«Putin committed very many crimes against me»

Interview to DW

– I have in front of me Sergei Pugachev, former senator for the Republic of Tyva, a businessman, the founder of Mezhprombank and a citizen of France. Sergei Viktorovich, thank you for having agreed to this interview.

– Thank you for inviting me.

– You say that the campaign against you was organised by Vladimir Putin personally. Specifically, in the claim you filed before the International Court in The Hague you state that your investments in Russia, worth several billions, were taken away without compensation. You were forced to conclude deals at your clear disadvantage, and several criminal cases were initiated against you, all of them baseless. If nothing of it had happened, would you be today one of the harshest critics of the Kremlin and of its policy?

– I certainly would. First of all…

– And would you be able to say for what reason and from what moment on…

– Actually, I always was one. From the very moment Putin came to power… to which I had actively contributed, by the way. Putin is a human being like any other, he has his own character, his own ideas, regardless of the strong influence he may or may not have on others…

– But is it a coincidence, that soon after you began to have serious problems in Russia, you turned into a public critic of…

– No, not in the least. This is not the point…

– I just cannot recall any other interview in which you would be criticising Vladimir Putin.

– Thank God… That would have made no sense at all! I was seeing Putin on a daily basis, sometimes several hours in a row. This means a lot. It is a matter of influence. If you have the possibility to explain your views directly to the country’s president – and my point of view did not change, ever – if you can look him in the eye and tell him he is wrong… Besides I am pretty certain that for many years, for at least ten years from the moment Putin became president in 2000, I was able to influence a great deal of what was happening in Russia, as well as Putin’s taking, or not taking, various decisions. This was considerably more efficient, at that time… It would have been strange, even absurd, if I had started criticising him on television too, when I was able to do so at his place, or else at the sauna…

– And now, what is the point of your criticism?

– I no longer have the same degree of close influence. I no longer have a chance to criticise him in the sauna.

– In other words, you are worried about the future of Vladimir Putin and so you are now criticising him publicly.

– No, I am worried about Russia’s future. I am not “worried”, actually. It is the people who read the news in the papers that can be worried or upset by them. I play a role in the country’s life. Today, giving you this interview is an attempt on my part to play a role.

– Let us look back: you stress the fact that you were able to influence political decisions, whether under Boris Yeltsin or under Vladimir Putin… You claim to have brought Vladimir Putin to power. Earlier on, you had a role in Boris Yeltsin’s electoral campaign of 1996.

– I did.

– What are your achievements as a statesman?

– You know, it is difficult to say… In business, such things are much easier to measure. The affairs of the State are another thing.

– But why? There are specific laws that can be adopted…

– No, no, no. You must understand…

– Why not? There are reforms that can be conducted…

– Alright, alright. Yes. Laws, reforms… But these are things that are the responsibility of governors or whoever else, I don’t know… Yes, usually governors. The legislators, those two hundred senators, they cannot claim to have achieved something by adopting a law – especially, seeing that in Russia laws are adopted by order from above (before it was by order from Surkov, now it is probably someone else… maybe Kirienko or someone else, I simply do not know…). A “result” for a politician is when he becomes president of a country, for example. This is an achievement.

– No! An achievement for a politician is to succeed in doing something for his country!

– No, absolutely not. This is a mistake. This is your opinion, if I may say so. For me – and I may myself be wrong of course – a political achievement is… Well, take the example of Navalny, this young political leader, though I do not know him personally. An achievement for him… as soon as he becomes president… If ever he could suddenly become president… It does not really matter how. He can, as I have said elsewhere, have two million people take to the streets to support him. If they vote for him, he can walk into the Kremlin and be inaugurated by those two million people. And then he will be able to claim that this was his greatest political achievement. Not all those declarations he made, not his fight against corruption, none of that.

– No, wait, wait, please. We can talk about Navalny later, I am interested in you for now.

– But I don’t know… what achievement…? In 1996 Yeltsin won the elections in an honest competition. This, I think, is an immense achievement. I worked at it personally and I gave a lot of my time for it. If the communists had won back then, those would have been the last elections in the history of Russia.

– But those were the last elections!

