Sergei Pugachev: Putin knows that he is a dictator

Interview of Sergei Pugachev to publicist Zoya Svetova

Sergei Pugachev left Russia seven years ago. Today he is Vladimir Putin’s greatest foe. Zoia Svetova met Sergei Pugachev in Nice, where the former owner of Mezhprombank has settled after leaving Russia.


– It is said that you have known Putin for quite some time, from as early as the 90s. Do you think that he will run for a fourth term as president?

– To be perfectly honest, I do not really know. Based on my experience of him, I suspect that all along, since his very first term, Putin did not want to be president. The current economic and political situation is extremely bad: oil is no longer at 150 dollar a barrel. Putin knows very well that being a president in such a context is not an easy job. And, circumstances permitting, he would prefer not to stand for election. The issue – the key issue, indeed – is that from the moment he came to power so many crimes have been committed, that no one, not even Trump or any successor, could now guarantee his immunity.

He is, therefore, caught between a rock and a hard place, and the issue is not whether he want to be president, but whether he has any ideas. And it is obvious that he has none. The main issue on which he is focussed is that of his own safety. Take Navalny: he says that Putin should be given immunity. But these are mere words, baseless. And Putin knows this all too well. If he is bold enough to pick a successor… But I, for one, cannot imagine who that might possibly be – that man who could convince Putin that he is able to guarantee his safety…

I have one extreme idea, though.

– What would that be?

– It might be some Igor Sechin, that will be considerably worse than Putin. But Putin is not bright enough to see that this is the way things will turn out.

– Turn out how?

– That person has to be much worse than Putin. The successor must not be some cute Dmitry Medvedev who will be telling you that “freedom is better than unfreedom”; it has to be a man who will say: “absence of freedom is much better than freedom”. Mass repressions will begin. And then, overnight, Putin will become the “Father of the nation”.

– And all will clamour for his return?

– Indeed. “Father, come back!” A quater hour later everyone will forget that he is a heinous criminal, the man that plunged Russia in an abyss of horror and deprivation, and will merely remember how nice it was, back then, when Putin was in power and one had State-subsidised flats, and cars and mortgages, as opposed to arbitrary executions by troikas, without investigation nor trial. This is what Putin would need today. But such a successor is difficult to find.

Besides, no one can guarantee that Sechin himself, once in power, will remain as aggressive, villainous and dreadful as he has been during all this time (Uliukaev is an example of it) and that he will be putting people in prison. Most probably he will start shaping the State to fit his own needs. So there is no guarantee that someone worse than Putin can be found.

– But why would Putin need a successor that is worse than himself?

– It is all about contrast. Putin, by contrast, will be seen by the Russian population as the “father of the nation”, a kind and gentle man. Many now remember Brezhnev fondly, they recall him being a kind Secretary general, a wonderful man, who was in love with hunting and his nurse, and all that. And he no longer appears a frightening figure, even though people were being imprisoned during his time. Such things recall one of Stalin, not of Brezhnev.

– There is an opinion that some people among the Russian elite are disappointed by the worsening relations with the West and by the sanctions. They are supposedly displeased with Putin and might even wish to get rid of him. Do you believe that?

– First of all, the one who is not pleased is Putin himself, who would love to somehow turn this situation around. I do not believe there is any elite other than Putin himself and the small groups around him, which form the decision centre. Speaking of businessmen is ludicrous, because there is no business in that country, there can indeed be none, by definition. There is no money there. Happy people, unhappy people, who cares? You have a dozen idividuals who take decisions that are good for them, and who could not care less about the people’s welfare.

– But those who are on the sanctions’ lists, Bastrykin, or that very same Sechin, for instance,  cannot enter Western countries.

– So you imagine Sechin wants to be going to the West to suntan? He already has build himself his own “West” in Russia. He is alright, you know. They have got used to it, they’ve adapted to the situation. This is quite like Stalin’s USSR.

– But there are some big businessmen, aren’t there?

– All the big businessmen together with their businesses belong to Putin. Well, to a symbolic, collective Putin. They are sort of financing something. It is clear: Putin thinks that everything belongs to him. They think that if something were to happen to him, they could claim a part of the inheritance.

The real elite, the people taking the decisions, are operating in the conditions that they themselves have created. And I think they do not mind the curent situation. I would even say that the greater Russia’s isolation, the more power they have, the more possibilities, the more they can act outside the legal frame. The absence of the rule of law, the absence of judicial power is something that they do not mind at all.

– How many clans are there in the Kremlin at the moment? Are there “hawks” or a clan of so-called “liberals”?

