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What you have now in Hungary is nothing compared to Russia

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2015.03.09. 20:05 Módosítva: 2015.03.09. 21:33
Budapest CEU student Anna Vellikok organized a commemoration of Boris Nemtsov at Terror Háza (House of Terror Museum) just to face that the portrait of the murdered Russian opposition leader disappeared twice from the museum's wall. Anna tried to find out what happened but the museum refused to communicate with her. We wanted to help her and kept calling Terror Háza for days until they told us: the museum is not willing to comment on this issue. So we sat down with Anna to talk about why Nemtsov is important to her, what is she doing in Budapest and what she thinks about Russian and Hungarian politics.

How did you get the idea of organizing a commemoration for Boris Nemtsov in Budapest?

A Russian activist

Anna Vellikok is 23 years old, born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is an MA student at CEU, Political science department. Anna is a researcher of federalism and electoral systems, and also a political activist.

I saw the news only several hours after the assassination. I was shocked and couldn't sleep. I've been reading all the reflections on Facebook by my friends who knew him, so there is a lot of personal attachment to this. I just realized I need to organize something where people can leave their flowers and mourn. But I also knew that it wouldn't be right to do it at the embassy, which represents the power structure that, in my opinion, killed him. Then I just wrote my Russian speaking friends at CEU, Kristina, Tatiana, Kirill, Ivan and Ludmila, that we need to do this. It took an hour and a half to organize everything.

How well-known and popular was Nemtsov? Opinion makers connected to the Kremlin say he wasn’t an important figure at all.

You can judge how many people supported him by looking at how many people turned up at the commemoration marches. The regime created the discourse that he was marginalized, and the leaders of the opposition are all facing this problem. The majority of voters see them as foreign agents, enemies of Russia and so on. But Nemtsov was extremely popular, he was a federal politician since the ‘90s. He even could have become the successor of Jelcin who really considered this option. Imagine how different it could be if he'd chosen him instead of Putin! 

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Fotó: Bődey János / Index

My friends are making fun of me that I'm going to be a persona non grata in Hungary

Why did you choose Terror Háza to commemorate Nemtsov?

I visited the museum on the first week I arrived to Budapest in September. I visited several museums like this in Moscow, Berlin, and I was really impressed by Terror Háza. I thought that the general message of this museum is that we do not tolerate oppressive dictatorships and we don't support violent methods in politics. And I thought it would be symbolic to bring the flowers there. I thought the museum would support the idea. 

What happened when you arrived to the museum?

I asked a women working for the museum whether I can talk to the administration. She said no, it’s weekend, but you can talk to me if I can help with anything. I told her what we plan to do: to place the portrait of Nemtsov and the flowers there and light some candles. I showed her the pages we printed with the basic information about Nemtsov. She took it, read it and said okay. She was actually really nice. We spent something like an hour there lighting candles.

When did you notice that the portrait disappeared?

Saturday (February the 28th) night. Not only the pictures disappeared but the flowers, which  is probably still the most hurting point in this situation for me. Because those were not only mine and my friends' flowers. People I didn't even know came with flowers which they bought on their own money. They only wanted to commemorate Nemtsov. But these symbols of our feelings were just thrown away without any respect.

So you haven’t recieved any official information on what has happened, who threw the flowers and the portrait away and why?

No. We came back next day after I had my speech at the embassy. I took another portrait with me and some candles too. We placed the portrait again. Two guys came out from Terror Háza asking me to remove the portrait from the wall. I refused in a polite way and said I recieved a permission yesterday. Then he asked me who did I speak to. I told him the story and he said something like that woman was not authorized. I was confused and didn’t know whether this person is authorized about giving a permission. He was repeating that the museum doesn’t want any current political issues presented on this wall. So I told him that he can remove the picture himself and it would be his responsibility. I took his phone number and he wrote down his name. I asked him whether I can speak to the director. He said no. Then he told me I can come back on Monday, someone will definitely be there. I said okay, I will come back possibly with a reporter to talk to the director about what has happened with the flowers and the portrait. He agreed.

