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On civil society and foreign agents (interview to TASS)

March 3, 2020

The seventh part of Vladimir Putin's interview to TASS News Agency has been published.

The 20 Questions with Vladimir Putin project is an interview with the President of Russia on the most topical subjects of social and political life in Russia and the world. Total recording time is 3.5 hours.

Andrei Vandenko: (Sighs.)… Civil society.

Vladimir Putin: Why did you sigh so heavily?

Andrei Vandenko: Because the next question will be, why do the authorities prefer to communicate with the active part of society by using nightsticks?

Vladimir Putin: That is not true.

The most active part of society is not just the so-called non-systemic opposition that breaks existing laws. Why do you reduce the active part of society like that?

The active part of society is also about volunteers, and we have millions, millions of them. They too represent the active part of society – young, capable, active people working in all the different areas – education, healthcare, environmental protection. They actively help others, and this is great.

You know, I sometimes look at them in awe, almost with tears in my eyes, because these people really do a great job. There has always been and always will be a certain part of society in any country that disagrees with the authorities in power. And it is very good that such people exist.

By the way, please note that if some revolutionary events occur, as a rule, those people who masterminded these events don’t stay in power for long. Very quickly they become uncomfortable with the authority their teeming activity has created.

The Bolsheviks were perhaps the sole exception as they remained in power after the October coup d’état for a rather long time. But then… the whole Bolshevik thing fell apart and dragged the country along.

But as far as the so-called non-systemic opposition is concerned, God bless them, I feel we need it. After all, you do understand this is not my first day on the job. I believe that we need them very much. I can see that they have a real influence on specific life, especially at the level of municipalities, major cities, and so on.

Andrei Vandenko: Why weren’t they clamped down?

Vladimir Putin: I will tell you why. Because there are rules for everyone to follow: for those who like the authorities and for those who don’t, alike. There is law and it should be observed, otherwise we will find ourselves in a situation when the country is totally disbalanced.

Do we want cars to be burnt in our streets?

Andrei Vandenko: When was it that cars were burnt in our streets? The last time it happened was after the defeat of our national team in Japan…

Vladimir Putin: If there is no response, they will be burnt. Shop windows will be smashed to pieces and people will be harmed.

You want to express your viewpoint, your opinion, and you want to do it through public protest? You are welcome to do so. The law permits it. Get permission and go ahead.

In some countries, in almost every country, even in European ones, unauthorised protests are punishable by incarceration. The prison terms are not very long, from 6 to 12 months.

But, in some countries, unauthorised protests involving 12 people, I think, somewhere in Sweden, they are considered civil unrest. Those can get you 5 or 10 years behind bars. We don’t have that, you see?

Andrei Vandenko: Well, three years.

Vladimir Putin: Three is less than ten.

Andrei Vandenko: That’s still quite a bit.

Vladimir Putin: Quite a bit. So, do not break the law.

Andrei Vandenko: That’s a separate topic, we can discuss it for a long time: a request was filed, but not approved, then protestors took to the streets, meant nothing bad, and so on. Then you will never make heads or tails of who hit whom. Who stole whose fur coat?

Vladimir Putin: That’s not important who or whose. Seek to obtain such permission. It’s the same procedure abroad too, they too need permission and get it. No permission – no protest. No permission but you nevertheless go ahead with the protest – be ready to get ‘shaved’.

Andrei Vandenko: Hm, ok.

Vladimir Putin: Take a rest, relax a little…

Andrei Vandenko: You mean crop close?

Vladimir Putin: Of course. What else?

Andrei Vandenko: For three years? Or five?

Vladimir Putin: As the court rules.

Andrei Vandenko: Court again?

And the foreign agent status?

Vladimir Putin: What about the foreign agent status? We were not the ones to invent it. Did we come up with the foreign agent status? Since 1938 or 1937, I think, since 1938, this law has been in effect in the USA, they still use it.

Andrei Vandenko: Why does it matter? I beg your pardon, but in certain countries, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes. So? What difference does it make who invented what?

Vladimir Putin: What do yellow stars have to do with any of this?

Andrei Vandenko: But it’s a mark!

Vladimir Putin: … and the Holocaust?

No, there is a big difference. The United States of America is not Nazi Germany and it should not be blamed…

Andrei Vandenko: I drew a parallel…

Vladimir Putin: …for what it is not responsible at all. It was a bad parallel, unfair and having nothing to do with reality.

Andrei Vandenko: Meaning we stand up for America?

Vladimir Putin: I stood up for America – in this case, yes, I did it.

But they invented this law and have been actively using it, including a very recent case. Our citizen, a woman (she later became quite famous) was jailed as a foreign agent. Excuse me, but she was facing a 12-year sentence there. Right?

So what? They use it. We have no such thing. We only have an administrative penalty for this. And what is the purpose of that law? It exists simply to protect Russia from external meddling in its politics. There is no other purpose.

While some countries prohibit the activity of such organisations, we don’t ban it. They are free to keep working. By the way, this practice is a well-established one. They continue to work.

However, they are required to report if they receive funding from abroad and are engaged in internal political activity. Nobody’s rights are being infringed on here whatsoever. There is nothing that runs counter to international practice.

Some may be reluctant to say: yes, I am involved in domestic political affairs and I am doing that with the money I get from a foreign source, with foreign money. But that’s not fair. They’d better admit it and continue their activity.

So, the question is different. And there is a question. And I believe that human rights activists are right in drawing my attention to this. We need to have a very clear idea of what internal political activity is. We need to ensure that there are no misconceptions. And we need to ensure that no other activity – involving humanitarian matters, for instance, public health or environmental protection – is used as a disguise to engage in domestic political affairs.

Andrei Vandenko: So foreign agents exist only in politics?

Vladimir Putin: Absolutely. This is only about domestic political activity and the funding of that activity from foreign sources.

March 3, 2020