Economist Guriev speaks to popular vlogger Dud about his flight from Russia

Economist Sergei Guriev, who on October 16 in Amsterdam will hold the third RaamopRusland ‘October Lecture’ The Price of Bribe, recently gave an interview to one of Russia’s most popular vloggers Yuri Dud. The young vlogger, who has 6,5 million followers, is becoming more and more politically outspoken and supported the protest wave against election fraud this summer in Moscow.

Interview with economist Sergei Guriev by popular Russian vlogger Yuri Dud (for English translation press 'Ondertiteling') 

Sergei Guriev fled Russia in 2013 and since has been living and working in Paris (at SciencesPo) and London (for the European Bank of Research and Development). He explained to Dud why he left his country, what he thinks of Putin, of economic reform, the collapse of the Soviet Union and corruption in the political establishment. The interview is in Russian. We publish a short summary.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s short-lived presidency (2008-2012) Sergei Guriev had hopes that economic reforms would be implemented in Russia. As rector of the Russian Economic School in Moscow (from 2004 – 2013) he was one of Medvedevs unpaid advisors.

‘In those days it  was normal praxis that an intellectual advised the president about the economic course of the country. We had illusions and it was not considered shameful to cooperate with the authorities. I thought that my opinions about the rule of law, the necessity of reforms, the fight against corruption, the need of competition and guarantees for ownership could help to improve the business climate in Russia and stimulate economic growth. Those hopes didn’t materialise. Nowadays it is hard to imagine that the regime is still interested in improving the life of the people.’

Medvedev's 4 years presidential in-between proved a trick for Putin to return to presidency in 2012 for another 2 terms. When Putin and Medvedev changed places again in an openly undemocratic swap mass protests against election fraud were harshly suppressed. In 2013 Guriev was summoned for interrogation by the judicial authorities who prepared a court case against him. Exactly why he was questioned was unclear, but in the Dud-interview he gives three possible reasons why the regime fell out on him.

Indignation about Khodorkovsky trial

‘When Mikhail Khodorkovsky [former CEO of Yukos, imprisoned for fraud and embezzlement] in 2010, while in prison, was sentenced for the second time, there was a lot of indignation in Russia about the trial. Putin’s Human Rights Council asked a group of experts what they thought of the verdict and my conclusion was that there was no prove against Khodorkovsky.’

Guriev says he never got any money from Khodorkovsky, nor Yukos or partners in or outside of Russia.

‘The second reason could be that in May 2012 I was one of 16 public figures who supported fundraising for Alexei Navalny’s Fund for the Fight against Corruption. In the third place I was told that Putin himself was not amused about my opinions voiced in interviews. At that time we still had no idea that freedom of speech would be curbed again in Russia.’

The first conversation with the interrogator was polite, but later allusions were made to nasty consequences for Guriev. When the investigator came to Guriev’s office for further questioning he unexpectedly showed a warrant to confiscate all his electronic mail of the last 5 years.

'It was like a bad movie. I spoke in coded messages with my wife'

‘Although he said that academician Sakharov in his days had bigger problems [Sakharov was exiled to the closed town of Gorki and kept in isolation for years – note editor], it was an unpleasant conversation, so I thought that the next visit could end up in jail. I talked about it with influential people and they told me: if it is a special operation they can arrest you just like that. The next day I left the country. It was all like in a bad movie. I spoke in coded messages with my wife.’

Medvedev's 7 palaces

Navalny’s film (He is no Dimon to you, 2017)  about the wealth of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev was an eye-opener for Guriev. ‘Prime minister Medvedev is not a key figure in Russia, who takes any important decisions, but nevertheless he owns 7 palaces. For me that was the real shock of the film: if even somebody who is unimportant for the system of power owns 7 palaces, what about the rest? Most interesting for me was the way how the authorities use non-profit organisations. I was one of the people who advocated a law on endowment, to allow people to donate money to non-profit organisations like universities and schools. The official response we got was: people are going to misuse that for tax evasion or for hiding their income. After seeing the film I understood that that is exactly what the people who warned us now misuse that law for.’

Then why, asks Yuri Dud, was everybody speaking about a ‘thaw’ under Medvedev? ‘People want to believe that everything will work out allright. For me as a rational person it is utterly clear that our only possible development is in the direction of Europe, the rule of law, a market economy, the fight against corruption. Everybody understands there is no alternative. Russian civilians pay dearly for the fact that the authorities now have chosen another path. Russia’s economy is stagnating. There still is a small growth of 1,5%, but only people with high incomes profit. The number of poor people is rising and the incomes of regular people go down. Real income of the population is 10 percent lower than in 2014.’

Asked if Russia can survive without oil and gas, Guriev says: ‘Russia has lots of possibilities, agriculture, tourism, technology. At this moment 89% of the export is raw materials, but inside Russia the biggest part of GDP is being earned in the service sector, like in any other developed country. Russia has many highly educated people. If income of oil and gas would all of a sudden disappear, we would become poorer by 30%. But then people will find other means of subsistence. To think that Russia can not live without oil is racism. That means that Russians are inferior people.’

'To think that Russia can not live without oil is racism'

The best years of Russia were 2002/2003 and 2006/2007, when there was real hope for reforms, says Guriev. ‘Now the country is heading nowhere. There is no vision, so people are depressed. In the beginning of the century Putin wanted Russia to be strong and he translated that in economic terms, so all kind of economic liberals came to the fore. But after the enormous rise of oil prices he decided that there is enough money without reforms. Then, during the crisis around Yukos, Putin got scared because of the political competition of the oligarchs and decided to suppress business. Thus he ordered the nationalisation of business into state corporations. After the economic crisis of 2008 the oligarchs came to Putin to ask for financial support, so he concluded that the state sector is far more effective than private business. Next, after the Arabic spring, Putin decided to crush resistance. We did not expect that. It was a dead end street. Economic growth started to stagnate already a year before the annexation of Crimea, but it gave Putin another extra few years of popularity. Now we see only regression and nobody knows where that will end.’    

Read here a portrait of vlogger Yuri Dud


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