going to side with NATO and come to the Baltics' defense, or whether it would say, "No, we've had enough of this," and that this would effectively end NATO.
Ilya Ponomarev: I wouldn't think Putin would dare to vote for open military measures in the Baltic states. But of course it would be enough for grassroots movements there to rebel, and Russia would play on this, and that would be used as a lever on Europe.
Rather, I think it's a very high probability of further advances in non-NATO members in eastern Europe. Definitely Putin might decide for another offensive in eastern Ukraine, after Victory Day [an annual Russian holiday marking the end of World War II] on May 9. Or he might try to build this land corridor to Crimea. He might escalate in Moldova [where Russia has a military base in the separatist region of Transnistria].
With Baltic states, as NATO members, he'll be more cautious. But he's the type of guy who is always increasing stakes.