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Interview With Boris Nemtsov On August 1991 Putsch: 'We Were Romantic...We Were Very Naive'

Boris Nemtsov in RFE/RL's Moscow studio (file photo)
Boris Nemtsov in RFE/RL's Moscow studio (file photo)
Boris Nemtsov has played many roles in post-Soviet Russia. He was a reformist member of the Russian Republic's Soviet-era parliament in 1991, served as governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, and as first deputy prime minister in the late 1990s. More recently, he has been one of the most visible faces of the opposition.

RFE/RL correspondents Robert Coalson and Pavel Butorin spoke to Nemtsov on the 20th anniversary of the failed putsch in August 1991 that precipitated the fall of the U.S.S.R.
RFE/RL: It's been 20 years since the anti-Gorbachev coup attempt and I'd like to start by asking you to take us back to that moment in your life. Where were you, and what were you doing, and what were your hopes and expectations at the that time?
Nemtsov: During those historic days I was in the White House [the Russian parliament building at the time]. I was a deputy of the Russian parliament and I was with [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin as a protector of the White House and freedom in Russia. Really, those were very interesting days and very dramatic days, I want to tell you.

I decided on August 19, 1991, to travel on vacation, but the beginning of the vacation started from a coup. And I said to my wife that unfortunately the vacation was over and that I would go to the White House. It was a very dramatic time. Thousands of Russian people, together, with a feeling of solidarity, protected our country from communism. And I think that this is a very rare event in the history of Russia and I'm very proud that I took part in that.

I was not far from Yeltsin when he proclaimed his historic speech from the tank. And he said that this was completely illegal, unconstitutional, and anti-Russian. He didn't even have a microphone or maybe he had a microphone but nobody heard him. But everybody understood that this was the most important speech of the president in his life. After that, when he was retired, I presented him with a special steel tank and a very big Yeltsin on that, as a gift for his birthday. And he said, "Why is the tank smaller than me?" I responded, "Because millions of Russians and billions around the world believed that at that time you were bigger than any tank in the world.
RFE/RL: Was there a moment during the last 20 years when you realized to yourself that the hopes and expectations of 1991 were going to be disappointed or at least delayed?

Nemtsov: I understood at that time that these were very important days for my country. And really it was the death of communism. We understood that very clearly. But we were romantic. We believed that the way to freedom and successful life would be much shorter than we recognized later. I was sure that to cancel communism meant a great life in a few months. We were very naive. Not only me, but Yeltsin and all of our team. We believed that we would just dismiss communism and we'd be lucky. But unfortunately reality looks much more serious and much more complicated than we believed at the time.
RFE/RL: Do you think that during the 1990s there were opportunities for the West to exert a stronger influence on developments in Russian democracy. Or was Russia's failure to develop a democracy partly a failure of the Western attitude toward Russia?

Nemtsov: I want to tell you that the West didn't play a huge role in the history of Russia, in particular in the 1990s. The Westerners really supported democracy in Russia, that's true. But as far as economic support in concerned, I believe that it was absolutely limited and it was not enough to be successful. Just one example: There were huge talks between the West and Russia about the Soviet debt. And the Westerners insisted that Yeltsin pay the Soviet debt and the Soviet debt at the time was huge, it was $100 billion. But anyway, the West didn't pay any attention to the economic situation of the country and the country was under Soviet Union bankruptcy. And the oil prices were very small, the price was about maybe between $10 and $15 per barrel, not like now. But the Westerners didn't pay any attention. [They said,] "If you are the successor, you must pay."

That's why the economy was in terrible shape. And the economic situation was very difficult. There was a huge inflation and disintegration, but anyway they pressed us very much to pay. I think that it was the biggest mistake of the West. The economic situation was very difficult and the Russian people found themselves in big trouble. And now millions of Russians believe that August 1991 was the beginning of the huge difficulties.
RFE/RL: And looking forward now, what is your opinion of the current "reset" policy between Russia and the United States. Has it been helpful to Russia's domestic development?

Nemtsov: I want to tell you that the U.S. policy concerning Russia is very limited and American influence in my country is nothing, I want to tell you. Of course, [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's propaganda used a story about American imperialism, that America wants to destroy the country and wants to keep the country in the American imperialistic hands, and he used a lot of anti-American rhetoric, especially in so-called elections. But if you look at the situation in the country, American influence is nothing now. Nothing. That's why I don't think that I can tell you anything concrete about what the real influence of the American government is on Russian domestic affairs.