That’s how we met a week ago on Monday, I was that reporter. I called that phone number you got but nobody answered. Before that we were phoning them all weekend in vain. Monday morning I also tried to arrange a meeting with someone from the museum’s administration but nobody wanted to talk. And even though I got promised that someone will call me back, they did not. Then we went together to the museum. It took several calls and half an hour to finally get in touch with the museum’s press officer. Then she told me that we can’t meet with anyone because there is nobody inside, they are closed on Monday. Meanwhile we saw people coming out of the building. And she told me that they are not willing to comment on this affair at all, not even in the future. This was also not true since Terror Háza posted an official comment on their Facebook page just half an hour after my phone call.

The way they approached this issue and communicated with me is just inappropriate, it's not transparent. They had the cameras: if they were not guilty in removing the portrait, why didn’t they show me the videos? I just wanted to verify whether it was someone from the museum who took it or it was vandalism. But they just refused to communicate.

What do you think, why did the museum act that way?

My suggestion is that their policiy is to keep a passive position on present issues. And I would understand this if they would have told me this from the very first moment.

Why do you think they choose to hide away from you instead?

Because it was probably someone in the middle of the administration who gave the order to remove the portrait and the flowers. And it was an on the spot decision. And they didn't thought that I would come back again and again and someone would care. At some point they realized it was a bad decision, but it was already done. But they didn't want a scandal and their strategy was to ignore it hoping maybe it will go away. The silence is also a political message.

Do you think it has anything to do with Hungary's pro-Russian politics?

I can suggest this because Orbán did not release a statement until Saturday night. Our meeting at Terror Háza was before that. Probably they just didn't know how to act. I don't want to mess up with Hungarian politics and parties. But it turned out that when you try to approach political issues which are related to Russia, you also involve Hungarian politics as well. Does it mean that Hungary is really that closely related to Russia? I wouldn't say so, but that's an interesting issue for Hungarians to think about. Now my friends are making fun of me saying that I'm going to be a persona non grata not only in Russia but also in Hungary. Not a good destiny you know.

Do you think the murder frightened people  away  from supporting the opposition?

Of course people are shocked and frightened, it's a normal reaction. But it's quite the other way. The opposition consolidated and many people decided that they need to work harder. 

What do you and your friends really think about the murder? Who killed him and why? What is the meaning of the place, the date and the whole setting of this crime?

There is another discourse created by the government saying it was made by the opposition to bring more people to the streets. It's so humiliating for all of us to hear. It just can not be true. 

There are three important things. The place, the timing and the man who was killed.

This place is heavily controlled by the secret service with cameras and undercover agents. When you cross this bridge you always meet someone who is walking there and controlling the situation. There is always a police car also. It is very well guarded. And the timing: it was two days before the huge opposition march. A huge crowdfunding campaign supported it, a lot of people were involved and donated money. 

And the man himself. You can’t deny that Nemtsov was followed and wiretaped. It is obvious since they did the same before every huge march or meeting. And it is proved by the leaks of Nemtsov’s phone calls to the internet. So even though Putin is trying to create this image that Nemtsov was not a threat to the status quo and he wasn’t supported by the masses, it's not true. 

If he was always followed and wiretaped, it also means (of course just in theory) that the police could collect all the evidences quite easily.

That's true. But what we see now is that no proper investigation is made. They give irrelevant but very detailed information to the public about the gun and the bullets to confuse us. Or at the same time they give contradictory information about the car's color. And they do it on purpose. If you take the handbook of propaganda you'll find these techniques. 

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Fotó: Bődey János / Index

 We all know there won’t be any proper investigation, as it happened with Politovskaya and the others. Of course they can find someone to blame for the murder, like the people from the North Caucasus or the Ukranians. Before the arrest of the suspects from Checnya they were already testing the public opinion with these lines. But the actual person who masterminded this crime won't be found.

You had a speech at the Russian embassy a week ago. What was your main message?

One important message was about hate. There is a lot of hate nowadays in Russian society, created by the regime. It's been transmitted every day from the president's administration to the houses of ordinary Russian citizens. This hate legitimizes the use of violence against the opposition. They created the picture that figures of the opposition are enemies, betrayers, foreign agents. They dehumanize us, Putin called us wild monkeys, Bandar-logs, back in 2012. It's been like this for three years now. In my speech I was saying that probably it wasn't Putin himself who ordered the murder. But he was the one who created this system of violence and hate which went out of control. Because you can not control hate.

So is there any truth behind Putin’s accusations?

