Little hope for change in Russia at present, says Czech Radio’s former Moscow correspondent Lenka Kabrhelová

Kremlin, Moscow

Russia’s new law banning the “promotion” of homosexuality has come in for much criticism internationally – and is only the latest occasion on which Moscow has found itself at odds with Western opinion. But does the Kremlin care what people outside Russia think? And what are the chances of its “sovereign democracy” someday giving way to genuine democracy? One person well placed to discuss these questions and more is Lenka Kabrhelová, who was Czech Radio’s Moscow correspondent from 2008 to this spring. My first question for Kabrhelová when we spoke: Are there ways in which the Russians try to keep foreign journalists in line?

Lenka Kabrhelová,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“You have to get a visa. You have to apply for it and you have to wait for the result. So in theory – and I have no idea if it happens, because there is no official confirmation – that could be an option as to how to restrict someone from even entering the country as a journalist, to have the permission to stay there, to multiply come and go from the country.

“Otherwise, I wouldn’t say… I never experienced anything like someone telling me what I should write about or whom I should interview.

“But, yes, there are several restrictions which are applied to foreign journalists. For example, you cannot enter every single region. There are for example border regions for which you had to have special permits.

“It used to be like that for example in the Caucasus in the south of Russia you had to have special permits, especially for Chechnya, but that has been cancelled. Now you can go freely.”

Given the size of Russia, which is the world’s biggest country, was it possible for you in your five years there to report much from outside Moscow?

“Yes, I tried to travel as much as I could, but it was a little bit difficult sometimes to organise travels. Because I was alone there – I didn’t have a producer or anyone who would help me.

“In the first place, there is a lot of stuff going on in Moscow and every single time you go off to the regions you’re facing the danger that something might happen in Moscow. So you have to keep an eye on what is happening there.

“But yes, we – I think I could say ‘we’, meaning myself and all my other colleagues in Moscow – knew that Moscow was not Russia and that things are happening in the regions.

Kremlin,  Moscow | Photo: Julie Mineeva,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 1.0
“There are interesting people and interesting stories to be reported and one can’t forget that and has to go regularly.”

By the way, this is maybe a side issue, but how do Russians in general view the Czech Republic now? Do they see still it as part of their near abroad, part of their sphere of influence?

“It is complex, I would say. Many people see the Czech Republic positively. I always experienced a positive reaction in the sense that, you are our Slavic brothers and we all are one Slavic family, so to speak.

“Then for Czechs I would say the distinctive moment is August 1968. For the Russians it’s different, for obvious reasons.

“Many people don’t even remember this historic chapter and many people were told during the Soviet times that nothing was happening, nothing bad in the sense of the whole invasion, and the reason was obvious – that they had to save the people of the Czechoslovak Republic from the evil West.

“So many people tend to not really believe it, but I think they don’t even think about it, they don’t remember.

“And to be fair, it’s a little understandable, because the ex-Soviet Union and today’s Russia is so big and there are so many historic chapters with all the countries that were part of the former Soviet Bloc [laughs].”

Getting back to your reporting, were there any particular stories that stand out from your five years there that were very interesting to work on?

“Oh, I think the listeners should say which stories were the most interesting. For me, there were so many.

Headquarters of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Tskhinvali,  South Ossetia,  2008,  photo: Dmitrij Steshin,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“There are so many people’s stories that are just breathtaking and unbelievable and you just have to be shocked actually at how people cope with stuff and what they do and how they survive in various conditions.

“But I don’t that only in the bad sense – there are many inspiring stories.

“These days I remember the start of the post, because that was in August 2008 and in the first three or four days after I arrived – first, on day two, the writer Solzhenitsyn died, so that was my introduction, attending the burial and all the events. That wasn’t a very happy time of the year [laughs].

“Then five days after, or something like that, straight from my fresh start I had to go to Georgia because the war between Georgia and Russia had erupted. So that was a big school.”

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions people from West of Russia have about the Russians?

“That the Russians sit and drink vodka, I would say. Maybe I’m not fair [laughs], and people will probably object – most people do – but I think that people maybe drink more here than in Russia, or the respective classes of people you meet do.

