I’m convinced that business and politics are incompatible

An interview with Boris Nemtsov.

Question: Why did you decide to quit business and return to major politics again?

Boris Nemtsov: I’m convinced that business and politics are incompatible. It should be either one thing or the other, but never the two together. The Russian authorities frequently use political arguments in their war on inconvenient businessmen like Igor Linshits. Money-laundering charges were pressed against Linshits, and he himself was put on the federal list of wanted criminals. I had quit the concern (Neftyanoy – Versiya) for fear of compromising Linshits’ business venture. Unfortunately, it did not help. I’m convinced that the campaign against Linshits is political. All the charges the Prosecutor General’s Office pressed against him reek of the Kremlin’s involvement. One of the hypotheses ventured to explain the campaign assumes that Linshits financed Mikhail Kasyanov when he should have known better. As a matter of fact, Linshits never financed Kasyanov.

Question: And what are you doing now that you are out of Neftyanoy?

Boris Nemtsov: On February 16, I was elected chairman of the commission for consolidation of democratic forces. We mean to form a single column in time for the election of the Duma and to nominate a democratic candidate for president in 2008. There is no saying at this point who will join the democratic coalition. We are ready for talks with all democratic organizations including Yabloko, Republican Party, human rights and non-government organizations. Negotiations between the potential members of the coalition at in their initial phase for the time being. We are ready for a dialogue with Kasyanov, Garri Kasparov, Irina Khakamada, and everybody who shares democratic ideals and values.

Question: And who will be elected to head the coalition? Kasyanov?

Boris Nemtsov: We do not know yet. We’ve just begun the talks, and the problem of leadership is not what we are facing as yet. I’d say that the most popular politician – among democrats, that is – should be nominated for president. Kasyanov stands a chance. He has to win voters over now.

Question: It is clear that there are some men in Russia who sponsor the opposition. The regime has gone to great pains to make them as rare as possible. Could you perhaps reveal some names of the men who are not afraid of being sponsors? Are there oligarchs out of favor (like Boris Berezovsky) or perhaps Western investors among them?

Boris Nemtsov: I haven’t been in direct contact with Berezovsky for a long time already. He has never supported us. I have never accepted anything from Western businessmen or trust to finance political activities in Russia. As a matter of fact, I’m categorically against funding of the opposition from abroad. As for the names of our sponsors, I’ll keep them from the general public to spare them harassment and pressure. Finding sponsors is not easy, you know.

Question: Last year, the US Senate allocated $4 million for development of democracy in Russia. Are you saying that you did not receive anything at all?

Boris Nemtsov: I am and we didn’t. As a rule, the Americans use this money to pay their own experts studying problems of Russian democracy. For example, they finance the republican and democratic institutes in our country. The Americans never offer anything to the Russian opposition directly. In short, the Union of Right Forces at least will never accept money from Western investors.

Question: Everything is clear with your political activities in Russia. In the meantime, you are an economic advisor to the president of Ukraine as well. What do you advise him?

Boris Nemtsov: I make several trips to Ukraine every month. Victor Yushchenko does follow some advice. For example, he sacked Yulia Timoshenko and he was correct to do so. Timoshenko failed miserably. It took her seven months of premiership to ruin the Ukrainian economy with her devastating deprivatization and nationalization program. Timoshenko plunged the country into economic crisis. Investors stopped investing in the national economy and began withdrawing their capital instead.

Putting an end to the campaign of harassment of Russian businessmen was the second advice from me Yushchenko took.

Question: War between Russia and Ukraine over gas tariffs is under way. Who stands to benefit from it?

Boris Nemtsov: All the gas conflicts have had a thoroughly negative effect on Russian-Ukrainian relations. Any new increase of gas tariffs for Ukraine will inevitably lead to an economic crisis in this country. Introducing energy saving technologies, Ukraine may eventually get the upper hand in the gas war, but it will take years.

The gas conflict is a corollary of political discord between our countries. Vladimir Putin and Yushchenko distrust each other because of the Russian president’s desire to lord it over in Ukraine… I do not think that the gas tariffs for Ukraine would have been upped, ban on dairy products and meats from Ukraine introduced, and conflict of the Black Sea Fleet taken place were it not for the president of Russia.

Question: But that’s what commerce is about. It is about selling something at as high a price as possible. This is what the seller, Russia in this particular case, is interested in…

Boris Nemtsov: I’m not at all sure that it is Russia… The problem is gas deals remain anything but transparent. We do not know what this UkrRosEnergo is, or what part of it is owned by Russia and what by Ukraine. We do not know anything about the gas contracts between our countries or why all revenues end up in offshore zones.

When the opposition anywhere in Europe discovers the existence of some dubious contracts, it kicks up a scandal. These accords are usually annulled then. The latest such scandal was connected to the agreement between Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi concerning deliveries of gas to Italy. They made a deal but the general public in Italy discovered soon enough that one of the gas buyers was a company affiliated with Berlusconi. Media outlets exposed some details of the deal, and the Italians were forced to call it off.

Question: Why are the relations between Russia and Ukraine so bad that everything cannot be chalked off to personal animosity?

Boris Nemtsov: Success of the Orange Regime in Ukraine is the last thing the Kremlin wants. If Yushchenko is successful, the implication is that Russia needs democracy too.

Question: Are you saying that Ukraine is much more democratic than Russia?

Boris Nemtsov: There is freedom of expression in Ukraine, and there is no censorship. Savik Shuster with his Svoboda Slova TV program left Russia and settled in Ukraine, running it live. The Ukrainian opposition enjoys unrestricted access to the media. Hence the high rating of Victor Yanukovich, Yuschenko’s number one rival.

Can you imagine in the meantime Dmitry Rogozin of the Motherland or Nikita Belykh of the Union of Right Forces to be leaders in a political race in Russia?

I mean that Ukraine is a free country. Sure, it has its share of problems – corruption, biased justice, etc. – but chances of being successful there are much higher than in Russia.

Why? Because the media in Ukraine is free, and state officials become afraid sooner or later of exposure as crooks.

As for businesses in Ukraine, the situation with them is much more complicated. Difficult, I’d even say. Ukrainian legislation pertaining to businesses includes too many Soviet fossils. It has to be upgraded, that much is clear. I’d say that gradual liberalization of the economy will eventually take place. Once its over, Ukraine will be able to join the World Trade Organization and European Union.