Natalia Arno, from the Free Russia Foundation, photographed at the Rafael del Pino Foundation, in Madrid, on May 31. JUAN BARBOSA
Natalia Arno knows from experience the price paid in Vladimir Putin's Russia for criticizing power. After several years working in Moscow in pro-democracy organizations, in 2012 he had to invent a new life overnight. "They told me I had 48 hours to leave my country. If not, I faced 20 years in prison accused of treason," says the Siberian-born woman who now lives in Washington DC.
European Court of Human Rights blames Russian government for Litvinenko poisoning
Russia's remoteness has not been a guarantee of security. During a trip to Prague in May this year, Arno suddenly felt deep pain and various parts of his body falling asleep. Shortly before, the door of his hotel room had appeared open leaving a smell he described as "cheap perfume". She prefers not to go into details — she says the facts are being investigated — but everything points to an attempted poisoning like that of numerous Russian opponents. The security guards who guarded her this Wednesday in Madrid, at the Rafael del Pino Foundation, where the next day she would give a talk, testify to the strict security regulations with which she lives. "I'm used to it. In Russia, the security forces told me they knew even the color of my underwear."
Arno, who wears a heart-shaped pin with the Ukrainian flag, founded in 2014 the Free Russia Foundation, an association that, with US funding, supports exiled activists from Russia and Belarus. From the organization he presides, he tries to undo what he considers one of the great misunderstandings about his country: "Many people believe that Putin and Russia are the same. But it's a big mistake."
QUESTION. The West has reacted strongly to Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But this was not the case in the past, as in 2014, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Did that timid response embolden Putin?
ANSWER. This war is the worst-case scenario. It is a great tragedy for the Ukrainians, but it is also a disaster for the Russians. For years we have warned the world of the corrupt and criminal nature of Putin's regime. We have been its first victims. It has imprisoned, poisoned and murdered many. We warned that the repression would not remain within the borders of the country. Internal repression and external aggression are two sides of the same coin. If the West had been more forceful, it would not have dared to attack Ukraine. The West has allowed it. There was a huge army of Western lawyers, bankers, politicians, journalists helping the regime get stronger. When Putin understood that no one was punishing him, he dared to go further.
Q. Do sanctions work?
A. There is still room for more.
Q. In which sectors?
A. More personal sanctions are needed. Instead of targeting dozens of people, they should target hundreds or thousands. All members of parliament and ministries who have pushed through the repressive legislation should be affected. The implementation of sanctions must also be improved now that Putin is weak. This is the time. Many countries are profiting from the war and helping the Kremlin to evade these punishments.
Q. How is the relationship of the Russians with the regime and its leader?
A. Many Russians do not support this aggression. But there is an unprecedented level of repression, far greater than in the former Soviet Union. In the Brezhnev era there were a hundred political prisoners compared to 557 now. And human rights organizations believe that this is a conservative estimate, that the reality may be two or three times higher. Some 20,000 citizens have been arrested for the protests in a repressive context in which you can go 15 years in jail for saying the word war. According to several NGOs, since the beginning of the war there have only been 25 days in which no Russian was arrested in a protest. Almost every day there are some protests although little is reported of them, the Kremlin banned all independent media. Now they are all in exile. Discontent is growing because young people from poor areas of ethnicities other than Slavic are forced into war as cannon fodder.
Q. It is striking that the criticisms we hear of the Kremlin do not come from liberal sectors opposed to the war, but from hawks who demand greater toughness against Ukraine.
A. The most nationalist voices are the ones that make the most noise, but they are not the majority. There is a group of people in favor of democracy. Not only inside Russia, but also in exile. More than a million people left the country last year. The problem is that the majority of the population is apolitical or afraid. Much of the country is zombified after 24 years of Putin's propaganda. The first thing he did when he came to power was to capture the media. The great divide in Russian society is due to how it consumes information. There are those who watch television and those who get information independently.
Q. Many Russians followed the rule of forgetting politics as long as their lives were not affected. With mandatory mobilization, international isolation and sanctions, this dynamic no longer works. But perhaps now it is too late to turn back.
A. It's never too late. The full-scale invasion was a suicidal mistake by the Kremlin. Putin has completely lost his sense of reality. He underestimated the courage of Ukrainians, the resilience of Russian pro-democracy forces and the level of corruption, which is very high. And he overestimated the power of his army. The solution to stop the war does not go only through the protests of the Russians. External pressure on the Kremlin must also be increased. There is no single silver bullet.
Q. In recent days we are seeing attacks on Russian soil. Is this a new phase of the war?
A. The more Russians see that this is not a "limited special operation" [the government's term for war], the better.
Q. Do you approve of these attacks?
A. It is a way of opening the eyes of the population. People in big cities don't see war. They believe that everything is normal, that things are as before. The more people who know what's going on, the more protests there will be. One of the big problems in Russia has been that apathy to politics, that not interfering with the government. So they began to control everything. We need a transition to democracy. It will be the only way to ensure security and stability in Ukraine and around the world.
Q. Many Ukrainians say their problem is not just Putin, but all of Russia.
A. It is true that many Russians are zombified and support nationalist ideology. But sometimes I hear that these ideas are in the DNA of Russians, that we are incapable of having a democracy. It is something insulting and racist. If so, how is there a democratic Korea and a dictatorial Korea? There are about 190 ethnic groups in Russia. Do they really all have defective DNA? These ideas are also a major obstacle to the struggle for democracy. Because, if this is not Putin's war, but of all Russia, are those of us who oppose it then traitors to our people? It means saying that Putin is our protector and that the rest of the world is against us. We ask just the opposite: that we not be judged by our nationality, but by our values and deeds.
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