Presidential ambitions: an interview with Viktor Gerashchenko

Mikhail Kasyanov still doesn’t have unequivocal support among the opposition as a presidential candidate. Viktor Gerashchenko, chairman of the board at YUKOS and former Central Bank chairman, has announced that he is prepared to run for president.

Although the Popular-Democratic Union recently nominated Mikhail Kasyanov as its presidential candidate, Kasyanov still doesn’t have unequivocal support among the opposition. The Other Russia coalition has other potential candidates. Viktor Gerashchenko, chairman of the board at YUKOS and former Central Bank chairman, has announced that he is prepared to run for president.

In this interview, Gerashchenko discusses the prospects of nominating a common candidate to represent all opposition forces.

Question: Why have you expressed the wish to run for president?

Viktor Gerashchenko: The first person who spoke to me about the possibility of doing so was Garry Kasparov. I thought it over for about four months. And here’s what I’d like to say: when you look around and realize that things could be done better… What these comrades are doing is simply disgusting… I am well aware of what is going on in the economy and in politics.

Question: But you have never been in opposition to the authorities before. What’s more, when you were nominated in the last presidential election by the Russian Regions Party – a component of the Motherland (Rodina) bloc – that was done at the Kremlin’s request.

Viktor Gerashchenko: I wasn’t in overt opposition to the authorities, but I always spoke my mind. I simply didn’t insist on promoting my opinions in the media, since I thought it best to reach agreement on the most reasonable things within the government. The Kremlin also recommended inviting me to participate in the Duma election. At first they had the idea of inviting Nikolai Ivanovich Ryzhkov, but he declined, saying that the Motherland bloc would take votes from the Communist Party (CPRF).

The Kremlin requested that I should be nominated because it needed a person of substance among the presidential candidates. I went to the Kremlin and met with Dmitri Kozak, then one of Putin’s closest aides. I said that if I ran for president, I would consider it necessary to criticize the state’s economic policies. Well, the Kremlin decided that I shouldn’t participate after all. The Central Electoral Commission declined to register Gerashchenko as a candidate. – editor’s note

Question: Now you’re saying that the opposition ought to endorse a common presidential candidate. Which opposition forces do you have in mind?

Viktor Gerashchenko: If there are several candidates representing opposition parties – the CPRF, Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), Great Russia – the opposition would have no chance of getting anywhere near an acceptable shae of the vote. So the whole opposition needs to unite.

Question: And do you believe that this can be done?

Viktor Gerashchenko: I’m an optimist by nature.

Question: Are any talks under way between the Other Russia and opposition parties?

Viktor Gerashchenko: Not with Yabloko. After all, Grigori Yavlinsky made a statement recently: he believes that no matter who becomes the next president, the real leader would still be Vladimir Putin, even if not physically. But here’s what I can’t understand: how can any politician make such a statement?!

Talks regarding a common candidate are under way with the CPRF – and with the SPS, I think. But I’m not participating in these contacts, since the negotiations aren’t about myself in particular – only the general principle of nominating a common candidate. As I said, I’d be prepared to withdraw if someone else is chosen, someone more promising and more likely to win. SPS representatives – Nikita Belykh, if I’m not mistaken – have said that nominating a common candidate is a possibility, but some sort of primaries should be held first. The CPRF situation is more complicated. Their “old guard” members don’t want to run for president. But the CPRF has plenty of young people who could be nominated.

Question: So you think that CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov won’t run for president this time?

Viktor Gerashchenko: I have long-established contacts with some people in the CPRF, and they tell me that nothing has been decided as yet. But it sounds like the old guard wouldn’t be opposed to my candidacy. But the problem is that the Duma election and the presidential election are so close together. The CPRF, like other registered parties, wants to make it into the Duma and secure as many seats as possible. That’s why the coalition might not happen – if the Kremlin promises the registered opposition parties guaranteed places in the Duma. Or the CPRF might say: “Thanks, we’ll behave ourselves in the Duma, but now it’s time for the presidential election. And since Vladimir Putin isn’t running, we’d like to make a slight departure from our promises.” Are they capable of saying that?

