Ksenia Vakhrusheva is a Russian opposition activist, former international officer in St.Petersbourg YABLOKO branch. Founded in the early 1990’s, the Russian United Democratic party YABLOKO stands for freedom and civil liberties in Russia, advocates for stronger cooperation with the West and opposes Vladimir Putin for what they see as his increasing authoritarianism. Born in 1985 in St. Petersburg, Vakhrusheva seems to be very young but she has been active in politics for many years.
We meet on the margins of the “Ukraine, Russia and Finland seeking peace!” event, held in Helsinki on 28 February 2015. How do you see the EU’s action so far vis-a-vis the Ukrainian situation and what would be your expectations for the future?
The EU has wasted a lot of time. The main reason is a lack of, or maybe a superficial understanding of Putin and his modus operandi: Western leaders thought they could negotiate with him. This is false. They underestimated him and as a consequence they were taken by surprise, which was one of the reasons for their inaction.
But there are sanctions being implemented now.
That is true. However, these are late and are not even fully implemented. Putin and his cronies don’t feel the effects. What we need are firstly targeted and personal sanctions, so that the oligarchs would be directly affected. For instance, forbidding them from coming to Europe brings the point across very well. For instance, surely Iosif Kobzon is not happy that he can’t visit his daughter who studies in the UK…Secondly, the channels of money laundering, for instance in Cyprus, need to be closed. Thirdly, the borders need to be open for ordinary citizens.
What is the public perception in Russia on the EU right now?
The public image is quite bad. Putin has been very efficient in presenting the EU and the West in general as in decline: the democracies are failing, Western values are in crisis and societies are falling apart.
Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader, former deputy prime minister was shot yesterday. How will this influence future Russian political developments?
This is a dire escalation of intimidation tactics. Putin wanted to convey message and he did. The image he wants to be seen is that he can do anything, without consequences. Looking from an opposition activist’s point of view, it was clear until yesterday, that we do what we do under the danger of being imprisoned. Now the stakes are higher: we might be killed. The question is, are we ready to do this? I don’t see myself ready to die. The effects of this tragic event can influence the scene in two ways: either they intimidate, either they open citizens’ eyes.
Looking a bit closely at Russian society, how are vulnerable groups treated? We often hear that the way the power treats for instance LGBTQ people and women is a litmus test of democracy. Is Russia failing?
When it comes to LGBTQ groups, yes, Russia is failing. The political will, and some religious influence, is there to attack these groups. These attacks may take various forms, sadly often even physical. We have seen a large number of people belonging to this group seeking asylum in the EU or in the US.
A huge hurdle here is the lack of public information. I believe the situation was better some years ago. During socialist times, these questions were swept below the rug. After the change, it was in a way put on the political agenda, people started discussing and that was good. However, due to public pressure and restrictive laws, the last five years have seen a serious decline also in the public perception of this group.
When it comes to women and gender equality, the situation is less bad, taking into account, naturally, regional differences. Gender equality is not worse than elsewhere and I can say that we face the same challenges as many countries in the EU: gender pay gap, lack of women in public and private decision-making, domestic violence, sexual and reproductive health rights (legal abortion being under threat).
Of course, state media/propaganda doesn’t help on either of these accounts: they constantly project a conservative view on society, on women’s role and a very negative one on LGBTQ people.
You mentioned state media, the public opinion and public information. It is widely known that the freedom of press is under serious pressure in Russia. In particular, what is your opinion when it comes to the freedom of online press?
Online media are not free. The state has the legal and technical means to shut down any site they don’t like and this does happen from time to time. In addition, state-controlled online media are not unbiased, they basically project propaganda. It is surprisingly good quality and they employ a huge amount of paid staff, reaching out to foreign-language publications and sites, as well.