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Barred from Russia: An Interview with David Satter

David Satter & Kenneth R. Weinstein

Last month, journalist and Hudson Institute fellow David Satter was expelled from Russia after being denied a renewal of his work visa. Satter, a well-known critic of Russia’s civil rights abuses, had been residing in Moscow since September while serving as an advisor to Radio Free Europe. Russia’s actions mark one of the first instances since the Cold War that the country has expelled a member of the foreign press for their views against the state.

In light of the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Hudson Institute President Kenneth Weinstein connected with David Satter to discuss the future implications of Russia’s actions and what this portends for those viewing and attending the Sochi Olympics.

Kenneth Weinstein: Next month, literally billions around the world will watch the Sochi Olympics and tens of thousands of journalists will cover it. What should those viewers and journalists know about freedom of the press in Russia? And what should they be on the lookout for when watching the Sochi Olympics?

David Satter: Everyone who is watching the Olympics should be aware of the enormous security measures and ask themselves whether it was really wise for the International Olympic Committee to agree to hold the Olympic Games in an area that amounts to a war zone. There have already been three explosions in Volgograd. We can only hope that there will be no further terrorist attacks — either in Sochi, or the rest of Russia. Even if the games proceed without further tragedy, however, visitors and sportsmen will pay a price for the unwise choice of Sochi. The extraordinary security precautions will affect freedom of movement and the game-goers’ tranquility. They will demonstrate in routine ways that the 2014 Winter Olympics should have been held somewhere else.

To what degree are the security measures taken by Russia justified?

Russia’s problem is with the Islamist insurgency. The Russian regime’s policies over the last 20 years played an important role in creating that insurgency. The core of the problem was that one Russian republic — Chechnya — sought independence and, in terms of its cultural distinctiveness was entitled to it. But Russia did not seek compromise. On the contrary, it tried to solve the problem by force. The present Islamist revolt, which embraces the entire North Caucasus, is the result. Now the Russian authorities need to take measures to protect Russians and foreigners. These measures are, to some extent, justified in light of the situation which has been created but they should not have been necessary.

How do you understand Putin’s actions in expelling you in light of the freeing of Khodorkovsky and the members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band prior to Sochi?

This demonstrates that the Russian authorities are treating my fate and my expulsion as a high priority. If that weren’t the case, they would have waited until after the Olympics were over to expel me. Another very disturbing thing to consider is why the expulsion was justified in their view. The statement that was read to me in Kiev said “the competent organs have decided that my presence is undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation.” This is a formulation that is normally used in spy cases. I have not heard it used previously in relation to a journalist or writer, and I have been writing about Russia for nearly forty years.

What is your sense of Russia’s new public diplomacy and outreach to targeted communities in the West?

The Russian authorities pretend that their opposition to the West is not based on corrupt self interest but rather is the defense of an alternative idea. They try to cloak themselves in Russian Orthodoxy and they have unleashed a campaign against gays. Russia’s homophobia is a way of appealing to some people’s narrow-mindedness and taking advantage of the ambivalence that surrounds this issue in the West. Russian outreach to western society is almost always a matter of misrepresentation and manipulation. The best example is the Valdai Discussion Club, in which Russian experts are invited to come and spend the weekend at close quarters with Russian leaders, including Putin. Invitations to the forum are coveted by many people who aspire to be experts on Russia. In fact, in some quarters a person begins to be considered a Russia expert because he attends this conference. The reality is that there is very little of any value there. (I have never been invited.) When a Western journalist or academic arrives, he immediately falls into the Kremlin’s psychological orbit. There is a general desire to not offend the host, not to ask questions that desperately need to be asked. Even if someone was brave enough to ask a serious question, and this is a rare event indeed, there is no way to pursue the subject with follow up questions. The floor can be given to a plant who is actually working for the authorities. He can pose a question [to Putin] such as, “Vladimir Vladimirovich, how do you account for your greatness?”

How do these efforts compare to those in Soviet times?

In Soviet Russia, there was much less flexibility on the part of the authorities. They would adhere to a single line of propagandistic messaging and repeat it ad nauseam. But the underlying theme is still one of manipulation and misrepresentation. And there is a reliance on the misplaced politeness of Western audiences who are reluctant to question the obvious lies or raise the issue of serious crimes. That has not changed, from the Soviet past to the Russian present.

You have covered Russia for nearly four decades, and in April you held a panel at Hudson on U.S.-Russia relations with Andrei Illarionov, former economic advisor to Putin. What do you think your expulsion signals about how Russia will handle relations with the U.S. after Sochi?

There is a general tendency toward repression. This was the real meaning of the Pussy Riot verdict. The authorities were frightened by the 2012 demonstrations in Moscow and they are watching carefully what is happening in neighboring Ukraine because they know that a popular revolt of that kind is also possible in Russia. The authorities are cracking down on those who they think may represent a potential danger to them. I find myself in that category. Even if our Administration were to pursue a completely conciliatory relationship, the Russian authorities would still be wary of the discontent in Russian society and likely to consider that repression is their best protection.

This November, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and end of the Iron Curtain. Looking back over the past 25 years, how has Russia changed? Remained the same?

It has changed beyond recognition, from the Soviet Union to a capitalist country. There is much more freedom than that under the Soviets, and the overt ideology is different. But one thing remains the same, the attitude towards the individual. The individual counted for nothing under the Soviets. Lives were sacrificed at will, the personality of the individual was not taken seriously, the individual’s word was not valued, and as a result, the authorities don’t keep their word either. In those respects, the country has remained the same.

As you mention in your op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “the Putin system rests uneasily on the unanswered questions of the past.” What needs to be done to get these answers public?

For one thing, we need to stand up for the handful of people who write and report from Russia in a manner that is completely truthful. The situation with me illustrates the problem. The Russian cannot have the option to expel or remove those who provide truthful information. If we give them that option, then the whole world becomes a big Valdai Discussion Club.

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