Grigory Yavlinsky (leader of Yabloko party), 2008

Grigory Yavlinsky IV Moscow June 2, 2008
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
When Gorbachev decided to change the Soviet economy, he appointed young Yavlinsky and some others to develop the “500-day plan.” In the end, Gorbachev believed the opposition to it was too great, and soon the August coup took place. But Yavlinsky was a promising politician. His “Yabloko” Party continued to be influential until Putin made it impossible for all real political opponents to gain a public hearing. Yavlinsky ran for the presidency of Russia twice and came in third both times. When I interviewed him at the Yabloko headquarters the party had declined so sharply that it no longer was represented in the Duma. A few months later, Yavlinsky resigned as leader.

METTA SPENCER: This morning I was re-reading an article by you about Iraq, written while the debate was going on in 2002 about whether to invade. You proposed a different approach in that situation – putting troops on the border and using “Cold War” type pressures against Saddam Hussein.

GRIGORY YAVLINSKY: The Iraq of 2002 reminded me of the Soviet Union of the 1960s, so it was a very understandable regime for me. I had witnessed the transformation of the Soviet Union and I didn’t see any reason why the same approach couldn’t be used toward Iraq. Besides, I saw that the main advantage of the forces opposing the United States was that the US and Europe were on opposing sides. That handed Saddam a big political victory, so I was looking for some kind move that could be taken to overcome it.

I know the nature of such people as Saddam. All my life I watched Russian leaders and read books about the previous Soviet leaders, so I understood the dictatorship of Saddam. I understood that when this man could see that the game was over, the UN-regulated oil for food money would stop coming to him. And when the international community was united around the ultimatum to him and against the war, and that consequences would begin happening tomorrow, then I felt sure that he would say, “Just do what you want.”

My argument had three points: first, that the Cold War is very effective in such cases. Second, that a split between Europe and America is serious and must be avoided. Third, that there are lots situations in the world similar to the problem of Iraq under Saddam – lots! – and it is unacceptable to fight one such war after another. And it’s not a regular war – not the type of war that was fought between Iran and Iraq or even the Vietnam War, say, but more like the war today in Afghanistan — based on very deep religious beliefs. If we speak of Russia, for example, I was very active in the case of the war in Chechnya from the beginning because it was not a religious conflict.

SPENCER: Then – at first.

YAVLINSKY: Yes, at the very beginning, because the same people on both sides were alike. But when it becomes a religious war, it’s a different story. So I thought, it’s absolutely unacceptable to involve religious grounds because such a war would have no end. Then I understood the Americans’ mistake. Iraq is a trap. There is an enemy but they still don’t see the real enemy, and so they fell into the trap.

SPENCER: What do you think the enemy is?

YAVLINSKY: To explain that, I have to turn the page to a different matter. Okay, let’s turn the page. What is the problem? The problem is that the end of the Cold War is misunderstood, by the whole world, but especially by the US. Before the end of the twentieth century, the whole world was divided into two blocs. Either you were for the Soviet Union or you were for the United States. Either/or. That was the Cold War. The end of the Cold War created the idea that now the world is homogeneous because the Soviet Union is defeated. That is not true at all! The end of these two blocs brings enormous diversity to the world. It’s not the end of history, as Fukuyama said — just the opposite! There were just two blocs, and now there are maybe a hundred or a thousand. And we have to learn to live with these differences, as we do with the people living on our street. If we don’t like our neighbors, so what? That is no reason to go to their house and do terrible things.

SPENCER: Certainly.

YAVLINSKY: I’m being a bit simplistic because it wouldn’t apply to someone who is killing his wife or children, but now I’m giving just the big picture, which is this: We have to live among different countries, among people with different ideas, different views. But at the same time, the other consequence of the end of the Cold War is that the real enemy is hidden. The real enemy is a force that is advocating, not for life, but for death.

SPENCER: That attitude has never been absent, has it?

YAVLINSKY: No, but it’s never been on the surface before. It was growing as a problem, as in the case of the Taliban. It did exist, but it was not so strong and nobody wanted to recognize the diversity, so they missed this factor.

I am speaking from my personal experience. I was a negotiator in the Moscow Theatre when terrorists seized it with 700 people. I was speaking to those people about two hours during the operation. They told me, “We are much stronger than you because we came here to die. You want to live. We think that to die is the best thing to do and you think to live is the best thing to do. Our Allah says that we must die, we should die. This is our task. “ I was sitting with a gun in my ear. That is the real enemy.

