An interview with U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos

Tom Lantos: “I have proposed expelling Russia from the G8 precisely because I have a deep affection for Russia. It is possible to say that I am Russia’s best friend in Congress. And friends should be candid. That is why I’m saying openly that Russia is no longer a democratic country.”

U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos is one of the toughest critics of the Kremlin regarding the YUKOS case. It was he who recently proposed to expel Russia from the G8. Currently, Mr. Lantos is in Moscow to participate in the first in history joint meeting of the international committees of Duma and US Congress. What should the United States’ reaction to the sentence imposed on Mikhail Khodorkovsky be like? Tom Lantos answered this and other questions in an exclusive interview to our newspaper. The interview was recorded by Nadezhda Popova.

Question: After the sentence to Mikhail Khodorkovsky was announced, you said that you did not consider a democratic state anymore. What are your arguments?

Tom Lantos: It is clear that oligarchs are prosecuted selectively in Russia. Khodorkovsky was the first in Russia to make his company transparent and compliant with the international standards. But President Putin saw an opponent in him, and now Khodorkovsky is behind bars. He was not going to leave Russia, so the authorities could have placed him under house arrest. Then he could at home together with his four children and wife while the court hearings went on. We were not pleased to see Khodorkovsky behind the bars in the court-room – he looked like an animal in cage. It is so shameful. The verdict has been issued this week, and he has been in custody for 18 months already. To the United States, this is disgraceful. When we have a trial of economic crimes, accused businessmen sleep at home.

Question: That is why you proposed to exclude Moscow from the G8… By the way, it was not for the first time. At the same time, you continued calling yourself “Russia’s best friend.” Isn’t this self-contradictory?

Tom Lantos: I have proposed expelling your country from the G8 precisely because I have a deep affection for Russia. It is possible to say that I am Russia’s best friend in Congress. And friends should be candid. That is why I’m saying openly that Russia is no longer a democratic country. All power has been concentrated in the hands of one person, the justice system wholly depends on the state authorities, the Duma’s decisions are simply reflection of the Kremlin’s designs, independent candidates cannot run for parliament, regional leaders are appointed from above, the press is not free, television shows only what the government wants it to show.

Russia has become a bureaucratic society managed by the siloviki. We cannot pretend any longer that your country is like Canada and Britain. It would be hypocrisy. But that was not always so. We used to invite Boris Yeltsin to G7 meetings, and it was a sign politeness and respect. Then we invited him as a member of the organization. But at that time Russia was really developing towards democracy. However, at present it is moving in the opposite direction.

Question: How does this influence the relationships between the United States and Russia?

Tom Lantos: We deal with both democratic and non-democratic regimes. Our cooperation with Russia as been fruitful. I mean counteraction to international terror and solution of the North Korea problem. We fought against fascism together despite the fact that Stalin was a dictator.

Question: What about those who fought against us then and continues taking pride in it now? In the Baltic States marches of Nazis are organized and are attended by parliamentarians and ministers. Being the only Congressman who experienced Holocaust, what do you think about it?

Tom Lantos: I was sent to a concentration camp when I was 16, and my mother died in Auschwitz… Yet this does not prevent me from having warm relations with the governments of Germany, Austria, and the Baltic states. Of course, every time I come to Estonia or Latvia, I strongly denounce the actions of pro-fascist citizens. But to criticize the governments because such people live in their states would be the same as criticizing Putin for skinhead gangs in Russia.

Question: In an interview with Izvestia in January 2003, you promised to make every effort to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia. Why didn’t this happen?

Tom Lantos: Russia is displeased with the Jackson-Vanik amendment – but I, for example, am displeased with the fact that Russia supplies weapons to Syria and nuclear technologies to Iran. Yes, in the past I wanted to repeal this amendment for Russia. Not now. If anyone proposes this issue in Congress, I would strongly object. Russia is too far from the democratic state model at present.

Question: Do you mean the model the United States tried to set up in Ukraine during the “orange revolution”?

Tom Lantos: We try to assist all democratic forces around the globe. We did the same in Ukraine, while President Putin offered support to non-democratic movements. We are very pleased that the democrats won. I wish other countries from North Korea to Syria started being democratic too.

Question: However, the United States does not speak much about lack of democracy in Uzbekistan, which is its ally. It also keeps a low profile regarding Turkmenistan, while the regime of Saparmurat Niyazov is quite comparable with the Pyongyang regime. Isn’t this a “selective democratization”?

Tom Lantos: This is not so. We are aware that different countries require different terms for their democratization. The United States simply chooses where and when it will support democratic processes.