“Opposition and emigration are two sets that do not intersect.” Interview with Viktor Vorobyov, Russia's first “foreign agent” lawmaker
Do you wish the best for Russia?
Undoubtedly. I wish Russia well, prosperity and freedom.
To this, the army of liberals from Facebook will tell you that you are a rashist and an imperialist.
I believe that the people you are talking about have lost touch with Russia – as a country, not a state. They have no political future in Russia. It is difficult for me to understand how they see their political flank coming to power. It would be extremely naive to believe that all these people, whom no one elected and no one supports, will somehow find themselves in power and will build a democracy for us in the right way.
Change in Russia will come from within, not from without. Moreover, I am deeply convinced that people are able to decide for themselves which way their country should go.
Doesn’t work in a body of power legitimize the regime?
No, it doesn’t.
All decisions, from the recognition of the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions to electronic military summonses, are made on behalf of a body of power. The law does not say that this or that lawmaker was against it, as, for example, Senator Lyudmila Narusova was against the bill on electronic summonses.
Firstly, it’s no secret to anyone who spoke out against it. It is no coincidence that you mention Narusova, right? Secondly, the parliamentary minority, the opposition exists in order to express an alternative point of view. Even in countries with much more complex political configurations, where the ruling majority is formed as a result of a coalition, this majority passes laws, and the rest, accordingly, are in the minority. According to your logic, you can generally abandon the parliamentary minority altogether.
This is not my logic, this is an existing point of view: participation in the political process – even voting in elections — allegedly legitimizes the current power.
Then, does leaving the parliament or refusing to participate in elections delegitimize the regime? I’m trying to capture the logic of these people. What does a hypothetical Garry Kasparov think: an opposition politician will vacate their seat, and Putin will burst into tears and resign after that? And how will an alternative point of view be presented then, how will changes occur in the country?
My presence in the State Council of the Komi Republic in the status of a foreign agent, by the way, delegitimizes political institutions much more, and not at all on my initiative. They definitely didn’t see that coming: they made an incumbent lawmaker a foreign agent, despite the fact that there is no possibility to take away their seat for this!
Deputy of the Komi State Council Viktor Vorobyov was listed as a foreign agent on April 1, 2022. He became the first lawmaker in Russia to get this status. Vorobyov tried to appeal the decision of the Ministry of Justice. In court, it turned out that the lawmaker became a foreign agent because of payments from the state-run Higher School of Economics, fees from human rights organizations and a refund of a plane ticket to the UK.
Do they now introduce your as a foreign agent each time you’re given the floor in parliament?
During the sessions of the State Council, no one announces all my regalia. However, the broadcast is turned off during my speeches. The sound and video simply disappear, and then they just come back on. No one has given any reason for that; they only say that broadcasting is not regulated in any way by the law.
But this only fuels public interest. As you know, the sweetest fruit is the forbidden one. We still post my speeches, and people are directly looking for them: “What is it that Vorobyov said that the broadcast was turned off?”
What about your lawmaking efforts – are they successful?
My bills are often not even included in the agenda. Obviously, the parliamentary majority believes that if some bills introduced by a foreign agent are passed, this will cast some kind of shadow over the entire parliament. From a foreign agent bill, this will become a foreign agent act, which will add absurdity to what is happening.
For example, you’re drafting a parliamentary question. Do you write “THIS MATERIAL HAS BEEN PRODUCED…” at the top of the page and so on?
I defiantly did not comply with the requirements to report to the Ministry of Justice and put labels all last year. I still don’t label myself as a matter of principle. Roskomnadzor (Russia’s telecom and media watchdog) tried to hold me accountable for the absence of labeling, but they lost the trial. And I became the first person in Russia acquitted for this offense, they have been unsuccessfully trying to appeal this so far.
Why are you so brave? There’s an administrative penalty for the absence of the disclaimer and the failure to comply with the requirements of the Ministry of Justice, and after two fines a criminal case may follow.
It is politically impossible for me [to put the disclaimer that I’m supposedly a foreign agent]. First of all, it is a social and political stigma. As for the criminal persecution, it seems to me that the authorities in many ways simply use the fear of the word “criminal”.
Let’s break it down: this is a minor offense; that means they can’t put people in custody during the investigation. Real imprisonment for such a crime cannot be given if the person has no previous convictions. What is a suspended sentence then? Just check in with the probation officer every few weeks? Well, this is really terrifying, isn’t it?
In reality, it’s just a spook for those who are generally inclined to be spooked.
Shortly after Viktor Vorobyov was labeled a foreign agent, Komi State Council Chairman Sergei Usachev complained about him to Russia’s Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. The speaker asked to “stop anti-Russian activities” of Vorobyov, who heads the communist faction (although he is not a member of the party). Usachev pointed out that the Communist Party faction in the State Council did not support the lawmkaer’ statement in support of “a special operation to protect the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.”
Why didn’t the Communist Party faction in the Komi State Council vote for a statement in support of the war? Do things like that happen? Firstly, the Communist Party as a whole supports the war; secondly, we see unanimity on this issue both in the State Duma and in the regional parliaments.
I see no reason to sign any statements that the speaker Sergei Usachev and his entourage prepare. We have different political positions, they are the ruling party, we are the opposition force. In addition, I believe that Sergei Usachev got his house seat illegally.
