Interview

Ilya Ponomarev: My fear is that we will soon see the fighters of Novorossiya in the Kremlin

The Nose had a chance to talk with Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the Russian State Duma who voted against the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He now lives in exile in California.

by Santiago de la Presilla

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Santiago de la Presilla: How does it feel to be the only member of the State Duma who voted against the annexation of Crimea? The vote was 445-1. Why did you vote against it?

Ilya Ponomarev: It’s my job to vote to represent my constituents. I consulted with people on how I should vote and I saw that amongst my voters there was virtually a 50-50 split… My personal position was that this would lead to an inevitable war and of course I always thought that a war with Ukraine, our closest ally, was just inconceivable.

Do you still consider Ukraine an ally of Russia, at least to a certain extent?

Right now we’re not allies by definition, we’re at war. However, Ukraine is still the closest country for us – we’re like brothers. I think that our relationship will eventually be restored when Putin disappears.

What happened after you voted against the annexation? What was the reaction of the media and your colleagues?

There was a lot of pressure. Some of my colleagues actually reacted paradoxically because they were jealous. They were saying: “You bastard, you will come out clean and we’ll be compromised forever! We’ll be denied entrance to the West!” They should’ve had the courage to do the same if they were against the annexation – they should have understood the consequences. What can I say?

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Ilya Ponomarev speaking at the Warsaw Security Forum (Santiago de la Presilla)

Now that Ukraine’s relatively quiet, compared to last year, what are your thoughts on Russia’s intervention in Syria? This all looks like it came out of nowhere.

You highlighted something  very important: that this all happened very suddenly. This shows that Russia’s foreign policy is very unpredictable. This is very bad. Foreign policy has to be consistent and it has to be predictable, otherwise a country will always be seen as dangerous player, and I’m sorry to say that we are very much a dangerous player in the international arena.

Again, Putin wants to shift public opinion inside the country to distract the people from the economic hardships.

Isn’t public opinion of Putin extremely high already?

Yes, it is high. However he needs to sustain it, it’s obvious that the situation in eastern Ukraine has reached a dead end. By switching his attention to Syria, he acknowledges that he’s failed in eastern Ukraine, so he’s just trying to replace one with the other, just to sustain public opinion. So far he’s been successful.

Do you think that Russian foreign policy is too improvised?

Improvised is the correct description. Putin is extremely tactical, he has a very short attention span and he’s extremely shortsighted. He’s making decisions based on the current situation with very short planning, and that’s dangerous… 

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Ilya Ponomarev speaking at the Warsaw Security Forum (Santiago de la Presilla)

Can you return to Russia? What are the charges against you?

If I was to return I’d be immediately arrested. The [Russian authorities] are trying to prove that I was involved in assisting someone to misappropriate Skolkovo Foundation funds – they recognized that I never physically touched the money so they can’t blame me directly. 

What are the chances of the charges being dropped?

The chances are minimal because our system never admits to being wrong. In Russia we have a saying: “For not being guilty, you’ll be charged 2 years.” If you’re in the system even if you’re not guilty, you’ll always be charged for something.

After such a witch-hunt do you regret voting against the annexation?

Of course not. I only regret what is happening in my country.

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Ponomarev with other speakers at the Warsaw Security Forum (Santiago de la Presilla)

You were vice-president of Yukos oil, the largest corporation in Russia. What made you decided to run for office?

I actually got bored… I wanted to pursue something different.

There was a particular trigger event, when in 2001 Vladimir Putin started to campaign against NTV – it was a major assault on freedom of speech. I recognized that this would be bad for the country and that’s when I decided to go into politics to prevent this.

And if you look at the state of Russian media today…

Again, I see that I was right. I couldn’t do anything to prevent it, unfortunately, as everyone else was doing “compromises” but at least I tried. My conscience is clear, I did the best I could to prevent all this.

Taking all of this into consideration, how do you see Russia in 5 or 10 years?

Five years is totally unpredictable – but ten years from now I’m 100% sure Putin will be gone and the country will return to its normal development path. My fear is that the fighters of Novorossiya will come to power in Russia. Putin has done everything to promote these kind of people as well as to direct public attention in their direction. I’m not sure that Putin is capable of controlling this.

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist and communications advisor, contributor for the Warsaw Business Journal and Visegrad Insight. He writes mostly about European politics, the Ukraine crisis and foreign policy.

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