– This has changed now. There are no liberals overs there. And no hawks. This is something of a single big patriotic clan.

– Homogenous?

– They have been trained, so to speak. After the Crimea, the Ukraine, Syria and all of that, they partly believe it all. Such exacerbated patriotism has something perverse about it, but these people stand for their country, for the chance to rule it.

– What are these clans fighting for? For the a chance to be closer to “Him”? For the possibility to take decisions?

– I would rather say that it is Putin who struggles to make no mistake when taking a decision. He must make the right decision, meaning the one that has already been taken before him by the most influencial clan.

– So is he selecting from decisions that are being put forward to him? Or is he deciding all by himself, locked away in his study?

– No, he speaks with those people. He understands what is going on. Do you remember that film, which depicts him going to the conquest of the Crimea single-handed, straddling his battle-horse? I think that everyone understands that this is absurd. He was not the one to take those decisions, nor the one to implement them. But it is essential for him to show that he is the one who determines the trend in Russia.

– In your view, what can we expect after the elections? If Putin runs for president and wins, what can we expect? Stagnation, of the type of Brezhnev’s zastoi?

– No, this is not stagnation. It may look like zastoi from the inside, but it is not so. During Brezhnev’s time we had stagnation, yes. But stagnation eventually generates some development. In this case I would simply expect increased repressions. That’s the only possibility, really. The spring has not been fully compressed yet. And until it has been compressed to the full, it will not recoil. Now it is about halfway through. We are now in 1933 or thereabouts, we have not reached 1937 yet. And this is what people, by and large, are expecting.  This is the broader state of mind. And Putin tries very hard to probe that general state, to sense what is going on, what the “aspirations” are.

You must realise that those 80-90% that support him, these are real figures to a certain extent. People have grown used to him. He has been in power for 18 years. Those who were fifteen or sixteen back then will have lived the greater par of their life under Putin. Can they imagine anyone else coming to power? No.

– Do you exclude the possibility of Putin’s forming a new government, naming someone like Kudrin Prime Minister?

– Nominally, he can appoint anyone: Kudrin or anyone else. But this will not solve the problem, because there is a sanctions act in the USA, the report is expected in February. Let us see what happens. I think that this will considerably influence the situation in Russia.

– In what manner?

– Individually for the most part. At the moment there is a stepping back in terms of aggression, when the response to sanctions does not necessarily materialise in tomatoes being squashed by bulldozers. There is a militarist rhetoric. I saw a broadcast the other day in which governors were shown crawling under armoured vehicles, jumping with parachutes and so forth (in fact, this was the training of the “governors’ reserve” – editor’s note).

– So they are preparing for war?

– I think it happens more in the mind. The feeling is genuine.

– There is are very strong, almost hysterical anti-American and anti-Western feelings in Russia at the moment. Will reinforced sanctions drive this further?

– No, it will be a good thing. I remember Andrei Sakharov pleading for sanctions against the Soviet Union.

You must take responsibility for what you do. You can of course keep saying that the people suffers from being deprived of oysters and French cheese. But the people was never having oysters anyway. And those who were having oysters and French cheese, well, they are still having them. So the point of the sanctions is different. There are personal sanctions, too. Before, the people who had an influence on Putin enjoyed travelling to the West for holidays. They enjoyed meeting senators, lords, princes and so on.

– Peers and mayors?

– Absolutely. This is part of their political life. And considering that for the most part these are people that at some point in their life failed to reach the career heights they had expected, they have obvious complexes, they are frustrated. This for them was something of a compensation, of which they are now deprived. Well. They are still members of the “Ozero” condominium…

But they are used to it by now. And I suspect (having been abroad together with them on many occasions) that they do not feel comfortable in the West, nor does Putin – in the West or indeed anywhere beyond Russia’s borders.

Putin has never enjoyed attending summits. I remember accompanying him to Rome, and many other places. At the beginning Putin was maybe still unaccustomed to so much attention on the part of the servants, and I do not mean waiters or maids, but everyone, starting with the Prime Minister. Today he is quite used to it and feels very comfortable. As far as the West is concerned, you will perhaps remember the G20 summit in Australia (November 2014 – editor’s note): no one would join him for any of the meals, breakfast, lunch or dinner. He felt terribly offended and upset, though it is not quite clear with whom, and he left before the end of the summit. It was obvious that he did not understand what was going on. He is isolated.

– Is he feeling uncomfortable to be isolated?

-Feeling isolated while he is in Russia is alright. Feeling isolated when he is in the West, and when he is allowed to take along an interpreter, a press-attaché, an international affairs advisor, he feels ill-at-ease. So when people say that sanctions have a terrible effect on Putin, it is not true. Putin no longer aspires to live on the French Riviera. Earlier he had a dream of settling there at the end of his first presidential term or even before, and to stay there forever.

