ZEIT ONLINE:You are a member of the Russian Duma in exile. After being the only lawmaker to vote against the annexation of Crimea in April 2014, you said that it might cause you some trouble, but that you saw no reason to leave the country. What is the situation now: Do you not want to return to Russia or are you unable to do so?
Ilya Ponomarev: I can't. When I was traveling abroad last summer, they barred from reentering the country. In light of what happens to other members of the opposition, this is still relatively mild treatment.
ZEIT ONLINE: They have since revoked your immunity as a member of parliament, and there are criminal proceedings against you.
Ponomarev: There was a civil complaint last year, and now there is a criminal case. I'm supposed to pay $750,000 ($676,000). This has to do with my former work for the Skolkovo Foundation. But I am not particularly wealthy. I did not live on the money the foundation paid me, but instead used it to pay for trips and events. Right after the first verdict, I said that I disagreed with it but would pay my debts using my salary as a member of parliament. It would have taken about a year. But then, when I was abroad, the court apparently received new orders. They froze all my accounts and barred me from crossing the border. They were able to do so because of the debts that I have. They also revoked the power of attorney over my accounts from my employees in Russia. Everything is frozen. I also lost my apartment. I'm cut off from everything.
In spring, the Duma almost unanimously revoked my immunity. Only Dmitry Gudkov was opposed. Then the criminal proceedings were introduced.
ZEIT ONLINE: The indictment also came with the announcement that Russia would apply to Interpol for an international arrest warrant. Are you encountering difficulties outside of Russia as well?
Ponomarev: I will certainly not sit still, not attract any attention and do nothing, as many have suggested. Instead, I want this conflict to come to a head, so that Interpol and the Western countries are forced to decide whether they are willing to extradite me to Russia. If they don’t do it, everyone would see that this persecution is politically motivated. Every few days, there are reports in the Russian media that I have applied for political asylum in the West. But I believe this is precisely what Putin wants. He wants me to stop being a Russian politician, and he wants me to sign a document stating that I am working for the interests of Western countries. But I don’t want to do that.
ZEIT ONLINE: You still have your seat. What good does that do?
Ponomarev: I won't give it up without a fight! There is only a handful of reasonable people left in the Duma. Four, to be exact. Two of them are saying nothing, out of fear of reprisals. Gudkov is the only one who is saying anything. The only reason I don’t want to give up my seat is so that I won't be replaced by another fool.
ZEIT ONLINE: You now live in California?
Ponomarev: I wouldn't put it that way. All I have is a tourist visa, which means I have to be traveling all the time. Although I spend about half of my time in the United States, I'm not allowed be there for more than half a year at a time.
ZEIT ONLINE: So what do you do?
Ponomarev: I work with startups that want to move from the United States to Europe, or vice-versa. It's a type of research activity that's compatible with my status as a parliamentarian. I did similar work for the Skolkovo Foundation. I make a little money with the fees -- as much as I'm allowed to make. In the innovation sector, they know what's going on in Russia. So one person helps me by giving me a place to stay, someone else provides me with a car…
Then I have a strategic project and a political one. Strategically, I try to help Ukraine with economic reforms, especially in the energy sector. I'm familiar with the field, because I used to be vice-president of Yukos. I think it's important that Eastern Europe begin to produce its own natural gas. That's why I work with US companies that possess natural gas production technology. This is portrayed in the Russian media, of course, as though I were helping the United States break resistance and develop these markets. In reality, it's the other way around: Ukrainians and Poles are desperately seeking potential investors, and they are having a hard time convincing anyone in the United States. My role is to explain to investors and governments how things work in Eastern Europe, and to advise the Eastern Europeans on which changes in the law are needed to attract investors.
Politically, I work with Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia Foundation. I work with the Russian diaspora living in the United States. The Ukrainian diaspora played a key role in all reforms in Ukraine. It was an engine behind the Orange Revolution and then with Maidan. This sort of thing doesn’t exist for Russia. The Russian diaspora is very spread out and very disparate. I try to establish mechanisms that enable the diaspora to participate in social and political life in Russia, to understand what is happening at home and then develop a vision of a different future for Russia.
ZEIT ONLINE: What is your vision of Russia's future?
Ponomarev: I've found a good label for my views in the United States: progressive libertarian. My approach is definitely from the left. I believe that society as a whole needs to be liberated. It is important to minimize the central government, and to establish lower taxes and maximum freedom for individual initiatives, both in classic economic enterprises and in the social realm.
We are observing the development of a new social class. In Russia, they call it the creative class. I think start-up class is more appropriate. It's the avant-garde in the information age. It needs to be supported, and that's my political mission. That's what I did at Skolkovo, with technology parks in Novosibirsk and in the Duma, as chairman of the innovation committee.
My political allies are leftist parties like the Left Party in Germany. I also find the Pirate Party very interesting. I see them as the forerunners of a future political system, a system based on direct democracy and maximal decentralization of power.