Oleg Kozlovsky interview by telephone, Mar 8, 2010.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
I called from Toronto; he was at home in Moscow with his infant daughter making chirping sounds on his lap. Oleg is the leader of Oborona, a brave pro-democracy group that hopes to transform Russia politically over time. His friends participate in “marches of dissent,” which frankly look a bit scary to me. (I used to take small children to Canadian peace marches, but I wouldn’t do so in Moscow, which seem to provoke the cops.) Oleg has an English language blog and is a Facebook friend of mine. He travels a lot in the global network of democracy activists.
Oleg Kozlovsky (OK): Oborona was started five years ago, largely inspired by the Orange Revolution. It is a grass roots democratic organization, so we have people with different political views, from liberals to soft conservatives to soft socialist but what unites us is that we all want a democratic Russia where people can control the government and where the government doesn’t violate the rights of citizens. We are struggling for democratic institutions. We are in about a dozen cities. I can’t say exactly how many active branches because sometimes we learn that a new branch arises or dies and we hadn’t heard about it. We use different methods — all nonviolent — from street protests to indoor activities for youth, to sharing ideas on the internet, to working with other groups, everyone who can share our goals. Now we are actively working on issues of police brutality and also freedom of expression on the Internet.
MS: What Internet issues are problems?
OK: It’s a bunch of problems. Things are getting worse in recent years. We have a lot of criminal cases, including one against our own member, which has been under investigation for almost a year and a half. He was charged with extremism, with inciting hatred against social groups — police and FSB. It sounds absurd but he could face 2 years imprisonment for that.
MS: That’s the first case i have heard of involving prosecution for Internet activities. Have I just missed hearing about such cases?
OK: Yeah, there are more cases like this. The first one – the most famous one, was the case of blogger Savva Terentyev, who was charged with extremism for his “hatred of the police”, which was made in a rather articulate way. Still, of course, he didn’t plan or call for any kind of violence against them. Still, he was given a year of suspended imprisonment. Just a couple of weeks after that, our colleague Dmitry Solovyov or Soloviev, was also charged with that crime. I covered this case on my English blog. You can find it. He was lucky; he was the only blogger so far who managed to win this issue. The charges were dropped about two months ago but it took them almost a 1.5 years, and took us several public protests. I were bombarding authorities with letters and so on. There are more and more cases like this. The most weird one in Tatarstan. The guy, Irek Murtazin, is a blogger who was charged with inciting hatred against the social group of the Tatarstan government. In his blog and his book he was “creating an attitude” toward change, toward reform, in Tatarstan and it was against the Tatarstan government. He was sentenced to a year and nine months in prison, and he is now in prison.
MS: How long has this repression of Internet activity been going on?
OK: It started in 2007, I think. After they adopted the new anti-extremism law, which broadened the term “extremism.” But there are more ways of limiting freedom of expression. Sometimes they charge whole web sites with extremism, like Ingushetia.ru. Maybe you have heard about it in the case of Madomed Yevloev. He owned the website Ingushetia.ru, which was the most popular web site in Ingushetia. It was criticizing the government and publishing a lot of information. They were organizing civil campaigns, such as gathering evidence of electoral fraud in Ingushetia, a small republic in the Caucasus. The guy was very unpopular with the Ingush government of course because he was a fierce critic. At first they sued him and blocked his web site as extremist. But he opened it in another place and after that he was killed.
MS: He was killed!
OK: Yeah, he was arrested in the airport and killed by a police officer maybe an hour after that. The official version is that it was an accidental shot in the head. The police officer first sentenced him to two years in a “settlement,” which is not like a prison. It’s a very light camp. But now they even released him. He was sentenced to restriction of freedom. He has to come to a police station to check that he didn’t leave the country. It was obvious that the head of the government ordered it. The guy who killed him was the personal guard of the Ingush Republic President. It was a well-known case in 2009. Last year, if I’m not mistaken.
MS: This is much worse than I was aware. I have talked to people who say there is such a lively Internet discussion that you can read almost anything on the Internet.
OK: Yeah, you still can. Even this case didn’t stop all of the bloggers but more and more of them have to think of what to write, more of them try to hide their identities. So far, in all cases that I know of the bloggers who are persecuted didn’t try to be anonymous. They were blogging under their own names. More of them are afraid to show their names and maybe some of them are beginning to self-censor.
MS: I should have asked you at the beginning. I will be quoting you in my book. May I have permission to do so? And if there is anything that makes you nervous about being quoted, please let me know.
