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Natan Sharansky on being free and modern Russia

Thomas Demand. Kontrollraum / Control Room, 2011, (detail). © Thomas Demand, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / ARS, New York.

Octavian Report: How would you respond to the argument that a human rights and freedom agenda has no real place in foreign policy?

Natan Sharansky: It’s really unfortunate and disappointing how quickly historical experience is disappearing. Maybe the fate of historical experience is that every generation must have its own historical experience, and it’s only people in academia who learn from books on history.

But in practice, politicians and journalists forget it very quickly. You’d be surprised how short their memory is. Serious journalists who know, who understand, who remember the lessons not only of the Soviet Union, who remember the lessons of Arab Spring, are already disappearing. Now they come to work in Israel as a journalist from some Western newspaper two years ago — and that’s when history mainly starts for them. Thirty-year-olds don’t know what communism is. People older than 60 know it very well. But the really important decisions are made by people in their 40s and 50s. They are somewhere in between.

Mostly I can say that realpolitik today is predominant, both on the Left and on the Right. I was rather disappointed when the Obama administration didn’t follow the tradition of the previous administration in having close contacts with democratic dissidents.

But I can’t say that the new administration seems, as it looks now, any more interested in this issue. The fact that everybody is looking for practical solutions and is happy to see the dictators as an important part of the solution becomes something that unites Left and Right today. It’s very disappointing. It seems that the power of the lessons of defeating communism are so strong, and the success of this policy of linkage between human rights and international relations was so convincing, that all our opponents now are newly-born liberals.

What’s happening is that the word “liberal” is changing its meaning. The liberal is the one who wants peace at any price, and not the one who believes that peace can be achieved only through defending liberal principles.

So yes, it is disappointing, but I don’t know if it is something specific about history of communism or if that’s the nature of human beings — to learn only from the immediate experience.

OR: Can you talk about the history of the linkage between human rights and politics, and about your own experiences as a dissident activist?

Sharansky:  I was an activist in two movements: the Soviet Union’s Zionist movement and its human rights movement. At some moment I became more or less an official spokesman of these two movements.

First of all, a point that looks like a big contradiction today. Some argue that freedom and identity are in tension, that nationalism and religion are enemies of peace and stability, the source of war. I always felt that is absolutely wrong. It is strong beliefs and a strong feeling of your identity, of belonging to something bigger than your own life — that’s what gives you strength to fight also for freedom. Your freedom and the freedom of others.

So I felt very comfortable always in being both a Jewish activist and a human rights activist.

Now, it was clear to us Jewish activists of the former Soviet Union that there could be no quiet agreement with the KGB, with the regime. We never believed that they would let more and more Jews leave quietly without having a real conflict with the Soviet Union. For the Soviet Union, for any dictatorial regime, it is so important to keep their citizens under their control that they cannot let these people decide for themselves what to read, what to say, and definitely they can’t decide where to live.

So the struggle for freedom of emigration was the struggle against the basic principles of that regime, and we could not have been successful if it were not linked to the most basic interests of the Soviet Union. That’s why we welcomed strongly the great Democrat Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and his amendment when he connected freedom of immigration with the trade benefits for the Soviet Union. That was the first major attempt in the days of the Cold War to make a direct linkage between human rights and the economic interests of the Soviet Union.

I have to say that many on the American side, including many leading businessmen and representatives of the Nixon administration, were absolutely against this linkage. The idea was that the more trade you have, the better relations you have, the more you can talk with your partner for human rights, the more chances that you will have to succeed also in convincing them to behave better. What we all believed was absolute.

So the Jackson Amendment, which later become one of the central points of the accusations of  high treason brought against me by the Soviet Union, was approved, and that became a major pressure on the Soviet Union to open the gates. And then there was Helsinki Agreement, the final act signed in Helsinki by 35 countries, which included three baskets. A basket about recognizing the borders after the Second World War. Second, economic cooperation, and third, respect for human rights.

And though it was non-binding, that connection between the first, second, and third basket, we dissidents decided to do our best to make it binding by creating our own Helsinki watch groups in the Soviet Union. This, of course, also became one of the bases of accusations against me of anti-Soviet activity, together with other members of the group.

But really what then helped the free world to connect very strongly the policy of human rights and all the other relations with the Soviet Union was the idea was that we can rely on regimes only to the extent to which this regime is trusted by its people. We cannot trust you if you cannot trust your own people to have some basic freedom.

This all helped to create very strong pressure on the Soviet Union just at the time when as a system it was in a state of bankruptcy. They needed, very much, strong cooperation with the West. The Soviet Union could not stand competition with the free world because of the non-free form of its life. This policy of linkage between human rights and international relations helped to accelerate the bankruptcy of the Soviet system, helped to make the leaders of the Soviet Union open the Iron Gate, to bring down the Iron Curtain. In fact, that’s how the communist system collapsed.

