Activism / January 17, 2024

This Russian Opposition Leader Met With Putin to Discuss a Cease-Fire to Stop the Killing

An interview with Russian opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina
Chairman of the Yabloko political party Nikolai Rybakov (right) and founder of the Yabloko party and head of the party’s political committee Grigory Yavlinsky (left) during the congress. (Anton Novoderezhkin / Kommersant / Sipa / AP)

Grigory Yavlinsky is the founder of Russia’s leading and oldest democratic opposition party, Yabloko, which is the only party in Russia calling for a cease-fire. The interview was conducted by The Nation’s longtime contributor Nadia Azhgikhina at Yabloko’s Moscow offices.

At the end of 2023, the Russian media talked a lot about Yavlinsky’s “peace program” and about your midnight December 19 meeting in the Kremlin with Putin to discuss it. What is the essence of this program?

Right now, we need to reach a cease-fire agreement. That means talking about the disengagement of heavy weapons and troops, setting demarcation lines, ensuring international observation and control, and so on. Until the killing of people is stopped, it is impossible to talk about any positive prospects. I believe that the most important thing today is to stop the killing of people. Isn’t that clear? Over the past year, there have been no significant changes on the battlefield. The Ukrainian counteroffensive ended in nothing. But recently I read in the Western press that the number of people killed every day has increased significantly. That is, people on both sides are dying every day. For what?

I am amazed that there is not one major, influential politician in the world today who would put people’s lives first, before geopolitical projects. They talk about anything at all but people’s lives; that doesn’t matter. Yes, politicians seem to be sorry, but at the same time they speak directly about the necessity to continue the war until some “victorious end.” The preservation of human life is not the main criterion for them.

That is why people are dying every day. And on top of that, Ukraine is losing its prospects. I am a Russian politician, and Russia started this conflict, so it is not for me to talk about Ukraine’s problems. But personally, Russia and Ukraine are very dear to me, they are like my right and left hands. What is happening is incredibly painful for me. And I will do everything to stop the deaths of both Russians and Ukrainians. Cease-fire first and foremost.

A cease-fire is not a border treaty. There has been no peace treaty between North and South Korea for 70 years. There is no treaty between Russia and Japan, and no one has been bothered by it for years. The peculiarity of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine is that the situation is such that nothing else is possible. Everything else—other negotiations, discussions, truce—will be possible much later and only on the basis of a cease-fire agreement.

With US involvement?

In one form or another, US participation is important. It can’t be done without the US. It would be good if China were not left out. Putin is explicitly saying that we are not interested in territories. He is interested in dialogue with the White House about Russia’s role, NATO, arms, etc.

Your opponents say: You can’t have a cease-fire because Russia will then go farther. Let Russia first withdraw from Ukrainian territories. Putin cannot be trusted.

In such a situation and with such participants, it is not a matter of faith. It is necessary to make concrete decisions and in such a way as to minimize the possibility of their violation. This is politics. For example, we should realize that Russia has nuclear weapons, and the solution of territorial problems should be achieved through long and complex negotiations, not by force. In the meantime, people are just being killed.

I would say to my opponents: If you are in favor of continuing the war, go to the line of contact yourself and send your children there. It is easy to criticize from a cozy office or a European restaurant. You have to realize that Putin doesn’t really need any respite. He is actively exporting oil despite the sanctions. He can build any kind of factory. He doesn’t even need mobilization—he will promise contract workers the kind of pay they never dreamed of, and people will go on their own. What breathing space does he need? Ukraine objectively does not have as much strategic depth as Russia. It is organized differently, and the West’s help is not unlimited, especially since the Middle East has now become a serious problem for the West, a conflict that could escalate into a very dangerous one. In this context, what is happening in Ukraine has come to be perceived as a distant “local” conflict. Few American citizens actually care where exactly the border between Russia and Ukraine will be. People simply don’t want war, even though not a single American is officially fighting in Ukraine.

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Why do so many people today not want to talk about peace? Are they more afraid of talking about peace than they are of war?