OK: No problem. Or at least I didn’t say anything. And with Internet there are more problems, like some Internet service providers block certain web sites. It is probably cases of self-censorship but more and more of them are afraid that they will have problems with the FSB or with the police and they block opposition web sites even before the government asks it. The government apparently uses some hackers who put down opposition web sites or independent media web sites, especially when some major protests are taking place. It’s not just legal action; sometimes it’s very illegal action too.
MS: Beating people up?
OK: No, in most cases they use hackers who use so-called DDOS attacks. It’s a technical term. With this they manage to put down any web site for any period of time but of course it costs a lot of money because they have to control a lot of computers and they have to overwhelm the service with their requests. This is done frequently. The last case was Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper, after they published something on corruption in the government. The next day their web site was attacked and the attack lasted for almost two weeks. It was inaccessible to anyone. This is something we believe is connected with the government because the same thing takes place against opposition web sites. It was done against Estonian web sites when there was a campaign against the Estonian government and even web sites like (Jim Ayle?) or blogspot when they attempted to attack one certain blogger in Georgia. I don’t remember what he was writing about but there was a strong attack against big services of the Internet just to make one blogger silent. This is something we are used to.
MS: How many cases of this kind do you know of?
OK: I could name a dozen but if I make a little search of blogs or my own records, I think it would be at least 100 cases in the last three years.
MS: (I describe Ron Diebert’s lab and psiphon. He has heard of psiphon. I offer him my computer for this purpose.)
Your situation in Russia is not as bad as China?
OK: Yes, but in some cases it is worse than China because if they put your web site down, nothing will help you. But they don’t put all web sites down all the time.
MS: I wonder about your techniques for bringing about change. I would be pessimistic about having an Orange Revolution these days in Russia. It doesn’t seem to me to be in the cards. So what is your game plan?
OK: I think any change will take time to prepare because we are not ready. We shouldn’t expect anything good from above because the leadership of the country is completely satisfied with how things are and they are not interested in changing the system. They are all protected by this police state that we have. If they wanted to introduce more democracy they wouldn’t do it because they know that their own legitimacy would be in question. We shouldn’t expect any perestroika from above in the near future and not from Putin or Medvedev.
MS: You don’t believe Medvedev?
OK: No, even psychologically he is not prepared to be separate from Putin and to try to challenge Putin’s system. If he tries to make elections more free and if he tries to introduce more competitiveness in the politics, the question would arise about how Medvedev himself got into office. Everybody knows it wasn’t free and fair elections. He’s not going to commit suicide. They all remember what perestroika meant for the KGB and the ruling apparatus and they are not going to do that again. So I think that we shouldn’t expect any changes from the leadership. Some say we should join the system and change it from inside. I believe that is impossible because the system will change the people in it, not vice versa. We have seen a lot of cases like this. In the best cases, they will be stuck in the middle of the system and be unable to change anything .
We are not thinking of anything like a violent overthrow of the government. It is impossible and it will not turn out well. So for us, the way is an Orange revolution, a Velvet revolution, people’s power – the change has to come from within the society.
MS: I’m not sure what one does as a way of creating more change within the society. Do you have a game plan?
OK: We think that the problem number 1 is the apathy of the people. Most of them are very skeptical about any kind of protest, even trying to achieve change. Most of them believe that you can’t change anything. Any change you make is for the worse and it’s not worth the risk.
MS: But you do take risks. You go out into the street and get beaten up.
OK: Yeah, but what we have to prove to people is that it’s worth that. That by taking this risk we also take the opportunity to change things for the better in our country. We also want to show them that it works and that it’s the only way that they can achieve this change. That they shouldn’t stay at home and wait for some miracle to happen and freedom to fall on their head. We need some small victories to show, we need to build up our membership and increase our capacity. And by doing that we will also make the time closer when we can challenge the government. Because right now, organizing an Orange Revolution would be very silly because we would get beaten by OMON and we would achieve nothing. But we have to spend a few years showing people how this change can be achieved, showing them they can do it, and increasing our resources and waiting for a good opportunity to challenge the existing regime. we have to wait for the wind to blow in our face.
MS: I interviewed Ludmilla Alexeyeva, who pins all her hope on the development of civil society. She said if you had an angel for a president he could not do anything unless civil society institutions were ready.
OK: I agree with her. This is a part of what I’m talking about because we are one part of civil society. By increasing our experience, membership, funds and everything, we ……
I think that Ludmilla Alexeyeva would agree that one of the biggest problems in civil society is this apathy, this skepticism, which is rooted in cynicism, which is very widespread in Russia; it is rooted in the recent history, when a lot of people got disappointed in any kind of social involvement. So I would agree. I think that it’s not the only factor because even with a strong civil society you have to find a way to leverage its resources, you have to find a proper time and proper strategy for civil society to win over an oppressive government. But of course without a strong civil society we wouldn’t achieve anything.