SPENCER: Please finish that story. You lost that situation, I understand. You couldn’t negotiate a solution.

YAVLINSKY: No. Neither side wanted peace. It’s like in the Midde East.

SPENCER: The Russians didn’t want to solve it either?

YAVLINSKY: They wanted to punish. They were not thinking about the hostages. They were thinking about punishment.

Now here is what I want to say. Because the United States is in this trap, they are impotent in the case of a real threat. The tendency of those forces who think that death is better than life, this is a real problem. When, for example, Palestinians are fighting Israelis, they are fighting for understandable things. They are fighting for territory, and so on – I’m not saying who is right, but I am saying that they are fighting WITHIN life. Do you understand?

SPENCER: Yes, exactly.

YAVLINSKY: Within life, all kinds of compromises are possible. If you have good politicians, you have good results. If you have stupid politicians, you have terrible results. But with jihadists, this is not a case for politicians. Compromise is impossible. It’s a disease. You should fight it as a cancer. And the terrible thing is that the trap is working. The strongest country in the world is paralyzed by its own mistakes. I don’t believe that this is a conspiracy against America.

SPENCER: Okay, with your vision of where we are now, where can we go?

YAVLINSKY: Where can we go from here now? Okay. Dear professor, we have a problem with the quality of people who are making decisions. This problem is enormous. It’s like in medicine. Here is the patient. We have all kinds of medical equipment – everything we need. But we have drunk, incompetent people who are using all those tools as knives instead of intelligently and delicately.

SPENCER: If you have a democratic system, you could vote them out of office.

YAVLINSKY: This is an important observation. Democracy is a machinery – that’s all. Through democracy you can bring Hitler to power. Democracy brings to power whatever is in the heads and souls. So the democratic procedure is not enough. It’s a question of how the media is working; how business is working; how money is working; how consciousness is working; how religion – different types of confessions – is working; how education is working; how culture is working. And then in the end, if all these things are working, then democracy can work. But now if you have free elections in Iraq, you will see what will happen!

SPENCER: You can also have free elections in Russia and we’d see what would happen. You wouldn’t get elected.

YAVLINSKY: I’d put in a somewhat different way. Give me three years of consistent, honest, talking to my people – equal talk with the other candidates, without cutting anything out. And then you will see the result. Certainly, if you held elections here tomorrow, you would have approximately what you have today. Maybe I would have more support than I have now because of falsifications. But in general, the picture would be the same. Why? Because you need three, four, five years of showing people the alternatives – you need a possibility of thinking, of analysis. Please do that – and then we’ll see what will happen.

SPENCER: How do we arrange for that? How do you get a free press, for example?

YAVLINSKY: My personal answer: Just keep working. Do your thing. I am doing whatever I can. Everybody attacks me – whether it’s radical democrats, crazy people, nationalists, or authorities. Everybody tries to attack and to destroy. But I do so believe that I’m right! It’s a shame to believe as much as I do, to be so convinced!

SPENCER: (laughing) I’m convinced along with you!

YAVLINSKY: But without this belief, nothing can be done. In the Communist press, at the top of all newspapers there was this slogan: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” So my slogan is, “Pessimistic thinking and optimistic will!” This is it. Yes, I do understand the problems. Yes, it’s very difficult. But I have such a strong will that I will keep walking, step by step.

SPENCER: You are inspiring.

YAVLINSKY: [Beaming] That’s why I’m the leader of the party! A small party, but still…

SPENCER: (laughing). I see such discouragement here in Russia. Whatever I suggest in my conversations, I hear back, “It can’t be done in Russia, it can’t be done.” Instead, I want to hear: “How can we do it?” People are discouraged and I can see why. Freedom House rates the freedom of every country of the world every year on a seven point scale. Today China scores seven – as the lowest level of freedom – and Russia is at number six. It’s not a great place in some ways, although it’s certainly pleasant to see such wealth visible on the streets.

YAVLINSKY: Just here in Moscow, not everywhere. We can speak a bit about Russia. This oil money is a big problem for us. I’ll tell you why. A thousand years ago some historical events happened that created a special character here. For example, the state as an institution came to Russia from abroad, just as it came to Britain, for example. The Normans brought the state as an institution to Britain. The difference was, the Brits fought for hundreds of years to have the kind of state they wanted. But Russians were leaving this place because they had unlimited territory. Brits had nowhere to go out, so they transformed the state for their needs. Russians, Slavs, ran away. Just look at that map. This was the only country that was populated from south to north. All the other countries were from north to south.

