From the start, my interaction with Vladimir Putin was tense.
In the second half of the 1990s, I was simultaneously the secretary of the Council for Local Self-Government of the Russian Federation and the head of the Department of the President of the Russian Federation for Local Self-Government, the head of which was the outgoing President of Russia at the time – Boris Yeltsin. There is not a single democratic state in the world, in which there would not be a developed system of local self-government, and we aspired to develop it for Russia. It was January 2000 and Vladimir Putin became the interim president of Russia. Three days after he became president, I shared my vision for the development of local self-government in Russia and one day later I was removed from office. We have never had similar views.
At the end of the 1990s, I joined the Union of Right Forces (URF), an economically liberal (hence “right-wing”) political party. The founders of the URF were prominent progressive and liberal politicians and economists, above all Yegor Gaidar and Boris Nemtsov and I was elected the first chairman of the party’s executive committee. It was the only liberal party in the history of Russia. The URF promoted “freedom and the development of democratic institutions”. He aspired to promote equality and economic transparency throughout the country. At first, like many others, the URF thought the new president would be a reformer and therefore supported him. The same way it was perceived by Western leaders. Tony Blair made a famous visit to St. Petersburg, to meet the new Russian leader and attend a premiere together at the Mariinsky Theater. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Putin’s commitment to liberalism and democracy did not last long.
Putin’s second presidential term took an increasingly sinister turn. To say the least, relations between Putin and the leading political and economic reformers of the Yeltsin era, such as Gaidar, Nemtsov, Yasin and others, began to deteriorate. Gaidar was an economist and politician, acting Prime Minister of Russia in the 1990s, saving the Russian economy and preventing civil war. In 2006, Gaidar traveled to Dublin to present his book “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia”, where he was poisoned. Three years later, at the age of 53, he died, unable to cope with the consequences of poisoning. A month after Gaidar’s poisoning, in the entrance of his building, Anna Politkovskaya, a very famous journalist of the “Novaya Gazeta” (New Gazette), was murdered, who, like Gaidar and Nemtsov, criticized the activities of Russia’s war in Chechnya. Putin started his way of suppressing free speech and anyone who would oppose him. Anyone who resisted Putin’s total power, money and control became a target.
After Gaidar’s death, a fund in his memory was established, which I managed for 10 years. The main objectives of the Fund were the promotion of democratic and liberal values. My work, however, did not go unnoticed, and eventually Putin’s friends took all my belongings to Russia and began prosecuting me in Russian courts, later fabricating a criminal case, charging me and two of my cheat sons. As a result, my family was forced to leave Russia.
Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister and one of the leaders of the URF, was one of the first to protest against Putin’s undemocratic leadership and his personal plunder of Russian resources. Boris’ allies, myself included, have taken responsibility for supporting him and his family financially. In 2015, while strolling across the Bolshoy Moskvoretskiy Bridge at night, directly across from the Kremlin, he was shot four times in the back in Putin’s Russia’s most audacious political murder to date.
In Yegor Gaidar’s 2007 book “Collapse of an Empire”, he warned of the dangers of pursuing to become an empire. As The Economist reported, “he drew compelling and disturbing parallels between Nazis in Germany and similar voices in Russia.” Gaidar wrote: “The situation is very dangerous. The post-imperial syndrome is at its peak. We have to survive the next five to ten years and not start doing stupid things.” Alas, Putin did not heed Gaidar’s prophetic words.
Despite the past 20 years of persecution of opponents by Putin’s kleptocracy, I and my associates at the Gaidar Fund have continued our efforts to develop Russia’s democracy and market economy. I finance charitable projects, devoted to the formation of an open and democratic Russia.
However, the majority of my opposition to the regime has been relatively muted, as the outcome of my public discourse on the issue would have very negative consequences for anyone associated with me. Yet, in 2012, on the already closed Russian independent television channel “Dozhd” (Rain), I tried to convey the idea that not all businessmen in Russia support Putin.
Now that the world is watching in horror as Putin continues his aggressive and illegal military invasion of Ukraine, I continue to speak out publicly on the issue and do all I can to support Ukrainians, who are suffering from this attack.
For Russia, which I love, I will continue to publicly oppose Putin’s authoritarianism, as I have done before.
Dr Boris Mints is a businessman, philanthropist and committed supporter of cultural and social projects. He is currently Chairman of the Board of Patrons of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), which is the main Orthodox rabbinical alliance in Europe. He is also President and Founder of the Boris Mints Institute, based at Tel Aviv University’s Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, and Honorary Professor of Tel Aviv University. In 2016, Dr. Boris Mints expanded his family philanthropic contribution by establishing The Mints Family Charitable Foundation. He also established the Museum of Russian Impressionism in Moscow in 2014.