And our faction was formed following the results of the 2020 elections, which had largely been influenced by the events in Shies. And the Komi regional chapter of the Communist Party included 50 percent of non-party people in their party list. These were civil and human rights activists, big kudos to the party for that. This list received significant support, we are the largest opposition faction in the State Council and the only truly opposition faction.
But what about party discipline? How are you even allowed to exist in the form in which you exist – a faction which is headed by a “foreign agent” deputy and which did not support the statement in support of the war
I can, of course, answer formally: the party cannot terminate the powers of lawmakers, and the composition of the faction will be the same as it is.
But essentially, our coalition has significant voter support in Komi, and this cannot be written off. At the same time, we have never sought to antagonize or irritate the party. We have constructive interaction. Yes, there are issues on which we considered it necessary to act otherwise. This does not mean that we want to fight the party.
In March 2022, Viktor Vorobyov was subjected to an administrative arrest for participating in an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg. After that, he was deprived of the right to speak for “violations of parliamentary ethics.” And in February 2023, Vorobyov was fined for an anti-war video. The lawmaker said that the war would not bring the peoples of Russia and Ukraine anything but blood, tears and poverty.
I, as a public politician, consider that one of my tasks is to have a clear position on socially significant phenomena. It’s just that if you don’t have a position on what is happening, you are probably not a public politician.
Another thing is that the articulation of this position requires a certain courage. However, I do not consider it necessary to constantly repeat this position, I do not see myself in the pool of constant commentators on events related to the military conflict.
What do you think: have people become more interested in politics, or vice versa – have they gone on the defensive?
Society in Russia at some point was quite politicized – for example, in the early nineties. Then the degree of political participation began to fade. Now, the middle class stratum, which tried to live in a parallel reality, left the country to continue living in a reality where there would be no Russian state institutions.
On the other hand, given the current legislation, it is possible that part of the conversations has moved to kitchens. And part of the conversations from the kitchens turned into an internal dialogue in their heads. People are taking precautions, but that doesn’t mean they stop following the political news.
What do people in general think? Do they like what is happening in the country?
People try to express their point of view in a veiled way, they refuse to answer pollsters. However, it is typical for any armed conflicts that as they continue, fatigue from them will increase. Not to mention that the death toll makes one wonder why all this is happening. We see this trend. Another direction of criticism comes from those who support this operation: “Why did you go for it if you were not ready for it?” Money for military uniforms or supplies is collected by the whole village. And where did the money allocated to the Ministry of Defense go? The authorities do not give a public answer to this question.
The number of conscripts evading military service has increased, this is also an indicator. This even had to be fought with legislative reforms (through the introduction of electronic summonses – BO). Obviously no one wants to go there. Now, however, there is a trend among officials who have been caught stealing to announce that they will go to the front. So, the mayor of Vorkuta announced that he would go, and this happened against the backdrop of an opened case on criminal negligence, which had led to an accident at a sewage treatment plant. But he hasn’t left yet.
Prior to becoming a lawmaker, Viktor Vorobyov was engaged in human rights protection. He initiated the creation of the Independent Student Council at the St. Petersburg State University and headed the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Student Council. In particular, Vorobyov opposed the compilation of lists of extremist students. Later, he represented the interests of civil and political activists in court and defended the right of citizens to freedom of assembly. For example, Vorobyov managed to get the fines for pickets against amendments to the Constitution canceled for two activists from Komi. He also managed to terminate administrative cases against the St. Petersburg municipal lawmakers, who were detained for trying to hold a meeting.
How do you feel about the fact that the authorities banned rallies on May Day?
In fact, it has been impossible to hold a public event in the country for the fourth consecutive year. No rally, no picket. And it looks less and less like a temporary measure. This is a de facto ban on any oppositional public activity. This even spread to the May Day demonstrations. Everything that is alive and moving must somehow be suspended and banned.
Does law exist in Russia now?
It entirely depends on the individual people. The positions of prosecutors and judges are occupied not by robots, but by quite living people. They are different and they make different decisions. There are decisions which, in my opinion, are deeply unjust, but there are also ones that are quite just, including in high-profile cases.
The only people who can create a legal framework in Russia are ourselves. You can, of course, engage in escapism, try to live in a parallel reality, and try to pretend that state institutions do not exist. But after February 2022 and after September 2022, it turned out that this is not working.
In the spring of 2023, a criminal case against associates of Viktor Vorobyov was opened in Komi. Pro-government blogger Tatyana Kuznetsova came to the regional office of the Communist Party for an appointment with State Duma deputy Oleg Mikhailov; there she was allegedly attacked, beaten and had her phone taken away. Now, Oleg Mikhailov’s assistant Ilya Boloban, an employee of the Communist Party’s media group, is charged with robbery, he has been taken into custody. His colleague, journalist Viktor Kokarev, has been put on the federal wanted list. Kuznetsova’s phone was not found on them during the searches.
In my opinion, the case is trumped up. The purpose of this action is to disable the party media group. I think this is due to the possible resignation and re-election of the head of the republic. But we have a large margin of safety, we are used to working in difficult conditions.
Why don’t you leave the country despite the obvious risks?
As soon as a politician moves outside the Russian Federation, they turn from a Russian politician into a Russian political exile. Opposition and emigration are two sets that do not intersect. I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking that “all good Russians should leave the country, and then everything will work out by itself, something will come”… I still don’t understand what exactly will come.