Unsurprisingly, Freedom House’s recent 2015 Freedom in the World report has shown a decline in civil liberties in Russia. Mark Lagon,* the new president of Freedom House, spoke with IMR’s editor-in-chief Olga Khvostunova about Russia’s current political trajectory, Putin’s stakes in the Ukraine conflict, and what the West can do to empower Russian civil society organizations.



Olga Khvostunova: The recent report by Freedom House summarizes major developments that affected political rights and civil liberties in various countries last year. One of the things the report notes is that some dictatorships, including Russia, are currently “losing the veneer of legitimacy.” What caused this change?

Mark Lagon: The big finding is that authoritarian governments are increasingly being more brazen in their [use of] traditional coercive methods of control and limiting expression. They are less trying to use the language of democracy and [are] becoming more direct. The question is whether this brazenness is because they feel confident, having an iron fist, or whether, in fact, it’s a white-knuckled grip of concern. We continue to think that turning to coercive, cruder methods does not represent confidence. When it comes to Russia, its tactics in the entire region, particularly with respect to the Baltics and Ukraine, were aimed at suffusing the area with a media campaign. The situation with the media is important in itself, though. The decline in Russia’s rating on civil liberties from five to six on a scale of one to seven** is in large part due to the media environment in Russia—increased media controls, increased controls on independent or foreign media, and a spiking of propaganda on state-run television.

OK: What would you suggest as a remedy to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda? What the West can do?

ML: I’m a big believer that independent media are something that Western countries should support. I think propaganda or [the] information campaign on RT and other outlets, designed to undercut the legitimacy of the EU and Western institutions, needs to be countered. It can be done in the form of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but ultimately it should [be done] by Russians in Russia. This is their fight. And the democratic world can help them by empowering them to speak out to change the situation. It might be a slow fight, but it’s the one in which our solidarity is very clear.

OK: According to the recent polls by the Levada Center, about 85 percent of the Russian people support Putin’s policies, which is likely the result of the powerful propaganda campaign on Russian TV. How can the West empower the 15 percent who might be looking for alternative information, given the government’s restrictions on pretty much all kinds of civilian activities?

ML: It’s a very hard situation for NGOs and civil society organizations operating in Russia. It’s extremely hard for international NGOs. But I would question the clarity of the poll results that show support for Putin. Putin has created a political situation in which there is no viable alternative voice. Putin and his elite made a very careful, concerted effort to whip up nationalism. So I think that his support may be broad, but it may not be deep. And if the democratic world is to show solidarity, it should not only show solidarity for the 15 percent of that poll—there might be a sizable portion of the [other] 85 percent who down deep would like to see alternative voices in Russia.

OK: Do you think that these alternative voices can eventually become a strong political opposition? What is the view from the West?

ML: Operating outside of Russia but with a consistent, substantial focus on Russia, we at Freedom House see a lot of brave voices. It may not be the wisest thing for me to embrace individuals, but I think there are plenty of voices with a will to have a change. However, right now there has been a pretty remarkable moment of consolidated power by Vladimir Putin, so it is understandable that political leadership opposing him is not highly visible.

OK: The West seems to hail Alexei Navalny as one of the potential leaders of Russia’s political opposition, but there is also a lot of criticism because of his views, which many see as nationalist.

ML: No human being is perfect. With him or any other recent opposition leader, there are questions [about whether] they have a perfect record—whether it’s their finances, or corruption, or nationalism. But Navalny may well be a potent force.

OK: Do you think Putin considers him as such?

ML: It is hard to get into the brain of Vladimir Putin, but he seems to take any dissenting voice very seriously. And hence, if there is any such voice, it is going to be subject to intimidation. But I think these [attempts at intimidation] are always a function of Putin being intolerant of any pluralism, any center of influence that is critical of or opposed to him.

OK: Does Freedom House have a broader view of Russia in terms of civil society activity?

ML: In developing our annual Freedom in the World report, we consult with scholars who have strong connections with all different regions in Russia. We don’t just look at a couple of primary cities and make our judgment based on that. In our programmatic work, which takes place throughout the Eurasian region, we have many partnerships. And we have some sense of the potential of [Russia’s] civil society, even though it’s a very difficult environment for outside organizations that are NGOs to operate there.

OK: How do you think the restriction on foreign NGOs in Russia can be overcome? Many of them are losing funding from foreign sources and being shut down as a result. How can they survive under these circumstances?

ML: It’s very hard, because there are not only restrictions, but also the accusations that almost any civil society organization [in Russia] is in fact influenced from outside. It is a nationalist narrative developed by Putin. It is a difficult question; we should all fight for deeper democracy and pluralism by open and transparent methods. But hopefully there will be leaders and legislators who change this situation. And continued support to these beleaguered activists to help them survive is vital.

It’s important that the West not be accommodating and lead Putin to conclude that he should go even farther. It could mean war in Europe. Putin is posing a challenge to the basic norms of the international system, behavior which must not be left unchallenged.

OK: Your report names the annexation of Crimea as the major reason for the deterioration of the situation in Russia and for the Ukraine crisis. What do you think Putin is trying to achieve with his foreign adventures?

ML: As a matter of foreign policy and geopolitics, it is a very serious situation. If the West doesn’t show solidarity, strength and resolve, there is danger that Vladimir Putin will make a mistake—that he will misread the West and overreach. It strikes me that the incursion into Crimea was an overreach. It is also the result of broader developments in Russia’s governance. Putin’s goal is to distract people from economic hardships, and restriction[s] on expression [of oppositionist opinions and ideals], with a nationalist cause. Putin’s foreign policy goal is to prevent Ukraine from falling into the orbit of NATO and the EU. There is an issue of larger stakes [in the Ukraine conflict] for Putin. And as irregular forces are being sent from Russia to Donbass, we should be very concerned that the West not negotiate and give away the possibility of Ukraine becoming part of Western institutions—if that’s what Ukraine chooses. It’s important that the West not be accommodating and lead Putin to conclude that he should go even farther. It could mean war in Europe. Putin is posing a challenge to the basic norms of the international system, behavior which must not be left unchallenged.