“So that is one misconception. But there are many, and it’s difficult to explain all the layers of Russian society. And obviously for historic reasons many Czechs see Russians as a threat and as this monolith, that all people think what their government thinks, which is not true.

“Of course, yes, the government has support and many people are maybe satisfied. But as we see, Russian society is stratified and it’s not just what the Kremlin thinks.”

Pussy Riot,  photo: Igor Muchin,  CC BY-SA 3.0
There have been many stories in recent years that have tarnished Russia’s reputation internationally, from the treatment of the opposition to restrictions on NGOs, to the adoption dispute with the US and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. I often think, does the Kremlin care what people outside Russia think of the country?

“That’s a big question. And I think, not really, probably. You can see that the Kremlin maybe is willing to kind of send these hints that we are not Europe…

“Or, I’m sorry, it’s not what the Kremlin says – they say more, we are not you, we are not the West, we are different. They don’t say how different they are or what they want.

“But they are saying, we’re not you, and that’s why we have all these measures, and regarding everything you said about Pussy Riot, we have our own third way. Which is very disputable, even among people in Russia.

“And of course, sometimes all of these things, like for example Pussy Riot and the treatment of the opposition and other stuff which is highly controversial of course, for people in Russia maybe it’s more an internal signal – this is how we will treat you if you don’t obey what we say.”

Have you seen any change in terms of approach to international relations on the part of Moscow? Are they more hard-line towards the West, or is it just the same as it was five or 10 years ago?

“My stay in Russia was for the past five years, so judging based on that, I think it changed substantially in the last maybe two years.

“Because there was this whole reset and restart of relations with the US, when Barack Obama came to the presidency in the United States.

Barack Obama,  Dmitry Medvedev,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“That seemed to be a period of greater liberalisation. People were hoping – it was during the presidency of Medvedev in Russia – and some people, maybe even some analysts, thought at that point that it would be a time of greater liberalization, more freedoms, etcetera, etcetera.

“It turned out not to be the case. And we’ve seen, especially in the last year and something, since President Putin returned to the Kremlin, that hard-liners are taking the lead in policy, even towards the West.”

So maybe a couple of years ago they wouldn’t have given shelter to Edward Snowden?

“That is a question. Maybe. Yes.”

The latest big issue is the law banning the so-called promotion of homosexuality. How has that gone down with the general public? Is Russian society particularly homophobic?

“Sadly it is. All the research says that. Some analysts think that that’s even the reason why the government or the leadership chose this way.

“One slightly complicated theory behind this is that there is no real ideology of Putin’s Russia. There’s been consumerism, there’s been money and people are obviously living better than they used to before Putin, at the end of the ‘90s.

“But there is no ideology behind it. And people are more and more upset about all the corruption, about all the cases, and basically daily life – and suddenly they’ve realised that they’re not being treated so well by the state.

“There was a big uproar after the parliamentary elections in 2011. And some analysts think that this [legislation] is one way how to unite the nation, which is sadly homophobic, and how to tell the people who are not the urban middle class that want their rights, how to tell the people, yes, we stand behind you, we respect you, we want to take care of you and save your values, the family values, etcetera, etcetera, the so-called traditional Russian values.

Vladimir Putin,  photo: European Commission
“But there is the other part of society which thinks that oppressing people with different sexual orientation is simply unacceptable.”

You say there isn’t a strong ideology behind the Kremlin today, but they do have one idea, which they call sovereign democracy. It’s a bit hard to understand, but it seems to mean a one-party system. Can you ever see a change to a kind of democracy that we would recognise coming to Russia?

“Well, there was this whole movement after the elections in 2011, which were openly fraudulent, at least Russian observers and international observers confirmed that.

“And people protested, people wanted their constitutional rights – and we saw how it ended up.

“Many people are now in court, people have been arrested, and there is this whole push against the liberal opposition. For example, there have been the court cases with Alexei Navalny in the last several months. So we see that sadly society is going the opposite way.

“The question is, when will Russian middle class society…if they wake up, when they wake up, when will that be, and what will happen in between?

“But for now, even when you ask Russian people, they don’t see a chance for change, for now.”