Maybe except one point: Now Congress decided to adopt the so-called Cardin list. The Cardin list is a list of persons who violated the constitutional rights of Russian people, who are responsible for [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky's arrest, who are responsible for [Sergei] Magnitsky's death, who are responsible for the violations of elections and freedom of speech. And this is really very important. If the American Congress adopts that, it will be very important for promoting democracy. But as far as I know, the State Department doesn't want to support this project in Congress and that's why in the upcoming autumn there will be huge fighting about this project.
RFE/RL: And one last question about the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Just the expression "former Soviet Union" seems sort of strange because the 15 countries have gone in such different directions. I'm wondering, have there been developments in the other countries of the former Soviet Union over the last two decades that have surprised you?
Nemtsov: The biggest [surprise] really is Estonia. Estonia is part of the European Union and the first former Soviet republic with the euro currency and with a huge Standard & Poor's rating. Congratulations. And the Baltic states look very good as far as democracy is concerned and look very good as far as members of the European Union and NATO. But I believe this is an exception. The rest have faced a lot of difficulties.
Ukraine was a symbol and an example of democracy, but now after the arrest of [former Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko, I believe that what we are looking forward at is the Putinization of Ukraine or the Lukashenkanization of Ukraine because everybody understands that this is a politically motivated arrest, everybody understands that this is not fighting against corruption but this is an attempt to fight against the opposition. And unfortunately Putin's experience was very attractive for the [Viktor] Yanukovych government. That's why I believe that democracy in Ukraine is in big trouble.
As far as Belarus is concerned, it's very easy. This is an example of dictatorship. This is an example of huge repression against political opposition. And unfortunately even after sanctions in Europe and the United States Lukashenka still controls the situation. And Putin's government [in Russia], yes, they hate each other, but Putin's government, as far as the economy is concerned, strongly supports Lukashenka's very inefficient mode of planning the corrupt state economy. That's why I want to tell you that the worst situation in the Slavic countries, of course, is in Belarus.
Kazakhstan is an example of crony capitalism, Asian style. Yes, [President Nursultan] Nazarbaev is a dictator and he is a leader forever, up to his death. And this is an example when the so-called parliament adopted his status forever, which is absolutely terrible. But the West didn't pay any attention to the dictatorship in Kazakhstan.
The same situation, even worse, is happening in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. And this is an example of the Asian style of dictatorship with some Muslim factors and there is a huge danger from Afghanistan and from Iran. Generally speaking, the majority of former Soviet republics look like dictatorships.

Another exception, maybe, is Georgia. Yes, [President Mikheil] Saakashvili wants to be in power forever. But on the other hand, there is an opposition and there is a free press. And there is huge success as far as anticorruption policy is concerned and Georgia looks very well in terms of the investment climate, in terms of the taxation system, in terms of anticorruption policy. That's why it looks like a successful country. But on the other hand, Saakashvili wants to keep power forever. And I don't know when this power will change. That's why it's not such an easy situation, even inside Georgia.
Armenia is very strongly dependent on Putin's Russia. And that's why policies inside the country are not independent.
Azerbaijan looks quite independent as far as the economy, but dictatorship is still continuing because [President Ilham] Aliyev -- it looks like a monarchy; old [Heydar] Aliyev decided to transfer power to his son, and new [Ilham] Aliyev is thinking how to transfer power to his kids, etc. This is not democracy, this is dictatorship, with corruption, etc. That's why I don't think that this kind of development is what the Azerbaijani people believe in.
The [bottom line] of this description is that the way to freedom and democracy, first of all, looks like a marathon. Secondly, it's a very complicated situation inside. Third, the opposition is very split in each country. I don't know how many years it will take to achieve democracy and freedom.
But what is important, as far as Western policy is concerned, is to think about common values and fundamental values. Don't think about just gas and oil, as sometimes Italians, I mean [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi, and some German politicians believe. I don't think that if policy is just about gas and oil you will find some predictable and stable situation in the east of Europe. That's why I think that fundamental values are what you have to take into account as far as European former Soviet Union republics policy is concerned.

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