OK: What do you think of the current sanctions policy? Inside Russia, there is a view that the West is unfair to punish ordinary people for the actions of their corrupt government. As a human rights organization, what is your stance?

ML: The most effective sanctions are those that are targeted and that hit at the people responsible for bad governance. The goal is to change the behavior [of] or make life uncomfortable for the officials who are responsible for aggression, human rights violations, and corruption. Freedom House in fact supports legislation that would make the U.S. sanctions on officials targeted. However, some cases are so serious—such as Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions or Russian aggression in Ukraine—that they require broader sanctions. We should avoid collateral damage to ordinary citizens, but in the case of Russia, Putin’s elite is feeling pain, and this “squeeze of sanctions” is a good thing.

OK: As you know, the West is split over the sanctions policy against Russia. Some political leaders call for the sanctions to be lifted; others—more hawkish, anti-Russia forces—call for arming Ukraine. What is your view?

ML: It is my personal view that it would be wise to give military hardware to the Ukrainians to increase their self-protection capacity. But Freedom House’s focus is chiefly on the situation of human rights and governance. Our greatest priority is Ukraine succeeding as a political system. This is an important theme for me, that political and civil liberties and economic success are not separated from each other. Democracy will not succeed if it does not deliver for the people. It is enormously important for Freedom House, for the United States, for the West in general, that Ukraine be stable, economically secure, that it succeed in deepening its democracy and fighting its corruption.

OK: Do you think Ukraine will succeed, given the ongoing “undeclared war” in its eastern region?

ML: It faces a serious threat from the East—Vladimir Putin. But I am hopeful. Ukraine has a great deal of human capital. There is reason to think that the determination and courage on the part of civil society will result in a will to rid the political system of corruption and, with Western help, succeed economically. There is no reason why, with proper solidarity from the West, Ukraine could not succeed.

OK: After the recent peace negotiations in Minsk, many see the situation in Eastern Ukraine turning into a "frozen conflict"—similar to the one in Transnistria. The opinion exists that in order to pursue its European path further, Ukraine should let go of this territory and let Russia control it. What do you think?

ML: This is Ukrainian territory. The claims that it wants to separate because of Russian ethnic aspirations have been manipulated by [Russia’s] irregular forces on the ground and Putin’s propaganda campaign. It would be a mistake for Ukrainian authorities and the West to wash their hands of this territory and think that would be satisfying to Russia. That would invite more incursions, more probing. It would be a mistake to appease Putin—and I use this word very carefully.

OK: There is also increasing concern among the Baltic states that Russia might try to test Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty by violating their borders. Is this a real threat?

ML: This is an enormous concern for the three Baltic states. I hope Putin recognizes that probing and pursuing indirect warfare—either through propaganda or irregular military actions—with a NATO member would be an even more serious affront [than the one in Ukraine]. I recently spent a good deal of time talking to Lithuanian authorities, and they are deeply concerned not only because of their history [with Russia], but also because waves of propaganda are being pumped into their territory with a goal to influence not just ethnic Russians, but other ethnic groups in their country.

OK: If Russia does invade the Baltics, do you think NATO will actually respond?

ML: I think it will. There have been concerns among the NATO nations that they are unwilling to spend enough [on defense], concerns [about] whether they have unity over the situation in neighboring countries, including Ukraine. But when it comes to a member [being invaded], I think it will be a pretty clear resolve on the part of the NATO nations. And I think it’s Freedom House’s job to remind the EU that a whole and free Europe is a very important goal. Without the United States, Canada, and the EU at the epicenter of the free world, our hope for greater political freedom and prosperity throughout the world is going to be a mirage.

OK: What are your expectations for Russia in 2015? Where do you think the situation is going?

ML: The situation may get worse before it gets better. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but the current trajectory is not in the right direction: In our reports, Russia has been rated as “Not Free” for some time under Putin’s leadership. It may be, however, that Putin does not stand on firm ground. Russia can no longer rely on its energy resources as a distorting source of power. The world is changing, and the reliance of other countries on Russian oil and natural gas is diminishing. Energy independence for the United States and increasingly for Europe will be very important to pursue as a policy. I think it’s important for the West and NGOs headquartered in that part of the world to not only speak up for human rights, but to look at ways to lessen influence from Putin’s government.

OK: Is there hope for democracy in Russia in the future or ever?

ML: I don’t have the view that democracy is impossible for Russia. For now, the levers of control are firmly in the grip of Vladimir Putin and former intelligence and security apparatchiks and corrupt officials. It is [the] bigotry of lower expectations [to say] that Russians will always favor a strong man over democracy. I think we should have a bigger view of Russians. It is for them to seize their future, and hopefully those on the outside, including leading international NGOs, like Freedom House, can be there to assist them.


* — Mark P. Lagon, distinguished scholar of global politics and human rights, and former diplomat, became president of Freedom House on January 2, 2015. Lagon received a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown and an A.B. from Harvard University. He is the author of numerous articles on international affairs and co-editor of the recently released book Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions.

** — Freedom in the World 2015 evaluates the state of freedom in 195 countries and 15 territories during 2014. Each country and territory is assigned two numerical ratings—from 1 to 7—for political rights and civil liberties, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free. The two ratings are based on scores assigned to 25 more detailed indicators. The average of a country or territory’s political rights and civil liberties ratings determines whether it is Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.