– Are you not contradicting yourself? First you say that the sanctions can change the situation, and then you say that Putin, in actual fact, does not care.

– Of course the sanctions can change the situation.

– How exactly?

– It will change in the sense that the economy is contracting. There is no money. At a certain point this will lead to a substantial reduction of the country’s budget. It will become insufficient. I know that already today there are companies in which salaries have not been paid for up to nine months. These are usually company towns, producing extremely important goods for clients that include the Ministry of Defence. And we know that the Defence budget has been cut. There is no money. In that respect, sanctions are a very good thing, because something will have to be done. Masures will have to be taken. But such petty changes as appointing Kudrin Prime Minister will solve nothing.

– Putin is not independent? Is he a hostage?

– Yes. He is, in the first place, kept hostage by the entire situation, from as early as 2000. He is constrained by the way in which he came to power, and by what happened during his terms as president and prime minister. He is, no matter what you say, perceived as the leader, as a symbol of the past twenty years’ Russia. But during that time very many crimes were committed. He understands that if something changed, none of his entourage, people who are considered to be close to him, his former colleagues from the KGB, his sport teammates… I think they will all be ready to sell him out. And he knows it all too well.

– Sell him out or betray him?

– Given the kind of business relations in that milieu, I would rather say sell out. To betray means something else. To betray you need to have some values, but they have none. So it is impossible to betray.

– You have been quite close to Putin for over ten years. How do you see the end of his political career?

– Putin is a fatalist. He has never worried and always went with the flow. A perfect example: the story of Sobchak’s election in 1996. Putin ended up jobless.


– When Vladimir Iakovlev became mayor of Saint-Petersburg?

– Yes. And Putin used to say, back then, that his main idea was to find a job as taxi driver. I would not say that he is an ascetic man, with all those palaces he owns all around the country, that are worth billions. But we are all conditioned by our childhood: he has lived for quite some years in a communal apartment and this is something that stays. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Nor were the people composing his entourage. And I heard them say it, literally: if we happen to lose everything, but there remains at least a little something, we will manage to survive. In other words, all that wealth that has fallen upon them, it is not indispensable to them.

– What about the children? Do they not want to pass over to them what they have amassed?

– Yes, I saw an amusing broadcast on Radio Liberty about coats of arms that they have dug out for themselves. Apparently Shoigu has designed himself one, and so has Naryshkin and others. So they are something of a new class. And they may want to pass that over. But I am not convinced.

– Their children are not doing too badly.

– Precisely. Come what may, they will not perish from hunger. And compared to their parents they have done nothing wrong. So whatever happens, they will keep what is theirs.

– But the main question is: why would he not leave? Does he fear to be held responsible for what has been happening when he was in power?

– Of course. The example of dictators, and the fight in the South-Eastern Ukraine, the Crimea, Syria… Of course, he fears consequences. Putin has seen what happened to Gaddafi and the others. We are only talking about it, whereas he is in the very middle of it all.

– Would you say that he considers himself to be a dictator?

– Of course he does.


Sergei Pugachev was one of the first bankers in post-soviet Russia. In 1991 he registered the Northern Commercial Bank, which became one of the first cooperative banks in the USSR.

The banker’s personal website mentions that between 1991 and 1994 he had lived in the USA, occasionally visiting Russia to supervise his business. From 1994 he has settled in France. Pugachev has led major business projects in France, Luxembourg, the USA, Russia and Great-Britain.

He was one of the coordinators of Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996, and of that of Putin in 1999. He was the founder of a major financial corporation Mezhprombank, and in 2001 he was elected to the Upper Chamber of the Russian Parliament, where he served as a senator for ten years.

In 2004 he founded OPK, which became one of the main non-state asset holders in Russia.

In 2009 Pugachev applied for French citizenship and in 2012 he renounced his Russian citizenship. At that same time he sold all his assets in Russia. Between 2012 and 2014 all the assets that had not been liquidated were expropriated by the State. This was followed by mutual accusations, whereby the banker accused high-ranking officials of ASV of extortion, and the Russian Federation initiated a penal case against Mezhprombank and issued an international arrest warrant against Pugachev. The banker filed a claim against Russia with the International Court in The Hague, based on the Treaty on mutual protection of investments between France and Russia, accusing the latter of having expropriated his assets.

On 22 September the International Court in The Hague officially registered Sergei Pugachev’s claim for a total amount of 12 billion US dollars.