Ilya Yashin, Russian dissident

Russian youth opposition leader:

“Putin will go the way of Mubarak”

Ilya Yashin, co-leader of Russia’s opposition Solidarnost movement, is charismatic, well-educated and fearless. And he’s only 28. Not surprisingly, he has become the new face of Russia’s opposition. Despite Vladimir Putin’s guaranteed victory in Russia’s presidential election on March 4, Russians are fed up with his rule, he says.

Vladimir Putin is certain to win the election.  What’s your reaction?

Forget the word “election” in relation to Russia. We have a system created in which Putin himself picks his sparring partners. This candidate alone occupies 70% of TV airtime. The votes will be counted by that same head of the Central Election Commission [Vladimir] Churov who is directly responsible for the mass falsifications in the parliamentary elections. So, Vladimir Putin will not “win the election” on March 4, because there is no election. He will simply declare himself president.

What will you do after the election?

Our reaction will be simple: we will go out onto the squares in Moscow and other cities. We will protest against the usurpation of power and achieve real fair elections. We have no alternatives.

How long do you expect Putin to remain in power?

Any authoritarian leader who has appropriated power but lost its legitimacy is sitting on a powder keg. It’s only a matter of time before people can no longer tolerate him. Examples of this aren’t hard to find. In November 2010, President Mubarak’s party won 80% of the votes in a rigged election. Three months later, mass protests forced him to resign. Now, during his trial, some hotheads even suggest he be executed. So, while despising public opinion and forcing himself on the people, Putin is risking the same fate as Mubarak.

Is Putin good for Russia?

The results of his rule have been grim. For the last 12 years, Russia has received enormous profits from the sale of oil and gas. However, instead of real reforms that can provide a technological breakthrough in our country, the money has gone down the drain. There has been a sharp increase in corruption, with up to $300 billion stolen every year. Social stratification has increased as well. Some of our compatriots top the world rankings of billionaires, while nearly 20 million Russians live below the poverty line. The economy is deteriorating; the foundation of democratic institutions is being destroyed. Putin will go down in history as a pitiful ruler. Because of him, Russia has missed a historic chance to modernize.

What will happen next?

The situation may evolve in two directions. Putin may choose the Belarusian scenario, where opposition leaders are arrested and the internet censored. This will lead to civil confrontation and, most likely, a violent drama. Or the Kremlin can negotiate with the opposition. We’ll agree to form a new political system, with guaranteed competition and a change of guard following elections. In exchange for resigning peacefully, Putin and his entourage would get amnesty and we’d close our eyes to their thefts. This obviously goes against the principles of the rule of law, but it’s the price for a bloodless transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

There have been protests against government corruption, but most Russians seem happy with the current situation. Do Russians like financial stability more than democracy?

In recent years in Russia we’ve had an implicit social contract. Putin provided economic stability, and the restriction of political freedom was the price for rising living standards. Today this principle is obviously exhausted. During these years, Russia has formed a civil society and, finally, there’s a middle class. These people want to actively participate in the ruling of the state.

Will there be an Arab Spring?

There will be a Russian Spring. The December protests were not a one-time phenomenon; people again took to the streets in the freezing weather in February. If our demands are ignored, we’ll continue our protests in the spring. We have the right to a democratic state. And we’ll defend that right.

Why is the political opposition so weak?

Registered parties in Russia are completely controlled by the Kremlin. They’re fake parties, just playing the role of the opposition. Independent political movements aren’t allowed to participate in the elections and are harassed everyday by the security services. But through these years of harsh confrontation with the authorities, they’ve become stronger. They will form the basis of the party system in the future free Russia.

Lots of opposition parties have failed to make an impact in Russian elections, but in the December parliamentary elections they did a bit better. What does this mean for Russia?

Many people voted on the principle “any party except the party of Putin.” That’s why the weak and Kremlin-controlled parties have improved their results in the parliamentary elections. But it’s not an indication of their real support. So the real political reform will leave these fake parties on the sidelines of the political process.

Many young Russians are leaving the country for the West. Where will this lead?

In Russia young people can’t flourish. If your dad is not an FSB general, if you’re not from a wealthy family, the chances of a good career are slim. On the other hand, many young professionals from Russia achieved great success in the West. They’ve even won Nobel Prizes! However, my own feelings say that that readiness to leave has changed since the protest. I am very happy about that.

You’ve been honey-trapped by a young woman who tried to seduce you – and she was working for the intelligence services. Which other tricks has the government tried on you?

Well, it’s not the worst thing that happened in my life. I’m young and single, the girl was cute, so everything’s okay. But when activists from one of the Kremlin’s youth organization dumped a pile of feces on the hood of my car, it wasn’t nice. And one of the main TV channels showed footage of my birthday party; the FSB [intelligence agency] had put hidden cameras in the bar where I was celebrating with friends.

Nashi, the youth wing of Putin’s party, have verbally attacked you, and they’re powerful. Are you afraid of them?

‘Nashis’ – they’re just crooks, but crooks who enjoy impunity guaranteed by the authorities. Their leader, Vasily Yakemenko, is suspected of corruption and links with criminal gangs from the 1990s. These are dangerous people. But we’re not afraid of such riffraff. I’m sure that sooner or later their leaders will be in the dock.

But given that Nashi represents United Russia, the nation’s largest party, doesn’t Nashi represent the real Russian youth?

They don’t represent anyone. This project exists only for as long as the authorities are interested in it and fund it. At the end of the day, all these structures the Kremlin has created will share the fate of condoms: used and thrown in the trash.

When you get up in the morning, what do you tell yourself?

I tell myself that I live my life for a reason. I’m glad that I can be helpful in creating a free and just state I don’t need to be ashamed of. That’s what I’ll tell my grandchildren.

FACTBOX:

Name: Ilya Yashin

Age: 28

Resides: Moscow

Background: Former leader of the Yabloko party’s youth wing. Popular blogger (yashin.livejournal.com). Attended Moscow’s elite Higher School of Economics.

In the news: Co-leader of Russia’s opposition Solidarnost movement. Jailed in January following anti-Putin protests.

By Elisabeth Braw, Metro World News