RFE/RL: If public-opinion polls are reliable, a major percentage of the population supports President Vladimir Putin. What developments are necessary for the democratic opposition to achieve any kind of success?
Boris Nemtsov: Putin has 75-80 percent popular support. Under these conditions, the opposition's only chance is if it advances a common presidential candidate. I am a strong advocate for this strategy. They must not choose separate candidates independently, even on the level of the Other Russia.
A boycott won't be noticed; it won't help to ensure the legitimacy of the elected government; and it will only weaken the opposition. So it's not a good strategy to boycott any kinds of elections, whether parliamentary or presidential.
As you can see, they've got [former Prime Minister Mikhail] Kasyanov, [Yabloko St. Petersburg head] Sergei Gulyayev, [former Central Bank head Viktor] Gerashchenko, and also [Yabloko leader Grigory] Yavlinsky. Maybe the Union of Rightist Forces will promote someone else. The result would be an absolute travesty of common sense, on citizens and on our supporters.
So my suggestion is essentially that all potential presidential candidates sign a memorandum that at the final stage of the preelection campaigns, one candidate will emerge. This will be the most popular candidate, and the others will be obligated to support him by pooling all the resources available to them, for instance, organizations, structures, and so forth. If this happens, in the case of the fragmentation of the bureaucratic elite -- and it is obviously fragmented, some are for [First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei] Ivanov, others are for [First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev -- then there is really a chance for the opposition to reach the second stage of the electoral process.
That is the situation as I see it. Putin is popular, but his appointed successors aren't. If Putin were in the running, nobody else would have a chance. But since only his chosen successors are running, the opposition has a window of opportunity. But the opportunity is finite. If there's more than one candidate, then just forget it -- nobody's got a chance. It's a shame, political infantilism, and it means that the opposition is good for nothing.
RFE/RL: How do you determine which candidate is the most popular? Do you have primaries, like in the U.S. system?
Nemtsov: We can't have primaries because Putin will arrange it so that there are none, that's obvious. The only thing we can do is conduct a survey, since he can't outlaw those. For example, a survey of 50,000 people, or just residents of large cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Nizhniy Novgorod. The survey must be conducted by an independent agency that everyone trusts. Also, the census must be jointly financed. Each candidate must give the same amount of money to the organization conducting the survey, so that no one can say that the agency is working for the benefit of its biggest benefactor. Primaries, I think, are virtually impossible. Primaries are speeches in front of large auditoriums. What auditoriums have we got? We have doors nailed shut, broken-down chandeliers, psychopaths walking around. So unfortunately we can only dismiss the idea of a primary, and it becomes essential for us to pick the most popular and thus the last remaining candidate.
RFE/RL: Certain people in the Russian opposition say the electoral system is so corrupt and under the control of the Kremlin that it is impossible to win elections and that it would be more useful to not participate in them and instead to apply one's efforts to civil society, as in Belarus. Do you agree?
Nemtsov: We can learn from Belarus's sad experience. When in 2000 they boycotted elections, what good came out of it? Did [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka become better? Unfortunately, a boycott is ineffective because elections will happen anyway. There will be several candidates -- [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir ] Zhirinovsky, [Communist Party leader Gennady] Zyuganov, and so forth. In the eyes of the people, they will be typical elections regardless.
A boycott can only be organized when one candidate remains. But they will definitely make sure that there are several candidates, so a boycott is a dumb idea. It can be supported emotionally and there could even be legitimate political reasons for it, for example repressive electoral legislation. A candidate could be removed; signatures could be unregistered; election results could be rigged. But a boycott won't be noticed; it won't help to ensure the legitimacy of the elected government; and it will only weaken the opposition. So it's not a good strategy to boycott any kinds of elections, whether parliamentary or presidential. I think it would be total foolishness to boycott parliamentary elections and participate in presidential ones. If you're boycotting, you may as well boycott everything. If you're participating, participate in everything. Otherwise you appear wishy-washy. For example, if the Other Russia doesn't participate in parliamentary elections, they can't participate, but boycotting them would be foolish. It's much more sensible to publicly support a specific political campaign.
People with a Chekist history cannot believe in freedom. They hate criticism; they don't consider the triumph of justice a main priority. So for me, the dilemma of whether [Putin] should be supported then or later never existed. I never supported him.
RFE/RL: In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Garry Kasparov said that one of the best opportunities for the opposition would be to work with certain sections of the elite. Do you agree?
Nemtsov: It looks like I'm a more dogged person. I think that under no circumstances should one collaborate with Ivanov. He led our army to total ruin, limitless corruption, and banditism. He is an advocate for a kind of corporate, Chekist capitalism. So why should we collaborate? I don't view him as a potential colleague.
Also, I think that there is a clan, a fraternity that people don't leave so easily, even if they are alienated. Another place is always found for them. For example, [Aleksandr] Veshnyakov. He was fired from the [Central] Election Commission, but he didn't run to a different party. He's waiting for Putin to appoint him somewhere else. I think that even if one of these candidates loses, he'll be put somewhere else. Do you really think he'll be abandoned? He won't go and collaborate with anyone else, that's clear as day. It's a kind of mythical picture.