I personally believe that but for the strong position of dissidents on one hand and the strong position of the leaders of the free world on the other — and the central figure was, later, of course President Reagan — then the world would have suffered from the threat of communist aggression for many more decades. But this policy of linkage between human rights and relations between the countries helped the free world win the Cold War without one shot. Without any violence. And that brought to freedom not only Soviet Jews, but made all the world a much more freer place.

Unfortunately, these lessons are the ones the world starts forgetting very quickly, looking again for stability in different parts of the world by ignoring the principles of human rights and by trying to find the appropriate dictators who will give us more stability.

OR: When you look at Russia today, how similar do you see it as being to the Soviet Union? What do you make of the work being done by dissidents there now?

Sharansky: I’m very upset. Many of my friends, especially those who continue human rights activity in Russia, all were very upset by the fact that democratic principles are in retreat, that the courts are becoming more and more politically dependent, that there is a lot of corruption all over, that dissent, newspapers, and TV programs are definitely in decline.

Having said all this, I wouldn’t compare it to the Soviet Union. Simply because the Soviet Union was controlled by fear, in which 200 million people were kept. And the base for keeping people in fear was the KGB. Everybody could find himself or herself in Gulag.

A lot of criticism can be made about Russia, but people are not afraid to read what they want to read or to speak their mind. It’s true when people are trying to influence politics, then unfortunately all the time obstacles are raised against them. But they can speak their mind and they can try to build broad associations between people who think likewise.

It’s interesting that recently, when my close friend and colleague Lyudmila Alexeyeva — she still is chairman of the Helsinki watch group we created together — celebrated its anniversary, not only she was not under of the threat of arrest, but President Putin personally came to congratulate her. So it shows that the times are different. But no doubt, she is the first to say — and I spoke to her immediately after she spoke to President Putin — that the democratic rights of the citizens are on retreat and that we have to continue our work building civil society. It is not an easy work.

Now people don’t have to sacrifice their lives for their right to make their position known and public, anymore. So I sympathize with many of my colleagues who are fighting for civil society in Russia today, and welcome them, and I help when I can, but I would not say that we are back in Stalin’s Russia. It’s not Stalin’s Russia, it’s not even Brezhnev’s Russia. It’s a different situation. In modern times nobody could isolate people the way the Soviet Union tried and succeeded to isolate them, and nobody could keep hundreds of millions of people in fear as the KGB regime did.

OR: Are there real “fear” societies that exist? Do you think the trend is in that direction? Or is the trend ultimately toward more openness because of technological changes?

Sharansky: Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s unbelievable what the internet does. As the spokesman, sometimes it took me months of work to collect signatures under our appeal to, let’s say, the U.S. Congress, and then to find the way to send it through some journalist or some tourist, and then to wait for the response.

Today, with one press of a button, you can do both. You can collect signatures from people who will ally with you to send a letter and then send this letter to Congress. I’d be dying from envy remembering the huge operation I had to do and making so many people take risks. Tourists and others were coming to us and collecting the signatures, going to different cities. So it’s great. It’s great because the Internet proved a great mechanism to mobilize people for massive demonstrations.

On the other hand, it gives opportunities for some forces behind the scenes. Cyber specialists can control communication between the people. Maybe you don’t need the army of informers as it was before. You need only to have good cyber intelligence forces. Some team which can follow all communications between people.

Technology by itself cannot solve the problem. But the desire of people to express their minds freely, as they try to show the case for democracy — of course, the conscience is different, the mentalities are different, the types of institutions for different cultures are very different — and to live without the fear that they can be arrested for their views is the same among all cultures in all countries.

And that’s something that I believe is becoming stronger and stronger. But it’s not a smooth, one-way street. We can see definitely in the Middle East how, immediately after the Arab Spring and these revolutions — of which the main engine was the desire of people to stop living under the fear whether they were in Egypt or in other places — they were replaced by the new type of dictatorships and the new type of repressions. History is not a smooth line. There are ups and downs. But I believe that this core, deep desire of people to be free is dictating the trajectory of history.

OR: So you’re fairly optimistic in the long term?

Sharansky: Well, I’m optimistic by nature, and when people say how problematic is what they see this year, I always remind them: let’s look where we were 10 years ago, let’s look where we were 30 years ago, let’s look where we were 50 years ago. Do that, and you will understand that the trend is very optimistic.

But in between, there are moments of despair and suffering and persecution and repression, unfortunately.

OR: Do you have any thoughts on the rise in anti-Semitism globally, and on what can be done to stop the de-legitimization of Israel?

Sharansky: Anti-Semitism became almost impossible in free society after the Holocaust. Not simply politically incorrect. It’s that anti-Semitism was connected with the huge, unbelievable crime of the Holocaust.

But this ideology of multiculturalism, which denied the value of nationalism, in fact undermined the value of the Jewish national state. And the Jewish national state in the beginning was the welcomed response to the Holocaust by all liberal society. But with time, some post-modern liberals started looking at it almost as the last remnant of colonialism.