MS: Tell me about this commission that McFaul and Surkov are doing. What do you expect that to do?
OK: I am skeptical about this commission. I hope that they at least had good intentions when they started it but I don’t think it can achieve anything real. From the beginning it was a compromise on the Kremlin’s terms when they accepted Surkov as co-chairman of this commission. Surkov was responsible all these years for destroying democracy.He was head of domestic policy department of the president’s administration. He was the one who created political parties or made them disappear. He decided how to destroy NGOs, how to make their work harder. He invented Nashi. So he is not somebody at all interested in making civil society stronger. Just because you want to have compromise with those criminals. IN the best case, this commission will achieve nothing. In the worst case, it will help Surkov dictate civil society. Because he is creating imitation institutions: imitation of political parties, imitation of NGOs, imitation of elections, imitation of democracy. If he manages to fool the American administration that this imitation is real, then we can ____him but I hope that in the White House they – I know McFaul personally and I know that he’s not that stupid and he’s aware of what Surkov is like. I was and still am quite surprised that he agreed to it. We don’t have any chances of even appearing in this commission, not to speak of solving problems.
MS: That’s what I expected you to think. I probably assume the same thing, and wonder what kind of situation McFaul is in. He has a new book out, which is much more cautious than anything I remember having read of his before. It’s about promoting democracy. It says it was written before he took his government position. I don’t know him personally; I’ve never met him. I wish I could interview him but I don’t think that’s likely – in fact I haven’t even tried.
OK You should try anyway. He is quite accessible. You could reach him. Sometimes I exchange ideas with him on Facebook.
MS: Okay, but I don’t expect him to talk to me.
OK: He’s in a difficult situation. I don’t know whether he really believes he was right to take this position because it is very different to be a researcher and to take responsibility for relations with Russia or Ukraine or Belarus.
MS: You went to Washington and met with Obama. You wrote about that. You didn’t sound disappointed. I have questions about Obama because of the same issues as with McFaul. If you’re going to try to build friendly relations with the Russian government and if you’re going to criticize them for what you can’t stand, then something has to give.
OK: I am going to write a blog or op ed on it. I believe that this strategy is a mistake. They want to separate the issues of human rights and democracy from issues of economy and national security.It’s a mistake because the Russian government is just as interested in economic and trade or security issues as the US government but the Russian government is not at all interested in promoting democracy and human rights, so if you separate these two blocks of issues, you may have progress in trade or security but you will have no progress in human rights and democracy because you have no leverage. I think this is a mistake and if this approach is not given up, then the administration of Obama won’t bring anything good for Russian democracy. I think that McFaul has to be aware of it but I don’t know what his options are. To him in his position, democracy may already not be the first issue to care about. I am quite skeptical about America’s involvement in Russian democracy. The reason why I didn’t publish my skepticism yet is that I think the meeting in the White House was a good sign but it doesn’t have any practical implications. Second, I don’t want to sound like I’m turning against McFaul, who I still believe wanted the best. I want to find some useful approach to suggest but so far I don’t see any.
MS: ( I talk about the termites.) And I talk about video conferencing contacts over time. … Is it possible?
OK: I don’t know about 200 young people. It has to be done by the few who really speak English, have time for that, and who have any kind of experience with that. It has to be done on a smaller scale. WE have a lot of trouble with language barriers, and unavailability of Internet services. But it is a good direction.
MS: That’s what i want to promote. The value would be to have grassroots things. The dialogues that took place in the 70s and 80s were very high level people, including David Rockefeller. I’d like to bring it down to a grassroots level.
OK: At the grassroots level, bloggers can do a lot.
MS: I joined Live Journal but there is nothing in English. All the interesting exchanges are in Russian
OK: It’s the language barrier. I know maybe 1 or 2 English blogs of Russian activists. I will send the links.
MS: What proportion of young people are studying English these days?
OK: The vast majority do but it’s not taught well, and they forget it. I went to Britain several times and learned English there. I grew up in Moscow.
MS: What made you the kind of person you are politically?
OK: I have always been interested in the politics of social issues. When I was 15 I joined Amnesty but I realized that in Russia these are all connected to politics, so I joined SPS, the liberal party, and then I founded Oborona. It took 10 years to become what I am.
MS: Do you have a regular job?
OK: Sometimes I have a day job connected with public relations, marketing, things like this. Sometimes I get money from publishing. Right now I don’t have a day job. It is difficult to have one because my social work takes a lot of time.
MS: I respect what you are doing.
OK: I’d love to read your book. Please send me a copy.
MS: I will. It will be six months or more. Do you have supporters in the US who encourage Oborona?
OK: Most say they do support our goals but it is hard to make things work because of technical problems.