SPENCER: I never heard of that before.

YAVLINSKY: Why? Because Russians were running away from something that was taking their money. The state! And the state was trying to catch them. That was colonization. First the people were coming out and the state was coming out. That’s why in Europe the cities were created as places of culture and science, whereas in Russia the cities were military and administration centres — because they were controlling the population, which was moving. That brought Russia to a very specific way of development – extensive development, as opposed to intensive development. Do you need something? You can go somewhere and take more resources. You need, for example, a harvest? In Western countries you have, say, two hundred tonnes from a piece of land. In Russia you have just ten – and even then what they were doing was, they were taking new virgin lands. They were not trying to intensify production or increase effectiveness – no. They were not looking how to solve this problem, they were looking back for solutions that had worked before, or looking for new resources. And this unlimited oil and gas money now is something like unlimited territory. When others are thinking about how to solve problems, these guys – my citizens – are just taking more and more money. More luxury cars from other countries, fancy streets and nice buildings. Things that are in substance, nothing.

SPENCER: Uh huh. Michael McFaul has a new paper that he co-authored describing all the faults of the government. Do you know McFaul?

YAVLINSKY: Of course.

SPENCER: They examine every aspect of Russian society and show how everything is going downhill except for the oil and gas money. Natural resources.

YAVLINSKY: We all know that. The problem is not that people can’t get the information, but that they don’t want to know it.

SPENCER: The whole world is in deep trouble. So the question is not just how to help Russia but what can we do for the world in general? That would involve helping Russia but also involve helping other countries. By the way, Michael McFaul is Barack Obama’s adviser on Russia. And I think Obama is going to be the next president. [He shakes his head.] You don’t think so? Really! Why?

YAVLINSKY: America is not prepared for that. It must be an extremely civilized country to make such a choice.

SPENCER: But you have many of the same ideas that he has.

YAVLINSKY: Of course, but America is not prepared, I think.

SPENCER: Well, I think he will be elected. And then we can do some things better. For example, I used to be focused entirely on nuclear weapons. But now I’m equally concerned with an issue that I don’t hear anybody talking about here in Russia: climate change.

YAVLINSKY: Nobody is talking about it except my party. The Greens are in my party.

SPENCER: We need ways of changing the culture. Even deeper than these specific political issues is the question: How can a culture be changed?

YAVLINSKY: As I understand it, the main breakthroughs always happen after disasters. The Second World War caused the beginning of a new European civilization. Mankind was terribly punished for neglecting principles because everybody saw that Hitler was a bastard – yet everybody was talking to him and kissing him. He was killing Jews and everybody was saying “Look what good roads!” Mankind was punished.

And then, after the punishment, after fifty million deaths in Europe, then, by the end of the eighties there was a reasonable development. This is the world that created me, and I think that the developments since 1945 also created your vision. But in about 1990 there was a change of generations, and the politicians who were the successors of this tragedy of the First World War, they retired and new guys came – young, irresponsible, having an idea that everything came like this! [snapping his fingers] They knew the principles but they had no idea how these principles were created. And they changed from the politics of principles to the politics of realpolitik. And now we have the result. Which country can you name that elected their president or prime minister on the basis of principles? There are no such countries!

SPENCER: You say you’re not hopeless, but you are saying that democracy won’t work unless you change a whole lot of other things in the culture beforehand. And I agree. Unless people are enlightened, they won’t elect anyone who knows what to do.

YAVLINSKY: It’s like what we were talking about – Obama’s prospects. Is America a civilized country? It’s more than whether America is prepared to elect a black or such a young man. It’s a question of what they have in their heads!

SPENCER: But how do you change that? How do you change a culture?

YAVLINSKY: Listen, today is Monday. You want to change it in a year or a hundred years or what?

SPENCER: Oh, say five years.

YAVLINSKY: Five years? It is possible. But there must be media through which you can speak. Magazines, and so on. Now I have no partners to make such speeches. In a Canadian university you can debate people. But I’m in a different place – a different level of comfort. People are creating contradiction after contradiction every day because they misunderstand the basics. At the beginning of almost every century, they misunderstand the basics and they have a world war. That happened at the beginning of the twentieth century, and you have a world war – the first and then the second, because it was not enough to clarify the people’s thinking. I have a feeling of big, serious difficulties because of Cold War politics. I’m not saying it will be a war because in Russia it’s better not to make such forecasts. All kinds of forecasts can happen. Especially now, because we had a big hope that the rest of the world would cooperate with us, and it didn’t happen.