Now, post-modernism also brought this idea of relativism. That all the cultures are relative, there is no absolute value. There are some cultures which have Western principles of human rights, there are others which don’t have these principles, and we should not choose. We should respect everybody. This approach of relativism, which post-modernism brought inside it with such power, in fact opened the gates for millions of new citizens of Europe who were not asked to accept the principles of Western democracy.

Everything is relative. And the only absolute value is peace. Peace now, peace immediately. When the only value is peace — a slogan that the Soviet Union in the past used very carefully as a propaganda tool — then of course the existence of a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East becomes a problem.

That was the soil. Those were the changes, the transformation of a liberal world into a post-modern liberal world, which gave renewed opportunity for most classical anti-Semites — and especially to Jew-haters from the Middle East, who hated the idea of a Jewish democratic state — to become to some extent allies of the modern, liberal (I call it post-liberal or post-modern liberal) Europe and the rest of the Western world. And so, suddenly it’s not Jews, but Israel, which can be chosen for de-legitimization and for the application of a double standard.

In 2003 I proposed a critical principle: if you want to identify whether any given statement is anti-Semitism or legitimate criticism of Israel, look at the same methods that were used against Jews, de-legitimizing them and demonizing them. If they can be used also against Israel then you see simply the transformation of classical anti-Semitism into the new one.

That’s what’s happened the last 20 years with Israel. Now, for 50 years we have controlled the West Bank and as a result we are in control of the lives of so many Palestinians. It’s not good for us. But we are caught in this situation because we are not ready to commit suicide. And when the world demands peace from us immediately, it means to give up the fight for a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East. We are not going to do it.

So what can be done? I think, of course, we have to look for any partner in the Middle East who is interested in a peaceful solution. But I personally believe that the real peace will never happen here if we remain the only democracy in the Middle East. Building civil society in the Arab countries — that is the most important issue for increasing chances for peace. The fact is that the free world is practically abandoning this issue. Whether it was the Obama administration, whether it is the Trump administration, civil society in Arab countries is not an issue which is really seriously discussed. That’s a problem in terms of looking for peace.

All these attempts to find quick solutions which are brought from the top down are simply impossible. In the meantime, if you don’t want that, it will give more and more food to the new anti-Semitism. We have to continue presenting the world the case of real liberalism. People who keep continuing to think about themselves as liberals without noticing that they are partners and allies of almost every state in the world — that’s something that we have to show. To keep this looking-glass in front of the free world, and insisting that while we are really fighting for principles of liberalism, the most difficult place in the world is the Middle East.

We expect our friends and allies to insist on imposing these principles of liberalism all over the world, in their own countries. But it means that everybody has to be treated with the same standards. It can be a very tough standard, but it must be one standard between America and Israel. And the moment it is done, then there will be no place for new anti-Semitism.

OR: Why did George W. Bush’s implementation of the “freedom agenda” go wrong?

Sharansky: I had only one serious disagreement with President Bush. He was a great admirer and supporter of my book; he was by far the best book agent that I ever had in my life. And in fact I liked and admired his readiness to work with democratic dissidents all over the world. I think he personally met with more than 100 democratic dissidents, and it’s something that never was repeated by any other leader.

But there was one thing on which I disagreed: elections do not equal democracy. Free elections in a free society: that’s democracy. And that’s why you cannot expect that simply by changing a regime and demanding to have elections that you are bringing democracy. Democracy is a long process of building civil society.

President Bush of course was a big believer in the power of democracy, and of the desire of people to be free. I think that the he believed that the people of Iraq are not lovers of Saddam Hussein, and he was right. But the military operation was only the beginning of the effort.

In most of the cases it’s not military operations which bring democracy, but permanent changes inside the country. The free world was absolutely blind about the Arab Spring and I can say that not only me, but many democratic dissidents in the Middle East were predicting, were writing, were warning about the coming of revolutions against Mubarak, against Assad.

I believe that the continual mistake of the free world is that each time we decide what regime is better for us, and that’s what should we support, we forget that in fact the United States of America has very little influence on what regime will be next. Very little. But they can have a lot of influence if it is clear that they have a permanent policy of supporting civil rights activists. Whatever regime it is, they’re supporters of those who support civil society, and it’s never given to the opposite side. It’s a tough policy, because sometimes it will be in conflict with your allies. Sometimes it can go against your immediate security interests and then you must have a correction. After all, Churchill and Roosevelt were allies of Stalin until 1945, and the mistake was that they didn’t move immediately to confrontation after 1945.

I can understand how the President of Egypt today can be a necessary partner in the struggle against terrorists, but at the same time if he is a dictator, then he will be overthrown by his own people. So you have to remember that your final allegiance has to be to those who are fighting against dictatorships — and not those who may be, this year, your immediate allies.

That’s something which is not part of the discussion among governments either as regards day-to-day policy or building long-term strategy in any country of the free world, and that’s very upsetting. So I think we’ll have many more surprises like the Arab Spring, but there will be almost no follow-up policy, and as a result, each time it will be a new surprise, a new jubilation, a new celebration, then a new disappointment.