A Conversation with Boris Nemtsov: Prospects for Democracy in Russia

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For the lunch keynote session of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s 2010 Forum, FPI Director Dan Senor interviewed former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov for a discussion on the prospects for democracy in Russia.  Nemtsov, began his career in activism in 1986 after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and has subsequently been, as Senor described him “on the front lines of the reform, pro-human rights movement in Russia,” by founding and leading many of the country’s activist and opposition groups.

Nemtsov began his remarks by detailing the poor state of freedom in the Russian Federation, today.   Since 2003, he said, “transparent and honest elections in Russia were over.”  He and other opposition candidates were rejected by Russian authorities, disheartened voters did not even register, and media censorship was total.  In this environment, he described the opposition movement as facing a quandary:  though the Kremlin will certainly continue its undemocratic behavior in the upcoming cycle of elections, average Russians will only receive the official message from the regime, without any exposure to their message.

Emphasizing that the institutional fora of Russian political life were useless, Nemtsov said that “The only policy in Russia is street policy.” He continued, noting that President Dimitry Medvedev has responded to public protests on a variety of issues, and changed his policies when placed under pressure.

The discussion then turned to the recent beating of Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin.  Nemtsov detailed the attack, and used the incident to address the origins of human rights abuses in Russia: Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov.  Surkov, who Nemtsov charged as being responsible for media censorship, cancelling elections, and the country’s “atmosphere of hatred,” now is the Russian co-chair of US-Russian Commission for Development of Civil Society with Obama Administration official Michael McFaul.  Calling this commission “a bad joke,” Nemtsov called for placing Surkov and others on a black list for visas, and financial penalties against his and other elite’s assets.

Nemtsov then criticized President Obama’s short-sighted tactical approach to building a rapport with the Russian leadership.  He recalled that when he met with the president in 2009, and asked him if he would support legislation that would press the Russian leadership on rights, he was “very cautious.”  He understood that Obama had other issues of concern that required a working relationship with the Kremlin, but concluded that, “strategically, this is absolutely a wrong policy.”

On behalf of the Russian people, Nemtsov said, “we need democracy and human rights and rule of law.”  Observing that Americans would benefit from having predictable policy from a predictable country in international affairs from a democratic Russia; he urged the United States not “to close your eyes about what's happened with journalists, to close your eyes what's happened with Khodorkovsky, to close your eyes about violation of law during elections, to not pay attention about what's happened with the opposition.”



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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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