Exiled Economic Adviser 'Putin Is Afraid of the Public'

In a SPIEGEL interview, prominent Russian economist and former government adviser Sergei Guriev discusses the Kremlin's retaliation campaign against the opposition and why he recently fled to France.

AFP

SPIEGEL: Mr. Guriev, why did you flee to France?

Guriev: I was under pressure for months. My wife had already predicted this development three years ago, despite the political thaw under then-President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. She didn't want our children to grow up in a country without freedom, so she decided to move to Paris. I, on the other hand, was still hopeful.

SPIEGEL: At the time, you were part of a small group of people who shaped Medvedev's economic policy. When did you decide to flee?

Guriev: The turning point came in late April, when investigators turned up at my office with a search warrant and seized all of my email correspondence since 2008 -- 45 gigabytes. The same mistakes, in terms of names and spelling, were made on both the court order and the documents the investigators presented. In other words, the court in question simply copied the investigators' documents, with their absurd accusations, and will continue to do so in the future. I felt that it was too dangerous for me to stay.

SPIEGEL: What were you afraid of?

Guriev: That I would be barred from leaving Russia and, in a next step, that I would be arrested. I am a patriot, and I love my country. But I am not willing to give up my freedom. Paris is better than Krasnokamensk.

SPIEGEL: That's the Siberian city near the Chinese border where oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was held in a prison camp for many years. You are now accused of having been paid by Khodorkovsky to prepare an expert report that recommends his release.

Guriev: That's ridiculous. In 2003, Moscow's New Economic School (NES) received $50,000 (€37,500) from a partner of Khodorkovsky's. I didn't receive a single kopek of that money. I was a visiting professor at Princeton University at the time, and only a year later did I become the rector at NES. Besides, I prepared the expert report in 2011 for then-President Medvedev, together with colleagues.

SPIEGEL: One of them was Otto Luchterhandt, a German legal scholar.

Guriev: He, at least, hasn't had a visit from Moscow yet. Russia is now refusing entry to one of the foreign experts.

SPIEGEL: How is the New Economic School funded?

Guriev: We are a private university. We derive our funding from tuition and donations from Russia and abroad.

SPIEGEL: Of course the Kremlin doesn't like that. Are you disappointed that Medvedev couldn't or wouldn't protect you?

Guriev: I prefer not to comment on that. He's in a difficult situation. No one seems to mention the modernization he promised anymore. (President) Vladimir Putin decides everything.

SPIEGEL: Sergey Markov, a political scientist with ties to the Kremlin, has practically accused you of treason because of your ideas on the privatization of state-owned companies, which Medvedev took up, and he has described you as the intellectual center of the opposition to Putin. Do you intend to overthrow Putin?

Guriev: Of course not. I'm an academic, not a politician.

SPIEGEL: Are we correct to assume that the reason the Kremlin has targeted you is not as much your sympathy for Mikhail Khodorkovsky as your support for opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently on trial?

Guriev: Navalny merely gave a talk at our university. Neither he nor other members of the opposition have ever received so much as a kopek from our university.

SPIEGEL: But you donated money privately to Navalny?

Guriev: Yes. It's not forbidden. The equivalent of €250, together with my wife. I'm not a wealthy man. I was trying to send a message that I support Navalny's anti-corruption campaign. Only 16 people dared to do so publicly, including financial magnate Alexander Lebedev. He and most of the others have run into problems.

SPIEGEL: Does Navalny have what it takes to be president?

Guriev: What impresses me is that he isn't afraid. He is prepared to fight to the end and go to prison for his convictions. I'm not willing to do that. Navalny is by far the most impressive of all of the opposition politicians. That's precisely why they are now trying to launch a show trial against him, which could put him behind bars for a few years, even though the accusations are baseless. I'm not sure who would win if there were free elections and Putin and Navalny had to debate each other on television. But Putin has never participated in such debates.

SPIEGEL: Navalny has no experience whatsoever in political office. He sympathizes with nationalists, and when he demands that Putin and his team be thrown in prison, he is flatly provoking a harsh reaction from the Kremlin.

Guriev: I don't like this furor. I don't agree with him on other issues, either. I don't like the fact that he wants to introduce a progressive tax, or that he used to march at the very front during the nationalists' "Russian march." We've had intense arguments about that. Navalny has changed his position and didn't attend the nationalists' march last year. Like every politician, he is evolving.

SPIEGEL: Three days after Putin's re-election in March 2012, you said that the president clearly knows the difference between the fates of Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. What did you mean by that?

Guriev: Berlusconi was voted out of office and is enjoying life. But Gadhafi held onto power for so long that a revolution ended up flushing him away and he was killed.

SPIEGEL: What don't you like about Vladimir Putin?

Guriev: The problem isn't Putin or Medvedev. It's the policies Putin has pursued since his return to the Kremlin. I still like many of his campaign promises, his programmatic articles and his initial decrees. For example, shortly after he took office there was talk of moving Russia up the ladder in a rating of countries based on business-friendly policies. But because that isn't happening, capital flight is on the rise, and Russian stocks are significantly undervalued compared to Brazilian or Polish stocks. Investors don't have confidence in Russia.

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