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Russian Democratic Activist Says Financial Crisis Could Spark Change

Kozlovsky in a March of Dissent just seconds before his arrest on May 6
A founder of the Russian pro-democracy youth movement Oborona, Oleg Kozlovsky, says that so far, only Russia's oligarchs have been hit hard by the global financial crisis. But in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully while in Washington to receive a human rights award from the advocacy group Human Rights Now, Kozlovsky warns that he expects the global financial crisis to grip his country more deeply than any Western country. He predicts that Russians might lose the sense of economic stability that they've enjoyed for the past eight years and, as a result, demand change.

RFE/RL: What effect on Russia do you expect the worldwide financial crisis will have?

Oleg Kozlovsky: The effect of the crisis hasn't been so strong on the general [Russian] population so far. Really it's mostly the oligarchs and some few people who own shares who are affected by the crisis. However, I think that as the crisis deepens -- and in Russia it's going to be probably deeper than in any other country, at least any country in the West -- I think that many people will see that the stability that they were promised would be forever is not going to be forever, it's going to end now, and it may be a point of disillusion for many Russians.

So I think that one of the probable scenarios is that [the] Russian administration will very quickly lose its credibility among [the] general population. But of course it's hard for me to predict how soon and to what a degree it will happen, because we don't know exactly how soon and to what a degree it will happen, because we don't know exactly how deep the crisis is going to be.

RFE/RL: Do you expect that the financial crisis will change the politics as it's practiced in Russia? That is, do you expect a growing economic discontent among the population that Oborona can respond to? And is Oborona preparing new tactics -- even a new strategy -- to respond?

Kozlovsky: I think that it will really very seriously influence the politics and of course Oborona is already changing its tactics and its strategy. So we believe that one of our main goals is to explain to the people how this economical situation is connected to the political situation, and why it is important when you are in the crisis, or when you are not, to have a set of democratic institutions that will help you fight against the crisis, or prevent it, or at least to make its effects smaller on the general population. Because what we see now is that the [Russian] government and a group of people around the government are trying to save their own capital, rather than trying to fight the crisis and its effect on the economy. So what we're going to try to explain to people is that as long as we have this highly corrupted political system in Russia, no efficient measure can be taken against the crisis.

RFE/RL: But how can you engage the population of Russia if -- at least according to all the polls -- the vast majority of them are satisfied with the status quo?

Kozlovsky: This satisfaction is in a great part based on the fact that we had a long period of economic stability. If [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev don't have this advantage any more, they can only base their credibility on some other issues like propaganda or finding some external enemy so they can rally people around themselves. But in fact, the impact of [the] economic situation on [the] popularity of Putin is huge. So I think that this is something that may really change now.

RFE/RL: So Oborona may soon find itself with a more compliant population. But without an independent media, how do you expect to share the movement's message with them?

Kozlovsky: This is a problem that we've always had and that we will probably have for a long time. What we do instead of using the media is we try to communicate to people directly over the Internet, which is almost a direct communication as well. So we will organize all types of street activity, from painting graffiti to large protest rallies. And there is, as far as I know, a dissidents' march planned for December -- or maybe it will be shifted to January -- for example, which is a huge opposition rally, and it can affect quite a lot of people.

Of course we can't have access to the television, and our word spreads not so quickly as we'd like. However, if the people are prepared to listen to us and to understand what we say, then I believe that spreading our message is just more like a technical problem that we can solve.

RFE/RL: As you say, some old obstacles remain in place. But surely there's been some change, for instance in the six months since Medvedev became president, hasn't there?

Kozlovsky: First, there haven't been any positive changes, not even insignificant positive changes I can think of. I think that one of the most important results of this six months -- in particular, the war in Georgia -- was that many people have lost their illusions that Medvedev would have his own political course, and that his course would be more liberal and more pro-democratic. I think that what we're going to have is just a continuation of the previous policy of [former] President Putin, who is still making all the major decisions in the country, that maybe this will be a slow deepening of this authoritarian regime, it will slowly be getting harsher, unless we can somehow influence it. However, I don't think that this six months brought us to a very different situation than we had before.

RFE/RL: Finally, I should note that you're in Washington to join Egyptian pro-democracy activist Nora Younis to receive the Annual Human Rights Award from Human Rights Now. How do you feel about that?

Kozlovsky: It was completely unexpected, and I'm proud to be one of the people who were awarded this Human Rights Award. I think this is probably more an award to the Russian democratic movement in general, rather than to me personally, because I don't think that I am such a hero to be honored with such an award. We have plenty of heroes in [the] Russian democratic movement. So I believe that this is an award for all of them.