From the very beginning my interaction with Vladimir Putin was tense.
In the second half of the 1990s, I was simultaneously serving as the secretary of Council of local self-government in the Russian Federation and the head of the Department of the President of the Russian Federation for local self-government, the head of which was the incumbent President of Russia at the time – Boris Yeltsin. There is not a single democratic state in the world in which there would not be a developed system of local self-government and we aspired to develop it for Russia. It was January 2000, and Vladimir Putin became the acting President of Russia. Three days after he became president I shared my vision of the development of local self-government in Russia and a day later I was discharged. We never had similar views.
In the late 1990s, I joined the Union of Right Forces (URF), an economically liberal (therefore “Right”) political party. The founders of URF were prominent progressive and liberal politicians and economists, first and foremost Yegor Gaidar and Boris Nemtsov and I was elected to be the first chairman of the executive committee of the party. It was the only liberal party in the history of Russia. URF promoted “freedom and development of democratic institutions”. It aspired to push for equality and economic transparency in the whole country. At first, like many others, URF thought that the new president would be a reformer and thus supported him. The same way he was viewed by the Western leadership. Tony Blair made a famous visit to Saint-Petersburg in order to meet the new Russian leader and jointly attend a premiere in the Mariinsky Theatre. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Putin’s commitment to liberalism and democracy did not last long.
The second presidential term of Putin took an increasingly sinister turn. To put it mildly, the relationship between Putin and the leading political and economic reformers of Yeltsin’s era, such as Gaidar, Nemtsov, Yasin and others, started deteriorating. Gaidar was an economist and a politician, acting Prime Minister of Russia in the 1990s, saving Russia’s economy and preventing civil war. In 2006 Gaidar travelled to Dublin in order to present his book “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia”, where he was poisoned. Three years later, at the age of 53, he died, unable to cope with the consequences of poisoning.
A month after Gaidar’s poisoning, in the entrance to her apartment building, a very famous journalist of “Novaya Gazeta” (New Gazette), Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered. Like both Gaidar and Nemtsov, Politkovskaya had criticised Russia’s war activities in Chechnya. Putin started on the path of suppressing freedom of speech and everyone who would oppose him. Anyone who resisted Putin’s way to total power, wealth and control became a target.
After Gaidar’s death, a fund was created in his memory, which I headed for 10 years. The main goal of the fund was the promotion of democratic and liberal values. My work, however, did not go unnoticed, and eventually, Putin’s friends took away all of my business in Russia and started prosecuting me in Russian courts, later fabricating a criminal case, accusing me and two of my sons of fraud. As a result, my family was forced to leave Russia.
Boris Nemtsov, the former Vice Prime Minister and one of the URF leaders, was one of the first to protest Putin’s undemocratic leadership and his personal plundering of Russian resources. Allies of Boris, myself included, took responsibility to financially support him and his family. One night in 2015, as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvoretskiy Bridge right across from Kremlin, he was shot four times in the back, the most audacious political murder in Putin’s Russia to this day.
In Yegor Gaidar’s 2007 book “Collapse of an Empire”, he warned of the dangers of pursuing the aim of becoming an Empire. As the Economist reported, “he drew convincing and worrying parallels between Nazis in Germany and similar voices in Russia”. Gaidar wrote: “The situation is very dangerous. Post-imperial syndrome is in its prime. We must survive the next five-ten years and not start doing foolish things”. Alas, Putin did not heed Gaidar’s prophetic words.
Despite the past 20 years of persecution of opponents by Putin’s kleptocracy, me and my associates from Gaidar’s Fund continued our efforts to develop Russia’s democracy and market economy. I finance charitable projects devoted to forming an open and democratic Russia.
However, the majority of my opposition to the regime was relatively hushed up, since the result of my public address of the matter would have very negative consequences to anyone who would be associated with me. Yet in 2012, on the already shut down, at present time, independent Russian TV channel “Dozhd” (Rain) I tried to convey a thought that not all business people in Russia support Putin.
Now, that the whole world is watching how Putin continues his aggressive and unlawful military invasion in Ukraine acts with horror – I continue to publicly address the issue and do everything I can to support Ukrainians, which are suffering from this attack.
For Russia, which I love, I will continue to publicly oppose Putin’s authoritarianism, just as I did it before.