I doubt it – especially since Vladimir Putin will still be around. Even after the presidential election – for a while, at least – he will continue to influence political processes.

Question: Via the ten thousand Leningraders who have been transferred to Moscow?

Viktor Gerashchenko: At least. And besides the fact that the Kremlin will try to obstruct the opposition forces, they can’t reach consensus amongst themselves. The pro-democracy forces are incapable of reaching agreement amongst themselves – and you want them to find a common languages with the Communists.

Question: Aside from the subjective reasons preventing unification, there are also some objective reasons – including ideological differences. In your case, for example – what do you have in common with the Communists?

Viktor Gerashchenko: I was a member of the CPSU from 1963 onward. I was even a member of the Central Committee, if only for a year.

Question: And were you a convinced Communist?

Viktor Gerashchenko: I was a convinced Communist, just like the whole country was convinced in building communism. I never quit the Party – it was simply banned.

Question: So what are your political convictions now?

Viktor Gerashchenko: I’m a centrist, with leftist convictions – democratic and liberal.

Question: Then you’d fit right in at United Russia! They describe themselves in a similarly flowery style.

Viktor Gerashchenko: I don’t know how they describe themselves. I’m not sure they have any ideology at all.

Question: And what kind of ideology do you think the common candidate should promote? What kind of voters should he target?

Viktor Gerashchenko: That all depends on his policy program, and who else is in the race – many candidates, or few.

Question: So if the CPRF endorses the common candidate, his policy program should be more left-wing – but if it doesn’t, the program should be more right-wing?

Viktor Gerashchenko: We’re not setting out to build the USSR, after all. And the common candidate’s program should have a social policy focus – that’s a given.

Question: If the opposition parties refuse to unite, then the only force capable of nominating you as a presidential candidate would be the opposition outside the system – the Other Russia. But the Other Russia has several potential candidates already. Doesn’t it seem funny to you that a miniscule opposition has produced so many candidates?

Viktor Gerashchenko: This situation demonstrates the opposition’s size and strength. They’re dwarfs.

Question: And why are you associating with dwarfs?

Viktor Gerashchenko: Because we don’t have anyone else! Not only in the opposition, but anywhere at all. Take United Russia, for example: it appears to be a large, representative party. One might assume that it engages in normal debates about various important issues.

Question: You say that the first person to suggest that you should run for president was Garry Kasparov. But that would imply that he’s dissatisfied with Mikhail Kasyanov in some way. How?

Viktor Gerashchenko: As they say, “maybe I’m very stupid, but I don’t know.” There are certain differences here, and disagreements regarding who is more likely to be successful. Kasyanov and I have met to talk things over, discussing my potential participation – and we decided not to obstruct each other. Now it’s up to them to decide who will be nominated. Actually, Kasyanov might have met with Gulyaev as well. Gulyaev’s the one who initially denied any intention to run for president, but now says he would be prepared to do so.

Question: How many Kremlin candidates do you think there will be – one or two?

Viktor Gerashchenko: It all depends on Putin’s position. I think that his encouragement for the creation of Just Russia may indicate that he would like to see two pro-Kremlin parties competing with each other. And each of them would nominate its own presidential candidate. It would seem as if Putin had nothing to do with it.

Question: So you don’t think that Putin will name one particular “successor”?

Viktor Gerashchenko: I don’t know what he will do.

Question: Do you think there might be some sort of surprise candidate in the presidential election? A “successor” who is neither Dmitri Medvedev nor Sergei Ivanov?

Viktor Gerashchenko: That possibility remains open. There was some talk of Mikhail Fradkov – suggesting that he could resign on the grounds of poor health a couple of years after becoming president, and call an early election. Or else – the other day someone mentioned a rumor that Anatoly Serdyukov might be a candidate.