SPENCER: What did you hope for that didn’t happen?

YAVLINSKY: We hoped for a professional approach – that they would not come to give advice and money for wrong things. I’m talking about Russia in the post-Soviet period. For example, nobody would advise a government to liberalize prices when they had an all-monopolized economy. When you have all-monopolized economy, if you liberalize prices you have a 2,600 percent inflation. Nobody would give such advice!

SPENCER: Jeffrey Sachs would.

YAVLINSKY: Yes, but it was not only Jeffrey Sachs. It was IMF. It was the American treasury who supported this line. It was not simply an academic exercise, no! It was a policy! But it was policy based on incompetent vision, and they knew that. Nevertheless, they did it.

SPENCER: They did know it? Maybe. I’m impressed by the amount of self-deception that people are capable of. I don’t know what they know and what they don’t know when they do stupid things.

YAVLINSKY: Okay, they did know. But realpolitik meant that it was necessary to go that way.

SPENCER: I don’t think it was an intention to destroy Russia.

YAVLINSKY: Oh, no. But it was an intention to bring Russia as far from the former Soviet Union as possible. That was the intention. They were still fighting.

SPENCER: If you had got your 500-day program through, how would things have looked different now?

YAVLINSKY: We would have had no 2,600 percent inflation in 1992, I think we would have had no shooting from the tanks at the White House in 1993, and I think we would have had no voucher privatization. I think that we would have no economic collapse in 1998. And we would have had no criminal privatization. So I did not know how successful we would be but these things we could avoid easily, simply by changing direction away from this super-radical approach. For those people I mentioned who moved to the territories, for them a radical change would always be finished by their move back. One of the features of Russian character is this: the more radical change, the more the moving back.

SPENCER: I wish you could go in the direction you want to go.

YAVLINSKY: My problem is that it’s difficult to find a partner in Europe or America to talk about these issues. They hear only what they want. Listen, I was meeting Ms. Condoleezza in 2002. I said that America is an omnipotent country in everything – in military, in politics, in economics, in business, everything – but on the criteria of the previous century. She asked what I meant. I said: “Can you imagine that you are going to hunt big animals in the jungle – bears, tigers, elephants. What kind of weapon would you take with you? You’re going to take big guns, big traps, big knives. But when you enter the jungle, you are immediately attacked by deadly poisonous mosquitoes. What can you do with all your stuff? What can you do with all your aircraft carriers? What can you do with all your space stuff? Nothing. It’s a different problem. It’s a qualitatively different threat. This is what you should understand if you want to have peace.”

There was silence. Then later, one of her key advisers said, “We’re going to attack the mosquitoes’ nests.” I said, “Sorry, mosquitoes have no nests. If you want to attack those mosquitoes you have to irrigate the swamp. But irrigation and attacking nests are different tasks. You need different tools for that. Different policies, different qualities, different professionals. In substance I mean that you should cooperate with the world, in terms of education, intelligence, culture, these things. You should be united around Iraq if you want to defeat Saddam because it’s different kind of threat. It’s not like it was in the last century.” But how to send such messages? I don’t know.

SPENCER: I do. You need to change the culture. And for this, I think you want to use television dramas. Do you know “soap operas?” They are TV or radio stories that go on for years about the same characters. People who write them can be invited to put in plots about social issues. They have an impact because the audience forms an intense relationship with the characters.

YAVLINSKY: I understand. You would make a soap opera that would go parallel to the real politics, Your prime ministers are dealing with the most difficult issues in the world. What to do in Burma, what to do in China, what to do in Russia, what to do in America. How to speak to Sarkozy. It would be a soap opera in parallel with reality. It’s a possibility. You are saying, this guy, Mr. Bush, was taking this decision, but THIS guy in our story, in the same situation, with the same question, took a different decision. First he went to Schroeder, then he went to Fischer, then he met with his economists and convinced them that they should join with the United States, but they are not starting a war. They are making a blockade — and so on.

SPENCER: You got it! There was one TV show that came close to that — “The West Wing.” It ran for eight years. Martin Sheen played a wonderful Democratic president, and most of the story was about his staff. Of course, they had their love affairs and their adventures. But every week, one of the three plots would be about some political issue that was going on in reality.

