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Demand for change

Interview: Mikhail Bushuev / Emily Sherwin / sstMay 17, 2013

The Kremlin's strong political line will not last forever, says Ella Pamfilova, a renowned human rights activist and former adviser to the Russian president. She told DW that the first signs of change are visible.

Ella Pamfilowa (photo: Mikhail Bushuev)
Image: Mikhail Bushuev

DW: You criticize the lack of trust in Russia's civil society. What do you think is behind that?

Ella Pamfilova: If you compare the NGOs' awareness levels to the degree of trust they enjoy, you will get totally different results. NGOs are becoming more and more visible. Just a couple of years ago, less than 20 percent of Russian citizens knew that NGOs existed. Now, more than half of the population is aware of that - about 56 percent.

But trust in NGOs is still quite low. It slowly increases by 1 percent per year. This can be explained by the fact that Russian citizens are generally very distrustful. Of all societal organizations, it's the well-known institutions that are trusted the most: the president, the church and the military forces. The political parties are hardly ever seen as trustworthy. In a sense, Russians only trust their relatives and friends.  

Do you think Russian society is changing?

There are signs that society is coming together. The main human need is the desire for justice, especially for social and legal justice. We have carried out an extensive study and found out that people are most concerned about issues like alcoholism and drug addiction. Issues like housing and local economy come second; after that it's security and medical care.

People are unified in their protest against corruption and arbitrariness. There is an increased interest in solving ecological problems. Even the interest in respecting human rights has risen. In the past, only about 2 percent of the interviewees have said it was important; today there are regions where some 10 to 15 percent regard this as important.

In 2010, you stepped down as head of the president's council on human rights and civil society. Do you regret this decision in light of recent developments in Russia?

I stepped down when everyone was still excited about a liberal Dmitry Medvedev [Russia's former president and incumbent prime minister]. But I knew very well where all of this was going to end. Putin and Medvedev competing against each other - what a bluff! I know this from an insider's perspective. I stepped down because I understood that I wasn't able to fulfill my duties anymore without losing my self-respect. I couldn't fight against what was looming over Russia on my own. I don't see a place in this system for me.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks with Russian Olympic team athletes in Vancouver from Moscow (photo: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Things will change after the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, said PamfilowaImage: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

When could Russia change?

Very soon, I think. There's a desire for change within society. I am sure that Vladimir Putin will start to change his policy because of several reasons: It's due to the citizens' pressure, but also because he realizes how dangerous the current system is - that it destroys itself. He needs to change the system if he no longer wants to lean on the pillars of power that might be loyal but are decayed. Even if he just wants to preserve power, he needs to change the current system from the core and allow more political competition. Some first steps have been made. The situation will get better after the Olympic Games in Sochi 2014. You will remember my words then.

And what are all those NGOs supposed to do that have been searched? Should they just wait and see?

No, they should continue working. This craziness - as we have seen with these mass searches - is going to cease. The way this was done has appalled many people. Even uncomfortable, oppressive authorities can be overcome. I think Putin will realize that this approach is only damaging - damaging to him and his reputation as well. I would advise NGOs to inform the public more about their work and to be very transparent in everything. It's more important to look for support in Russia instead of support from foreign countries - and to organize resistance from within the country.

From 2004 to 2010, Ella Pamfilova headed the president's council on human rights and civil society which was founded by then-and-current President Vladimir Putin. At the time, many civil rights activists claimed she was too moderate. But she took on Putin's party United Russia, only stepping down the day after a controversial law on Russia's internal security agency (FSB) came into force. Previously she had called on then-President Medvedev not to expand the FSB's rights.