I don't really remember who said it, that the opposition recieves cookies from America. It means that we are ready to betray Russia even for cookies. I went to Moscow the weekend before everything happened to agitate for this demonstration on the 1st of March. I will tell you that I paid the plane ticket from my own money which I earned by translating articles mostly during the night.

You're working for an NGO?

I'm volunteering for Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption, but there were several organizations and parties supporting the demonstration.

Have you met Navalny in person?

Not yet because when I went to Moscow last time he was still under house arrest. I spent my working days volunteering for the sociological branch of the foundation. We are conducting public opinion polls, calling people up and asking questions about political issues. All of my close friends either work there, volunteer there or donate money or devices to support this organization. So when I hear that we get millions of dollars from America does it mean that all of my friends are well-paid American agents? It's just ridiculous.

Why are you doing this?

It's a good question. It's like answering my mom why I spend a lot of money on coming to Moscow to agitate.

So what do you say to her?

I do it because I care, and we have to do it by ourselves. I'm a political scientist and I read a lot about how it should be in a normal state where the institutions work. And then I see how it works in Russia. People deserve more, they need to get rid of this elite that is controlling everything in the country, which led us to an economic crisis, a war and a sytem of hate. They crossed the line and it's enough.

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Fotó: Bődey János / Index

What are you experiences with Hungarian politics?

I've been to several rallies here. The one against the internet tax and the one just before Putin came here. That was the moment when I actually gave a case for the Russian government to accuse me being a foreign agent. Because here I saw how the social movements on the streets are organized. And I kind of learned how to do it.

People do not want Hungary to become an authoritarian state similar to Russia. Hungarians live in the European Union and are kind of used to the normal institutional design of democracy. Hungary is not yet Russia - not yet a typical European state. That's why it's interesting to sort of live here and compare this country to others.

What do you say when some of your Hungarian friends compare our government to Putin’s regime?

I usually say that it's nothing like that. Even though the Hungarian government changed the electoral system to win the elections, as they did in Russia, and even though they are hostile towards NGOs, it's just one tenth of what the Russian government does. 

Does it show in your opinion a tendency that Hungary is moving towards the Russian way?

Orban’s government is trying to, but people won't let them. They just lost their constitutional majority which signifies that people have legal ways to show discontent with the regime. We do not really have that in Russia. I checked the recent polls about the level of support for Fidesz, it’s around 25%. Which is great because it sounds like a democracy!

In Russia there is a very famous expression that there is a Putin's majority of 86%. This was the poll after the annexation of Crimea. It's made up of course, because in a dictatorship people do not express their true opinion. They are afraid to express their discontent with the regime, because they know their words won’t be heard. When you ask a random person in a dictatorship on the street if he or she supports the president, the answer you'll get is sure, he is the best president in the world! Especially when the opposition is percieved as enemies. Of course you don't want to become an enemy yourself!

What are the three things you found the most interesting in Hungarian politics?

I was interested in how the electoral system was changed, how disproportional the representation is and how Fidesz gaind majority. I'm also interested in this huge support for Jobbik because we don't have such a party in Russia with this extreme right agenda. And also what really surprised me is how people react to all of this, how the social movements are organized. It's completely different in Russia. Here you don't have to agitate for weeks to recruit people for a rally, it's enough just to post something on Facebook and people will come. 

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Fotó: Bődey János / Index

In Russia it's a hard work. People are afraid of protesting because the chances of getting beaten or arrested is really high. Here you don't have this opportunity. We need to tell people why it is important to participate in rallies and that it is safe. Navalnij said at the end of his last trial on “Yves Rocher case”: we are fighting for the people that are just passive, starring at the table. And our battle for these confused people who are starring at the table is to reach the point when they admit: in our beautiful country everything that happens is based on an infinite brazen lie.

What are your plans for the future? Entering party politics or doing research and teaching as a political scientist?

I really like political science and really want to work as a political scientist analyzing the political systems. But I can't stop being an activist and my parents and friends are always making fun of me because of this. I would combine this activist worldview with the knowledge I learned from my studies to develop the prestent system in Russia. Moreover we have to show  that we in the opposition movement are not wild monkeys. This is me and my friends, we are human beings and we just want a better life for Russian people. So stop hating us! We have enough inner strength to do this.

Here you can find the Hungarian version of this interview.

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