– Alright, they were, I agree. They were the last honest elections. But this pretence of a democratic process, if only the existence of government bodies such the Federation Council, the Lower Chamber, the Civil chamber, the foreign agents, what not… all of this still exists. So there is an illusion of a public life.

– What is the purpose of your public action? You have clearly become someone who is in the public eye. You interact actively with the press, at least what is left of it…

– I do. The Western press, mostly.

– You are a businessman. And I have this idea that a businessman does not do anything without a reason.

– I am not a businessman.

– So a businessman… amongst other things, let’s say.

– I am not a businessman. I am politician.

– … If you are a politician, what is your political goal in that case?

– I aim to have an influence on the political process, of course. That includes Russia, in the first place.

– How? In what way?

– Well, in all kinds of ways. I am giving you an interview. This is a way to have an influence. I am talking, for example, of things that I know, that many people do not know. I am giving an insider’s view. You know, I cannot say: I want to influence this particular thing. … For example, I do not want Putin to be president. This is something I want to influence. I would like Russia, that long-suffering Russia, to… But I very much doubt that it is possible to change it today… I believed in it, some time ago. But I do not really believe it any longer…

– But why do you need it? You are a citizen of France. What do you care, if Putin ceases to be president?

– I am, but you see… It is not a question of citizenship – French or American. Again: I have spent much time in Russia doing public politics. I was a public The fact that I did not give interviews does not mean that it was not public politics. There were goals, ideas, and I had invested much more than money. I had devoted my life to it. It is all about this situation, when we have Putin for a term, then little Dmitry Medvedev for another presidential term, then again Putin for two terms, then Medvedev again, and so on, and so forth. This is what I mean. The way the system works. It is not about one particular person. Whether Putin is there or not… After all, Putin is only a man, someone who made many mistakes… possibly committed many crimes… but it is not up to me to unravel it all.

– Well, let us imagine that this glorious Russia of the future, of which Navalny keeps telling us, is suddenly upon us. It has happened, overnight. The rule of law, the freedom of the media…

– …as far as I am concerned, personally, Putin committed very many crimes against me. Personally. He expropriated fifteen billion worth of my assets in Russia.

– And this is why you are now his opponent.

– Amongst other things… Well, what do you think? If someone steals your wallet, you go to the police. You are very upset. Now imagine that you have worked hard, you have spent your life at it, you have made fifteen billion, and suddenly there comes Uncle Vova, the President, and takes it all. Without giving you a kopeck for it. Zero. Nothing. And so you would say: “Well, alright, what does it matter, after all…”. Would you? I would not. For me it does matter.

– I will ask you a slightly personal question if I may.

– Go ahead.

– What is the amount of your current fortune, today? Could you give a figure?

– Let’s say… hundreds of millions.

– Hundreds?

– But not billions.

– But how many hundred? One hundred? Two hundred? Three hundred?

– Not billions.

– Earlier in this interview you told me that one of the main reasons for which you became such an active critic of the Kremlin, was your worry to see the current trend in Russia’s development, one you could observe for some time now. Nonetheless, when you lived and worked in Russia, you were both a senator (or a member of the President’s administration, somehow), and a businessman that held assets. So you were essentially what one might call an oligarch: a man that is doing business and has an influence on…

– In that sense, I was, yes.

– So, you are an oligarch.

– In the proper sense, I am.

– But, in principle, all countries try to fight oligarchy. They try to fight those people who participate in the political decision process by influencing it. That very principle of consanguinity between the capital and political power, don’t you think it is ruinous for our country?

– I do, of course.

– Yet you are yourself a member of that category…

– But you need to understand, however, that Russia is not the United States, it is not France – even less so. You will only find some ten people, who went into business and into politics at the same time, in the early nineties. And there is another important aspect, too…

– So the powerful and the wealthy…

– Won’t you just let me answer? You’ve asked me a question, why don’t you let me answer it?

– But I will!

– When? At our next interview?

– No, no, I will let you answer in a second… But are you just telling me that there were only ten people in Russia at that time who wanted to be rich and influential?!

– Yes, I am. Absolutely. People organised cooperatives and all that, when it became possible… But they did not want to pay kickbacks, they did not want to fight against it… they did not want… how shall I put it… They did not want to die for the sake of doing politics and business. There was basically an “equals” sign at that time between doing politics, doing big business and risking one’s life.

