A rigged election, a governor imprisoned, and an opposition leader poisoned — that's the kind of summer it was in Russia and Belarus.
Out of all that, an eruption of protests continues. In Belarus, outrage over the rigged presidential election in August show no signs of letting up.
In Russia’s far east region of Khabarovsk, they want their governor back after he was detained in July.
And the poisoned politician, Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of Russia’s opposition movement, was just discharged from the inpatient unit of a Berlin hospital.
Banishing enemies, fraudulent polls and mass demonstrations are all too familiar for Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice president of the Free Russia Foundation, who spoke to The World host Marco Werman.
Like Navalny, he is a prominent Russian opposition leader who has been poisoned. Kara-Murza was targeted with toxins twice in what were thought to be politically motivated attacks.
Marco Werman: We've seen the images that Navalny is slowly recovering from that poisoning and seems to be looking better, one day at a time. When you see those images of Navalny trying to restart his life, what comes to mind? How do you react?
Vladimir Kara-Murza: Well, I must say that I've been living this sort of horrendous Groundhog Day for the last, more than a month now since the news first came out that he was poisoned — after he collapsed on a plane from Tomsk to Moscow at the end of August. You know, I've had to live through this twice. And apart from everything else, it is a very painful and excruciating experience. When you can't breathe, when your organs fail one after another, when you just feel the life slowly coming out of your body and so, yes, everything looks very familiar, unfortunately. But also, you know, in a good way, of course, both times I was poisoned, doctors told my wife that I had about a 5% chance to live. I made it. And Alexei, thankfully, has made it. And I know it's going to be a long and difficult road to recovery ahead. I mean, I had to learn to walk again after the first poisoning. Your body really does give up really quickly once you're in a coma. So, it's not going to be quick or easy, but it is possible. And he will get back. He will be back to good health. He will be back in Russia. And he will be back to his important work of standing up to the corruption and dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.
Is there any doubt in your mind that this poisoning was, in fact, directed by the Kremlin?
No, of course not. I mean, look, there's a long and growing list of political opposition leaders, independent journalists, anti-corruption campaigners and the like, who have suffered this fate in the last two decades. And this method actually goes back to Soviet times. Since Putin came to power 20 years ago, this method has really proliferated.
Related: Kremlin denies Navalny was poisoned
Right, were you surprised to hear that Navalny intends to go back to Russia as soon as he can?
No. You know, what I was surprised about is the fact that it actually made news. I mean, I got quite a few phone calls from journalists the day that this was announced asking for my reaction and I said, "Well, frankly, I don't understand what the news is here." Of course, he was always going to go back. He's a Russian politician. You can't be a politician and not be in the country. You know, I went back home to Russia as soon as I was literally able to walk — after I recovered from the poisoning. I also did medical rehabilitation abroad, but I went back as soon as I could. Look, it would be too much of a gift to the Kremlin and to the Putin regime if we all just gave up and ran. This is what they want us to do. Well, we're not going to do it. You know, we care about our country. We care about the future of our country. We think our country deserves better than to live in the 21st century under a corrupt and authoritarian system.
Let me ask you about sanctions because there have been talks of new German and EU sanctions against Russian officials in response to the Navalny poisoning and other political repressions. You were in Germany, Vladimir, recently lobbying for new sanctions. What were you asking the Germans to do?
So, one of the first questions that people in the European Union were asking was, "What should the response be?" And you know my answer to that, and I know the answer for many of my colleagues and friends in the Russian opposition was the same. It's mind-boggling that to this day there is still no Magnitsky Act in the European Union. You know, there is one in the United States that has been now for the better part of a decade. Of course, the Magnitsky Act is a law that provides for targeted personal sanctions against foreign government officials, not just in Russia — but anywhere — who are personally complicit in human rights abuses in their own countries, and corruption in their own countries. Of course, the brilliance of this mechanism is that it is directed at individuals, you know, you're not sanctioning or punishing entire nations for the actions of a few crooks and criminals. And it is astonishing that to this day, there is no such mechanism in the European Union. Thankfully, that is now changing. Two weeks ago, as you mentioned, I had the honor of joining members of the German Bundestag in Berlin for the announcement of the introduction of a German Magnitsky law, or draft law, into the German parliament. And just a few days ago, Ursula von der Leyen, who is the leader of the European Union, made a similar announcement during her annual State of the Union address. This should be the main practical response. The political response, I think, is that there should be a very clear understanding that while Vladimir Putin remains in power, there should be no more talk of any kind of reset, detente or business as usual. Whatever you want to call it, the Putin regime speaks with its opponents in a language of poisons and bullets.
Let's talk about Belarus, Russia's neighbor to the west. Recently, an election took place on whether the president of 26 years should remain in power. The vote was widely seen as fraudulent. The protest movement there has been going on for well over a month now. Have you been surprised by the sustained nature of these protests?
No, because, I mean, even though Belarusians are supposed to be one of the calmest, one of the most polite nations in Europe, even the most polite people can get fed up with somebody who's been in power for 26 years. And so, the feeling is that you have feelings of awe and admiration and respect for those amazingly courageous people of Belarus, who continue to come out to protest in the face of unthinkable violence and repression, even by the standards of the Lukashenko regime. And, of course, it rhymes very closely with what's been happening in the Russian Far East, in the city of Khabarovsk, for even longer. There have been and continue to be mass street protests directed against the Kremlin, and against the Putin regime. And this is, by the way, is only one of the first warning signs. And the reason Putin is so afraid of what's happening in Belarus is because, for him, this is a glimpse into his own future. Putin and Lukashenko are the last two dictators in Europe. So what's happening on the streets of Belarus today is very likely to happen in Russia in four years' time. And this is why Putin so incredibly frightened.
What can Russians learn from the movement there? Have you learned any new lessons as you look to Belarus?
Well, I think what's most important is solidarity. And I think it's very important for us as peoples, for civil societies, for democratic oppositions in Russia and Belarus to cooperate with each other and support each other. Let's look at the big historical picture — I'm a historian by education. So, 35 years ago, which by historical standards was yesterday, half of Europe was living under dictatorial, authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Today, there are only two dictatorships left in Europe. Those are Russia and Belarus. But in my view, in the 21st century, even two dictatorships in Europe are two too many. So it's important for us to work together in solidarity and cooperation to make sure that Europe is completely dictator-free in the foreseeable future. I'm confident we can achieve that.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.