Something extraordinary happened in cities across Russia yesterday. It has been, in my mind, a turning point in the history of our country.
Tens of thousands of Russians, both liberal and conservative, poured into the city streets yesterday and in April to protest the regime of Vladimir Putin. Over a thousand people were arrested. People put their bodies on the line to say they are ready for change in Russia.
I walked the streets of Moscow with them. Watching the protests — especially the students and young people who showed up, who have grown up knowing no alternative to the Putin administration — I felt in the air a sense of optimism.
It’s a feeling that, as a longtime Putin critic who has watched his government expand power and crush the opposition, has grown in recent years in my country. There’s a good alternative to Putinism in Russia. A system based on open democracy and competitive markets.
The people are ready for change. And they aren’t going to take no for an answer anymore.
I worked for Putin as he rose to power
The period before and just after Putin came to power in the late ’90s was full of political diversity in Russia. Back then, the government was full of heated debate and warring political factions among different branches of government. Amid that, there was a real push for an open country and competitive democracy, where markets rather than centralized state control would flourish in Russia’s economy.
This was the vision I saw for Russia, and one I pushed for when I joined the Federal Energy Commission of Russia in the late ’90s. I rose through the ranks to deputy minister of energy in 2002, working to push through anti-monopoly reforms to our energy sector. At that time, Putin had just come to power in the government, appointed prime minister in 1999. Dissent was common. Parliament opposed Putin vigorously on some issues, and much of our mainstream media and television channels were openly critical of our government, though the free space had clearly begun to shrink.
Just to give you an idea what a different time it was: A few months after Putin was appointed president in 2000, he signed a bill that restored the Soviet national anthem, a vestige of our Soviet past that had been legally abolished to signal a new era for Russian politics. I came out publicly against the law. It would be unheard of deep into Putin’s reign, but back then, it wasn’t uncommon — even for a midlevel government official like I was at that time.
Still, there were disturbing signs in those early days. Putin ordered police raids at NTV, one of the television news stations most critical of him, just a few days after he was sworn in. He introduced laws allowing him more control over parliament and regional governments.
He made moves to consolidate pro-government political parties into one big, powerful group under his leadership. Power grab after power grab was happening. But it was gradual. Some reform-minded folks, like myself, were still operating relatively untouched by Putin’s wing of government.
I went along with my energy initiatives normally for two to three years. I came to the department eager to de-monopolize Russian energy companies and to introduce alternative and renewable energy to Russia. For a few years, Putin let us be. Then he turned his attention toward our sector. Our reform plans interfered with massive profits for the oil and gas oligarchs he protected.
Putin began to block our reform bills. He moved to not only continue but strengthen state control over energy companies. I was furious. I was the first to resign, frustrated to see our government moving away from my vision. Many of the other top officials in my department eventually left as well.
We were mad as hell, but we still believed it wouldn’t last. I was angry but unafraid. Eventually, fear would come to replace outrage.
What it’s like being an open critic of Putin
I’ve spoken out against Putin and his government for more than a decade now. After quitting the administration, I appeared widely in the media, on mainstream television stations and in newspapers, to discuss why the current government was dangerous. We looked to the 2003-’04 elections with hope. There was a sense that things were bad but that we would win back control next cycle. Democracy would prevail.
It became clear that things weren’t going to be peaceful and quiet anymore in 2003. That was the year that Putin arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a powerful oil company CEO who spoke out against the current government in favor of democratization. That, combined with an opportune parliamentary election win for Putin’s political party, put him in solid control of the government. Russia became a one-party state.
After that, conditions rapidly worsened. Most Putin critics were wiped out of TV and mainstream media. The only ones who were allowed to speak out were unpopular figures from elderly generations who just didn't connect with young Russians. It became so ridiculous that many times I got booked for appearing on a TV show, only for the producer to come back and tell me their boss told them to cut me from the panel when he saw my name. Some journalists confessed to me in private that they wanted to include me in their coverage but were told they would be fired if they did.
Then the physical and verbal threats started. Trolls would harass me daily online. Provocateurs hired by authorities physically assaulted me. Police detained me for just taking to the streets in protest. It became routine that police would arrest and detain organizers of rallies. They beat people up in the streets just to scare the protesters off.
There’s also financial pressure to stay out of opposition politics. Businesses face their own threats for working with anyone who criticizes the government. I’m fortunate that I work as an established energy analyst, which allows me to stay afloat financially and continue my work as a leader of the Democratic Choice party here in Russia. For others committed to political causes, it’s much harder to feed themselves and their families when they are iced out of the job market. Those who oppose Putin live in a state of constant pressure.
Two years ago, Boris Nemtsov, the former prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, an opposition party leader, and a close friend, was shot four times in the back on a bridge in Moscow. The assassination happened two days before a political rally he had organized called the Spring March. The government’s investigative committee has its official narratives for what happened that don’t implicate them, but to me, it reeks of Putin’s actions. From what I can tell, Putin saw an outspoken critic who opposed him. I believe he wanted to send a message to the rest of us: Shut up or be killed.
In my apartment in Moscow, there’s a chair where Boris used to sit when he would come over and drink tea. We've talked about his fate more that once, and I remember him openly telling me he thought Putin was going to murder him.
It’s disturbing. But that's the environment we have to work in, and it’s more important than ever to speak out.
I still want to fight
We're often asked: Do we fear to continue our opposition activity? I wouldn't say we don't, and recent events suggest there are reasons to fear for our own lives. But I’m long past the point of letting these personal feelings stop me from continuing to oppose this regime. There is a potential for change and a willingness of Russians to live a different life out there. So we all must continue to fight.
When I think about those first few years under Putin, I realize that we overslept. We saw the signs of authoritarianism gradually taking over, but many still believed democracy would help us correct ourselves. We thought, if the people aren’t happy, they’ll make themselves known in the polls. What we didn’t take into account was that Putin was dismantling these democratic institutions systemically, on all fronts, and it was a very well-organized power grab masked under “gradual adjustments.”
I believe, also, that Putin sold a vision of a better standard of living in exchange for democracy and civil rights. In the first decade or so under his leadership, Russia’s GDP grew. Putin promised to continue to deliver us economic strength even as he took away our rights. Back then, many people in Russia saw these moves as separate and disconnected. They did not recognize that it was a systemic threat.
That’s not the case anymore. I travel often through many regions across Russia. I can tell you from talking to people that there are many, many Russians out there who want a different political system. They want to have their voice heard; they want change. Don’t believe the statistics on Putin’s so-called popularity. There is a real desire out there for change.
All of that bubbled up and came to a head when protests across the country broke out, despite the everyday threats, the arrests, and the news media lockdown. Things are changing for Russia. The era of Putin could very well be almost over.
—as told to Karen Turner
Vladimir Milov is a Russian opposition politician, publicist, economist, and energy expert. He is the former Russian deputy minister of energy, adviser to the minister of energy, and head of strategy department at the Federal Energy Commission, the natural monopoly regulator. He founded the Institute of Energy Policy, a leading independent Russian energy policy think tank. Since leaving Russian government in 2002, Milov has become a vocal public critic of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian course. He is active in the Russian opposition politics, serving as chair of the Democratic Choice opposition party. Read his recent piece on the Russian protests for the Wilfried Martens Center here.