– So in fact you are saying that there were no candidates to being an oligarch, other than you.

– Well, they were what they were, yes. And there were no others. What do you think?!

– But you do believe that this oligarchy was bad for the country. Or you don’t?

– What I believe is that there was no oligarchy! There was not! This is a lie. A myth. This is something that is being used today to excuse what is happening now. The real oligarchy is made up of KGB members, Putin’s closest entourage, members of the “Ozero” real-estate partnership… They are the oligarchs.

– And the “Seven Bankers” as they were called? They were no oligarchs either?

– Of course not! I saw it all, I know it, I remember it! Those people did not feel the Kremlin belonged to them. Do you seriously think that there was anyone who could say to Yeltsin: “Hi there Boris, there is a decree we need you to sign”? There weren’t any people like that. This is a lie. This is untrue. Do you seriously think that there were people receiving nine-figure bribes? …Back then, if someone bought someone’s wife a holiday to Karlovy Vary, that was already big-scale corruption!…

– All the same, Potatin was part of the government, wasn’t he? Just to give you an example. And Berezovsky was at the head of the Security Council of Russia. … No, he was Secretary. That’s right.

– At the end of the 90s, after the elections, Potanin was Deputy Prime Minister. It was a very short time.

– What about Berezovsky? Was he or wasn’t he Secretary of the Security Council?

– He was. …But Berezovsky never was a businessman.

– So there was an oligarchy alright.

– But in what sense? What oligarchy? Who could decide to…

– But you! You could! You could decide who would be president.

– Now, wait. This is a whole different matter. It has nothing to do with your business activity. It has no connection to business whatsoever. It depends on the role you play in the Kremlin. It is connected to the innovative ideas that you bring, ideas that ignite people’s interest… This is politics. Pure politics. Hundred percent.

– But generally, when someone does politics and business at the same time…

– Alright, alright, it is bad, it really is… but not in Russia…

– So in Russia it is good. Is that what you are saying?

– But don’t you realise that there is no way you can move from the communist void we had at the end of the eighties, when there was no bread in Petersburg, (I am from Petersburg myself, I remember it!) to an American type of capitalism where everything is clear and neat, where you know exactly who owns General Motors, who is the owner of listed public companies, and all that…

– I understand that you also position yourself as a deeply religious, orthodox person. In the first part of this interview we came to the conclusion that you were an oligarch. You agreed.

– Yes, I… no, I am not an oligarch. I said that in the nineties, my activities…

– A former oligarch.

– …if you use correct terms… I mean, if you open Wikipedia, or another dictionary… the definition you will find there corresponds exactly to the activities in which I was engaged at the time.

– So do you consider yourself to be a true orthodox person? Someone with deep faith?

– Yes, I consider myself a believer in the Orthodox faith.

– I would like to ask you one last question. Who is your hero. Put differently: who do you admire?

– I have admiration for holy people. The New Martyrs who gave their life for Christ. Because there is something worth of admiration. Even if in the course of their life they were sinners, like all other men. But they were sinners that led a holy life. Do you understand what I mean? They are people whom I can admire. As to admiration for secular figures… I can admire artists, for example… But I do not admire them. I admire their works, rather. For example I like Nabokov very much. I enjoy reading his books. I like Akhmatova. I like Pasternak, Mandelstam. The poets of the Silver Age, generally speaking. I have admiration for their work, but not for the persons. Over the long years I spend in their company, as it were, I have developed a relationship with them, a remote one. … But I would mention one more person: Alexander Galich. I admire his life, because he was virtually the only person to become a dissident, who did not come “from below”, not a former boiler man, so to say. He was a member of the Writer’s Union of USSR, of the Litfond, he changed his position (he became orthodox, by the way) and he became a dissident, and a major one. Besides being a genius writer and poet. I had an undoubtedly extraordinary talent in many fields. He was a stage director, a poet… And as you might know, he died in Paris under very strange circumstances. This was indeed someone for whom I can have admiration. Admiration for his life, for that part of his life. The later part. He is someone worth of admiration. Indeed.

– Thank you very much Sergei Viktorovich.

– I thank you.