Talking about peace is talking about official and mutual recognition of borders. So far there is no basis to talk about it. There are no prerequisites for a full-fledged peace now. That is why I am only talking about a cease-fire, i.e., that we should stop killing people. After that, they can take even 20 years to negotiate the terms of peace. Let me remind you about Finland. When, in 1939, the Red Army captured an important piece of Finnish territory, Marshal Mannerheim sat down at the table with the prime minister and the president and convinced them to stop in order to save the country and preserve the future. As a result, the country, its army, and its leadership were preserved. It is a difficult choice. But it is there for now. A peace treaty is a distant prospect. Two things are extremely important now. The first is to stop killing people immediately. The second is to preserve prospects, the opportunity to move into the future. Can’t 80 percent of Ukraine be oriented toward joining the EU?

Things will be very difficult in the returned territories. There is a lot of destruction and land mines. What will be done with the unfortunate population? Find out who sympathized with the Russians and punish them? This has already happened in liberated settlements and cities. What to do with people? Put them in jail? Is it not clear that there will be guerrilla warfare? An endless story… And Crimea? It’s no secret that today the majority of people there really support Russia.

There was at least one moment when a cease-fire seemed to be possible.

Right. In November–December 2022, after the successful Ukrainian operation near Kharkiv and Kherson. Then there was a moment when both sides could have said something provisionally satisfactory to their peoples: Moscow something about the annexed territories, and Zelensky to declare that he had preserved the country, the sovereignty of the nation-state and was joining the EU. But this important moment was missed.

What did Putin say in response to your proposal?

He was silent.

But he listened to it?

Yes, he did. I told him I’m personally ready to negotiate an immediate cease-fire.

You’re probably the only one everyone would talk to today, including in Ukraine and in the United States.

I am ready to do everything possible to stop the killing of people.

Yabloko is the only party that openly calls for peace. You refused to participate in the presidential election, for the first time.

Actually, I refused for the first time in 2004—it was obvious then what was going on. There have been seven presidential elections in Russia since 1991. I participated three times. In 2000, I came third out of 11 candidates. Now it’s kind of a referendum, a plebiscite on Putin’s support, not a competitive election, and presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov has already announced the results. Nevertheless, I still offered to informally collect signatures for my program, the peace program. We decided that if 10 million signatures were collected, that is, about 10 percent of voters who support my nomination, I would run despite all the difficulties. In two months, we collected about one and a half million signatures.

Probably there were many voters afraid to leave their passport data on the signature sheets, I know such people.

That’s right, people are afraid to declare their opposition to the current government. Fear. It has enveloped the entire country in recent years. We live in a condition of fear.

Why is it back? Why are the worst features of the Soviet past returning? During perestroika, there was confidence that we were free of the heavy legacy, that there was no return to it. How did this happen?

Because in the 1990s we carried out mistaken reforms, even criminal ones, and deceived people, deceived their hopes. It is well known what gross mistakes and crimes were committed. Mikhail Poltoranin, a Russian official close to Yeltsin, wrote in his memoirs how he tried to persuade Yeltsin in the fall of 1991 to appoint me as his deputy in charge of reforms. Yeltsin said: Yavlinsky will do what he thinks is necessary, but I need IMF loans, and they have a completely different reform plan. So, he appointed Gaidar [who pursued “shock therapy reform”]. And those were the wrong reforms. Of course, by and large it was not about the IMF. The problem was the lack of understanding of the essence of what had to be done, and the lack of political will of the Russian leadership in the first place.

On January 2, 1992, Russia announced “price liberalization”! This in a country without a single private enterprise at the time; there were only state monopolies. By the end of the year, hyperinflation reached 2,600 percent! That is, prices rose 26 times. Enterprises stopped, there was a gigantic decline in production, unemployment, crime. My 500 Days program provided for the use of people’s financial savings during the Soviet period for the privatization of small and medium-sized enterprises, the emergence of real private business, the creation of an inter-republic banking union, the implementation of an economic treaty between the former union republics, with which in the autumn of 1991, 13 republics out of 15 agreed in one way or another. All that was crossed out. In 1993, people protested the situation. The protest was crushed with the shooting and destruction of the Russian Federation parliament.

