MOSCOW – Mikhail Kasyanov, one of the Russia's most prominent opposition politicians, is in the crosshairs – literally. The prime minister of Russia between 2000 and 2004 was centered in a mock rifle scope in a video posted by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov this month.
A week later, a group of Chechens accosted Kasyanov in a Moscow restaurant, rubbed cake in his face and threatened him. Later that same week, he was attacked by a right-wing nationalist group that disrupted his meetings in three cities around Russia, throwing eggs, blocking traffic and chanting violent slogans.
It would be menacing even if Kasyanov’s closest ally, Boris Nemtsov, hadn’t been assassinated a year ago. But with Nemtsov dead and the Chechen leader reviving Stalin-era rhetoric to talk about what he plans to do to the Kremlin’s political opposition, the new threats are even more chilling.
One of Kadyrov’s security officials is in custody, accused of killing Nemtsov. Kadyrov denies having anything to do with it.
The Kremlin has dismissed the threats against Kasyanov as mere hooliganism. The Washington Post spoke to Kasyanov about what it's like to be a target in Russia today, and why he thinks the Kremlin is running scared ahead of September parliamentary elections.
How does it feel to get a threat from Ramzan Kadyrov?
Since my party announced that I would lead the list of candidates from my coalition, they started trying to create problems. First, they were making films, saying that I’m too rich, too bourgeois, to represent the people’s issues. Then that I went to Strasbourg, the [European] Parliamentary Assembly, and they said it was to ask for money. Then there was Kadyrov’s threat. That’s absolutely terrible. People know what Kadyrov is about. People in Moscow know how outrageously Kadyrov’s people behave in restaurants and the streets of the city. Police cannot do anything to them. They are just out of control. And on top of the threat, Kadyrov’s people pressed me in a restaurant. That’s absolutely a clear threat, a direct threat. There’s no other way of reading it. Our activists are watching it, and they think: If it could happen to me, what could happen to them? And we are taking it very seriously.
“We are stepping in on a serious period. We are prepared for that, or we are getting prepared for that. People every day are just considering how they can protect themselves, how we can protect our campaign. But that is life. We’d like to believe that it will not happen in such a way as last year when Boris Nemtsov was killed. But we understand that it is a difficult period of time. It is a time for change. The authorities feel this. That is why they are trying to stop our activity. That’s the reason why they are doing this. They would like to create a feeling of fear among our activists so that there is no appearance of a real alternative.
Do you feel safe in Moscow?
Not really. (Laughs)
I had special protection for one year, then Mr. Putin just cut it. All other former prime ministers, of course they have it. Of course I am not fit with this system. I am protecting state secrets in my head, but talking about physical security, I shouldn’t be worried about it. Because the police as a guarantor of the constitution should protect me.
I haven’t asked for such protection. If they believe there’s a need they should think of it themselves. You said it yourself. I am a former prime minister. If I need extra protection they should think about me.
Are you doing anything differently?
I am visiting restaurants less than before. Not visiting. That’s the only thing I can do to change my style.
How is Russia’s economic situation affecting the Kremlin?
Russia is going into a dead end. We are facing big problems in all directions.
People have started to think more thoroughly about the same events which yesterday they didn’t want to go into, and started to reconsider many things that are happening in their life. Because for many reasons, the style of their life, their living standards have decreased. Last year people lost 15 percent of their revenues. So they’ve had to change their styles. Some of them who loved to travel abroad, they’ve had to forget about it. Other people are changing their usual habits, how they live. Including their food, their clothing.
Putin should make a decision about which way he is going to go. Whether he wants to go in the direction of squeezing the general environment, preventing people from expressing their attitudes about the situation, demonstrating on the streets, claiming and demanding the implementing of their rights.
Or there is a second scenario, a second version of the development of the situation, and that is Mr. Putin’s decision to relax the situation, start to at least start implementing the constitution … to allow the opposition to take part in elections, and make them, as much as he can, free and fair.