Olivier Védrine is one of the very few foreigners recognised as a leading voice within the Russian opposition and is the Chief editor of the Russian Monitor. He left Russia in 2014 in protest at the annexation of Crimea in February 2014 and to support the democracy movement – Euromaidan – in Ukraine.
NEW EUROPEANS: Olivier Védrine, you were a guest this year at the Vilnius Forum – what can you tell us about the forum and what was discussed there?
OLIVIER VÉDRINE: The Vilnius Forum is the leading independent platform for the Russian opposition. Since its creation in March 2016, it has acted as the focal point for developing a credible alternative to the Putin regime.
All the top members of the Russian opposition attend the Vilnius Forum including those working closely with Navalny.
Our key concerns are to develop solutions to allow Russia to emerge from its current political, economic and civilizational crisis and to present the world with credible alternative scenarios to the Putin regime.
NE: What was your message to the Vilnius Forum this year?
OV: I spoke about the problems faced at the Russian Monitor as a s result of cyber-attacks on our platforms.
When my Russian friends heard about the attack on our platform, they said “Good for you! It shows that the Russian Monitor is gaining influence in Russia!”.
So I felt very proud and saw this as a success for our work in keeping tabs on Putin. At the same time it created some technical issues.
This is of course a very serious problem and points to how hard the Putin regime works to control the news agenda, not just in Russia but also in the rest of Europe.
NE: What was said in Vilnius about the Kremlin’s interference with European networks?
OV: There was concern about the way the Kremlin has been mobilising anti-American feeling in France through its news platform Russia Today (RT).
The Kremlin is responsible for a lot of the fake news that is circulating in Europe, which they are using to manipulate public opinion – just as they did with Brexit.
We also know that the Kremlin is also capable of shooting the messenger.
My number one concern at the Russian Monitor is to protect the identity and the whereabouts of our journalists.
NE: There has been a lot of speculation recently that Putin may step down due to ill health? Is he?
OV: We have heard rumours. Also the way in which the Kremlin keeps total charge of messages about the regime is in itself is interesting – no smoke without fire!
What we know is that the Duma has passed legislation to give Putin’s family immunity from prosecution should he step down. Political developments are beginning to take shape quite quickly.
At the same time, we know the transition of power is often very bloody in Russia.
That is the nature of a centralised system – it will be a little like the passing of a Czar.
NE: What was the reaction at the Vilnius Forum to the election of Joe Biden ?
OV: Biden and his team will want to press the reset button on Ukraine and Russia . But while a warmer approach is welcome, actions are also important, not just words.
I am sceptical that Biden will want to get too closely involved in the transition to democracy in this region.
At the same time through the large number of young Russians who travel and work in the USA, the administration has a powerful lever in its hands to shape attitudes and behaviour in Russia when regime change does start to unfold.
NE: What does Europe need to do?
OV: The best thing the EU could do would be to announce the opening of accession talks with Ukraine.
Many Russians have relatives in Ukraine and will start to take note as soon as they can see that Ukraine is moving closer to Europe and want the same thing. They will be shocked to see that Ukraine is becoming richer while Russia stagnates.
The EU’s strategy is too often reactive rather than proactive.
France and Germany helped Navalny but much more should now be done.
One day we will see a democratic Russia as part of a democratic Europe. Russians will never forget is we abandon them now – we can’t afford to do that.