In any case, from Putin's point of view, the ideal alternative is to put two endorsed successors into the elections. Let them both run. Look, what's important for Putin? He wants a loyal president and a weak one. He already picked two of these -- Ivanov and Medvedev. They satisfy both these criteria. They'll both run and advance to the second stage.
A whole campaign is planned -- [Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir] Churov is appointed, whose only guiding principle is that Putin is always right. These two candidates will advance to the second stage, both loyal and weak, and these will compete. But in any case, everything depends on Putin. He won't be a lame duck; he'll continue to exert influence; his will be the decisive voice; he'll remain president until the very end. Whoever supports them is in his debt, which is good for him. And whoever loses will also be found a place. Maybe he'll be appointed prime minister. Why would there be a schism within this Chekist, St. Petersburg fraternity? There won't be any schism.
RFE/RL: So it's impossible to collaborate with Ivanov, but what about Medvedev?
Nemtsov: Medvedev differs from this whole gang in that he never served in the KGB or FSB [Federal Security Service]. I think that this is, of course, his surprising and fantastic advantage over the others. The question with Medvedev is different: Is he capable of governing such a huge country? Is he prepared to govern the country? Not to move along PR projects, in which publicity trumps actual business, but is he actually skilled enough? Does he have enough charisma, force of will, energy, even experience to do this, or not? This is a very big question. Of course, when forced to choose between these two people, many liberal-minded individuals prefer Medvedev, that's true. But is he fit to be president? Therein lies the question.
RFE/RL: One of the problems of Russian politics is the absence of a reliable system of democratic presidential succession. During presidential transitions, everyone panics. The elite fights it out and chooses a candidate and elections merely become coronations. Why is this the case, and what must be done to establish a legitimate system of succession?
Nemtsov: In Russian history, there was one instance of elections without dynastic succession. That was the presidential election of 1991. These were honest elections. They ended well. But then everything returned to its usual state of affairs, and I think that it is important to consider the long history of autocracy.
Dynastic succession is in the nation's blood. The Romanov dynasty lasted for 300 years. Then there were bequeathed successions among the communists, that is, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and the rest. This is all genetically saturated, next to [one's] mother's milk. To just knock it out of people's heads, that there should be honest elections, that someone has to win the popular vote, it's a difficult task.
Putin put an end to this tradition entirely. When people started to get accustomed to democracy, when there were gubernatorial elections and bequeathed succession was practically nonexistent -- mayoral elections and elections of federal-level deputies also didn't have bequeathed succession. Russia was basically headed in the right direction in the 1990s. It was a difficult journey, a painful one, but it was correct. Putin put an end to it and autocracy was restored. Some call it white autocracy, others Chekist autocracy, but it's autocracy.
On the one hand, there was a historical precedent. On the other hand, he interrupted healthy development in the right direction. This was his huge mistake, and many people can't forgive him for it. You see, democracy is a new phenomenon for Russia. That sounds absurd, but it's true. To engrain something new, there needs to be will. Putin had no will whatsoever when it came to this issue. He thought, for 100 years there was a dynasty, so now there'll be a Chekist dynasty. That's all there is to it.
But in order for there to be democracy in Russia, the chief himself has to believe in it. Does Putin believe in it? Of course not. [Former President Boris] Yeltsin did, and for a time that was how it was. But even Yeltsin, a democrat, finally appointed a successor. Even Yeltsin. So what can we expect from Putin? He's not Yeltsin.
RFE/RL: Your party supported Putin in 1999. It wasn't clear then that this is how things would turn out. What happened?
Nemtsov: You know, there are really two Putins. There is an early Putin who lowered taxes, gave people land, supported America on September 11[, 2001], first expressed his sympathies to President [George W.] Bush, and everything was somehow very touching.
And then there is the later Putin. He took office on October 25, 2003, when he imprisoned [jailed oil tycoon Mikhail] Khodorkovsky. This is a man who treats everyone as an enemy. This is a man who completely destroyed the opposition, and so forth. The earlier Putin was steeped in paradox. He continued progressive reforms in the economic sphere, but politically he started pulling strings. First slowly, then faster and faster.
But it was clear to me from the very beginning that he should not be supported because of his background. People with a Chekist history cannot believe in freedom. They hate criticism; they don't consider the triumph of justice a main priority. They're used to living by notions. So for me, the dilemma of whether he should be supported then or later never existed. I never supported him.
Boris Nemtsov speaking to an RFE/RL event in Prague on June 11 (RFE/RL)
'SOFT DICTATORSHIP.' Former Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a member of the Political Council of the Union of Rightist Forces party, told an RFE/RL gathering that Russia is facing a watershed moment with its 2008 presidential election.
LISTEN Listen to the entire briefing (about 35 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media
RFE/RL's complete coverage of Russia
. The website of RFE/RL's Russian Service
For news and analysis on Russia by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Russia Report."