I had the pleasure to interview Vera during her visit to Madrid. She had a lecture in Juan de Mariana’s Institute, the think tank I work for. Vera is a young but brave libertarian leader. She was the first Russian libertarian to be elected to public office and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on market urbanism at King’s College London. Vera is also a Senior Local Coordinator with Students For Liberty.
Pablo Sánchez: What is the status of the press and the media in Russia?
Vera Kichanova: I wouldn’t say maybe something surprising If I say it’s been getting worse even since Putin became president, which was at 2001. The first thing he did when he came to power was actually shooting down the main independent TV channel and, since then, Putin has been serous about suppressing the media. But for a while internet has been relative free. Until 5 years ago, obviously all the TV channels were controlled by government but online you had a lot of independent outlets, some of then are very popular, you had bloggers, you had social networks. I did a degree on journalism and I started internet journalism. I remember when I graduated 5 years ago there were a lot of places to work if you did not want to be part of the propaganda machine, but since 2014 when Russia has started building the new Iron Curtain its been getting worse. A whole range of independents media were shutdown or forced to change their editorial policy, a lot of journalist were threaten, assaulted, censured. Many of then had to emigrate, including myself, I moved to Ukraine on that year. What I did in Ukraine was actually with a brunch of other Russian migrants, we were running libertarian online media, we were not the only one, there were groups of journalist who were moving from Moscow to Latvia, to Czech Republic, to New York, so in many ways it was like when the bolcheviques came to power a century ago, a lot of writer, philosophers, intellectuals had to leave the country and write in Russian but abroad, so that’s what happening now. Only last year (2017) we had over 500 people who were convicted of extremism which, mostly means, posting something online or reposting. There were a few cases when people who were punished just because they liked someone’s content.
PS: You were a councillor in Moscow with the libertarian party.. did you thought It was posible to win with libertarian ideas under Putin’s regime?
VK: I usually say I was young and reckless. When you are 20 you don’t ask if it is possible, you just go and do if you think thats right. On a most serious note, it was such the atmosphere it was a time of hopes because in 2011 we had parlament elections which were ‘reaped’ and a lot of people got angry about it. It was an unexpected event for everyone, for the opposition, to the government, for the population as a whole, that suddenly more than a hundred thousand people were protesting on the streets demanding fair elections and the end of Putin’s monopoly. There were the biggest protest since the fall of the communist regime. So, it was really a time of hopes. There were a huge demands, people wanted to see the new generation of politicians. I was one of those who has no experience, no money, no party behind us just a group of devoted friends, in my case it was a libertarian group and twitter. Suddenly it was enough to win.
PS: It is possible to make a change from inside of the system?
VK: It depends on what you count as a change, in the short term, but in the long run. It can helps changing people’s mentality and their attitude to the government. It was 7 years ago when I was elected and it were a lot of new people who were as myself: young and critical to the government and eager to change the situation. We attracted a lot of attention to local problems because when I was campaigning people didn’t know what we have things as local councillors but not now. Last year we had like another municipal elections and there was a thousands of young people who were campaigning. I am proud to say I was one of those who contributed to that shifts, because now people knows that if they don’t like what the government is doing they can, besides of complaining, the can actually go and try to build up this bottom up and change.
PS: How different is to live in Western Europe and to live in Russia?
VK: I don’t even know where to start but I used to compare it with people who live next to a volcano, and you know they can explote anytime but can get use to it so you don’t wake up and say ‘oh we tomorrow were are gonna die because it explotes’, you can’t fill the fear all the time. That’s basically living in Russia and being political, you know that probably your phone call are being listened, probably your mails have been reared, you have been watched and any day they can come and search your house; you can be in trouble any time, but only when you leave the country you see what you were doing and think “omg it was very dangerous what we were doing and what my friends and all those brave people are doing”.
PS: Is Putin as popular as he seems?
VK: Again It is a really tricky question, I am glad you asked. We have the mythical number of 86 %. According to the official polls, 86% of people love and supports everything what Putin does, from militar intervention and social policies. The problem is that in a authoritarian country, when the government create this atmosphere of fear and distrust, it is a trap that they can falls on it, because then no-one knows, even the government don’t know what people really thinks because no-one will be honest answering the polls. You never know whenever is true. If people are asked straight forwardly: “do you support the government? do you think we are going in the right direction?” they will say “yes, of course”, because they are afraid to say something. But if you rephrase the question if you ask it in some way it doesn’t sounds political like for example: “do you trust in the Russian currency?” they will not say “yes, of course”. They won’t say “Putin is corrupt” but they will say of course all this local bureaucrats are corrupt. So you can see a lot of disappointment.
“That was absolutely an illegal thing to anex it. There was no real referendum, the announcement of the referendum was made when the russian army was already controlling the peninsula”.
PS: It has been 4 years since Crimea’s annexation, one of the Russian’s argument is based on the population who speaks Russian.. What is your position on it?
VK: Well first of all, thats true. I used to expend summers on Crimea. Most people speak Russian, but that doesn’t mean anything from the legal point of view. The majority of people in the USA speaks english and it doesn’t means that England has a legal right over this territory. That was absolutely an illegal thing to anex it. There was no real referendum, the announcement of the referendum was made when the russian army was already controlling the peninsula. The opponents of “joining Russia” had no chance to speak up. There are people who are now a political prisoners. There is one person Oleg Sentsov, he is an ucrania film maker. When Russia annexed Crimea, the next morning he became Russian citizen and now he is in jail sentenced for 20 years on charges of terrorism, because he was opposing russia’s innovation. He is in a hunger strike for more than a month now. As him, there were a lot of people who were against that.
PS: Do you think it’s possible a regime’s change? What would be the path to follow?
VK: Very hard questions. I usually abode from make predictions like what will happen or when the regime will fall but I think that the civil society should be prepared to every escenario. By preparation I mean building up horizontal ties, building up parallel structures the could make the government unnecessary. Now a lot of people is attracted to Putin but they say “if Putin goes away the system will fall apart”, and thats true because Putin has created a system that everything depends on him. If we invest in building up social capital, if we go to the local councils, if we start from bottom up, if will build social capital.. Then, at some point, the people will stop being afraid if Putin goes everything will fall apart. That’s what happened to Ukraine actually, that’s what impressed me when I moved there after the revolution. I was there during the revolution doing journalism and I was impressed about this horizontal ties, how strong the civil society was. They were in those revolutionary camps, a lot of people were living on the streets, several months in the winter, demanding that the corrupted president has to go. It was basically a stateless society there. They had medical services, all the social support.. It was like a city inside the city. It all happened in a matter of days because, generally, people in Ukraine has more trust in each-other. In all post-soviet countries that is a big problem, because communism regime destroyed civil society and so. Thats the number one task for everyone who wants a peaceful transition to a more liberal, freedom and prosper Russia.