People become disillusioned with democracy because of failed economic reforms.

Yes, you’re right. In addition, the government fraudulently transferred large state property to people close to them via the “loans for shares” program. This is how the oligarchs appeared, and corruption became the foundation of Russia’s economic system. A tiny group of oligarchs enriched themselves, merging power and property. The separation of powers, an independent court, a real parliament, an independent press, trade unions, real democracy were contraindicated and categorically unacceptable for the state corporate-criminal system.

The third circumstance is that during the 10 years of reforms after 1991, there was never an official state and legal assessment of Stalinism and the Soviet period in general. It is not surprising that the practices of that time have returned.

Under these conditions, in the 2000s the authorities imposed a formula on people, which many obeyed: “Mind your own business and do not interfere in politics. Nothing depends on you anyway. Democracy is just empty words.” High oil prices made it easier as people began to live better.

In my opinion, Russia has a lot of wonderful people, but as a result of all this there is no civil society. Today the country is experiencing the collapse of the failed post-Soviet modernization.

Can there be a way out today?

We can talk about a way out when they stop killing people. Now the situation is worse than in December of last year. At that time, there were publications about the possibility of starting negotiations on a cease-fire. But Ukraine attacked a Russian warship. Russia responded with a missile attack. Then there was a strike on the Russian city of Belgorod. And so on since January first, almost every day. The situation is moving backward.

What don’t Americans understand about Russia? What would be important to do to improve relations, to ease the dangerous confrontation?

We need to talk. Dialogue with Russia cannot be avoided. Sanctions have not worked because Russia is part of the world economy. The world economy cannot live without Russia. For example, all this time, gas from Russia continues to flow through Ukraine to Europe. There are many other examples. Russia is not going anywhere. This must be understood.

Second. We need to think about the future. I would not be surprised if an even more aggressive dictator emerges in the Russian political field, with a real claim to power.

And third. By the middle of the 21st century, the European Union will not be able to separate itself not only from Ukraine, but also from Russia and Belarus. It will have to look for some effective form of integration. This is an imperative, which must be met, otherwise Europe will not be able to become a serious center of economic power, competing with North America and Southeast Asia.

Lately, the fear of the nuclear threat seems to have disappeared from the agenda, and war itself looks like a computer game to many. Is it the result of the war generation being gone? The generation of Khrushchev and Kennedy?

The digitalization of consciousness is hugely important. Thirty years ago, experts thought that digitalization would mean the free exchange of opinions and ideas, but that is not what has happened. Everything negative that was in people came out and became extremely loud, flooding social media. This digitally disordered and dangerous world is becoming a reality. That’s how populists and ignoramuses enter politics.

But a living human voice, it seems to me, can stand up to hype and strong arm populism. I see how the voice of Yabloko is a sign of hope and a reference point for many people in Russia. Looking at you, some people are no longer afraid. What gives you hope? What do you see as the party’s main task today, and your own?

We are trying, doing everything possible and even seemingly impossible to create a civil society in Russia. We believe it is important that a real public opinion appears and that it becomes a factor influencing what is happening. We persistently talk to people and continue to insist that the most important thing today is to stop killing people. We believe that politics has only one main and indisputable goal—it must serve people, individuals, their interests.

I love my country, my people. What is happening today in Russia and Ukraine is a terrible tragedy for me. I want the killing to stop, and I want Ukraine and Russia to be preserved as modern states, to have a future.

What gives you strength?

The memory of my comrades who gave their lives so that the country would be free.

Also, I am sure that at some point a window of opportunity will open. I vividly remember the feelings of a dead end in the early 1980s. What was there to hope for? But suddenly Gorbachev came and the modernization of the country began. The window of opportunity will definitely open. But you have to be ready for it.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina

Nadezhda Azhgihina is a journalist and the director of PEN Moscow.

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