YAVLINSKY: That’s exactly what I’m saying!

SPENCER: And it did affect public opinion in some small way. Now you want to get a series made about your party and how you would —-

YAVLINSKY: Oh, it’s much longer. This would be a reality show about politics. That’s how you would catch the people and show them different decisions.

SPENCER: It has to involve dramas that are emotional.


SPENCER: Not talking heads, not just discussions, but real plots. There’s a philanthropist in Hollywood who has been making movies that have political messages. His name is Jeffrey Skoll. He made Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” I wish he would make a television series next.

YAVLINSKY: I would be happy if you could help me to get it. But nothing that you have said is possible here in Russia. No way! Why? Because there is a big difference between the system we have here and what you have in the US or in Canada. This is an authoritarian system. The leaders would never, ever allow anything like that. So in that sense I cannot take part in that here. Nobody has any possibility. Instead, they are, by plan, entertaining the people by non-stop jokes, comedies, sex shows, and things that are just poisoning the minds. And after watching that, if you have elections, you’ll see the result.

SPENCER: But they make trash in Hollywood too. It’s a question of getting someone who is determined to make something better.

YAVLINSKY: Yes, but in your country there are other things to watch. In my country there is no possibility of watching anything different on TV, In my country everyone must go one way. We have propaganda; we have no television. We have two or three free newspapers. We have no radio, no television, nothing.

SPENCER: All right. But you have said that, for democracy to work, you have to change public opinion and the whole political culture, and the only way I know to create a different political culture is to show examples in stories.

YAVLINSKY: Let us make one satellite channel in Russian, which would be created in Canada. You understand?


YAVLINSKY: It will be a real Russian channel, which will be like Radio Liberty. Television channels with satellites, made by normal people – not by enemies of this regime, because the enemies of the regime are the same as this regime. By normal people, who are going to have 40 minutes debate like we had just five minutes ago, which would put world news in Russian. It’s not a channel about the propaganda of America or somebody else. It would be a news channel and political channel and television channel. I am willing to work with this 24 hours a day! I would leave the party and personally work for this. This is the conclusion of our discussion.

SPENCER: It’s a deal! I will work for that. For the last five years, everywhere I go I tell people that the way to change culture is through television. And it has to be entertaining too, because not everybody watches the news.

YAVLINSKY: Of course, of course! Yes, it’s like alcohol. Alcohol is not a problem if you’re taking it in some limits and in a reasonable way. Entertainment is like alcohol. It’s useful in some limit. If all television is replaced by entertainment, it’s a disaster! I like to take a little bit. But not all day long. That’s the problem we have.So yes, I also think so but it must be clean. And it must not play special propaganda role.

SPENCER: If I can reach Jeffrey Skoll, will you talk to him about it? If we could make a TV show in Russian –

YAVLINSKY: Oh, in Russian! It would be great!

SPENCER: And beam it in by satellite. I don’t understand satellites, but I know how TV shows are made.

YAVLINSKY: These people would have a big problem with our government and I’m not sure that your government would be prepared for that. Because our president would call the US president and say, please, call your friend the prime minister of Canada and tell him to stop – because you’re interfering with our business, bla blah blah.

SPENCER: No, we’d do it more subtlely than that.

YAVLINSKY: But, if the people want to work seriously on that, there is no way to stop it. It’s a very expensive exercise. But if you want to make this in a very smart, clear, and responsible way —

SPENCER: I will send you my book.

YAVLINSKY: If in Germany in the 1930s there had been television, never would those crimes have happened there. For me, this is the most convincing thing about television. If at that time the people in Germany had seen on their screen what Germans were doing in Auschwitz, never ever would the population of the country have supported that.

SPENCER: You are right. I will look for a way.

YAVLINSKY: Oh, I would be very happy. But you have experienced now that life is very difficult here now. These are the friends of mine who died fighting for democracy in the last years. [He shows me a large colored paper with photos and short biographies of five people.] Simply fighting for democracy against corruption and things like that. They were killed. So I live in a very complicated time. We have no partners, no support.

SPENCER: When you went to see Putin recently, were you proposing solutions to him?

YAVLINSKY: I was telling him the same things I told you. I said, “You are just destroying independent people. You are not giving us a chance to speak. You want to operate the country through vertical power.” He said, “I’m destroying independent people? Me?” We had a long conversation. But revolution is not the best thing for us, from my point of view. And trying to fight the Kremlin just by shouting in the streets is senseless.

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The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books