WASHINGTON (CN) – A man who twice survived poisoning for speaking out against the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin regaled the Senate Wednesday about life under a government that targets political dissidents.
Vice chairman of the pro-democracy movement Open Russia, Vladimir Kara-Murza told the Appropriations Committee that free elections in his country ended with Putin’s election in 1999. Kara-Murza said Putin’s government has cracked down independent media outlets, blacklisted nongovernmental organizations as “foreign agents,” and transformed the legal system and law enforcement agencies into “tools of political repression.”
Russia has more than 100 political prisoners, a group that includes both anti-government activists and regular citizens who participate in peaceful demonstrations, Kara-Murza added.
Earlier this week, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters poured into the streets of 82 cities and towns all over Russia to condemn government corruption.
“More than 1,500 people were arrested,” Kara-Murza said. “And there are indications that the authorities may be preparing criminal charges against some of the participants.”
Kara-Murza said the protests mark the largest that Russia has seen since the 1990s. Noting that his opposition of Putin has nearly cost him his life, Kara-Murza told the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs that others have not been so lucky.
“In the last several years, investigative journalists, opposition figures, human rights activists, anticorruption campaigners and whistleblowers have met untimely deaths,” he said.
Kara-Murza also recalled “the most brazen political assassination in decades” of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, whom Kara-Murza described as “the most prominent opponent of Vladimir Putin.”
A former member of the Boris Yeltsin government, Nemtsov was gunned down Feb. 27, 2015, near the Kremlin.
But the Kremlin’s record of quieting dissidents is not perfect. “Sometimes there are near-misses,” Kara-Murza told the subcommittee, “and one happens to be sitting before you.”
Kara-Murza was poisoned in 2015, and again last month. After his sudden onset of poisoning symptoms this year, doctors put Kara-Murza’s chances of survival at 5 percent.
“The official diagnosis was toxic action by an undefined substance,” he said.
Kara-Murza ended up in a coma and on life support with multiple organ failures. “I am very fortunate and very grateful to be here today,” he said.
At a press conference after the hearing, Kara-Murza offered some advice for Americans grappling with the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia had meddled in the U.S. election. Understanding the authoritarian nature and domestic repression of the Putin government is critical, Kara-Murza said. So too is understanding its behavior toward other countries, including the United States.
“And it’s also very important, I believe, not to fall into the trap that the Putin regime is trying to set, by equating the Putin regime with Russia,” he said. “That’s what they would like you to do.”
Kara-Murza encouraged lawmakers to consider the diversity of Russia and listen to other voices within Russian society.
“Even in this atmosphere – and in spite of it – there are people and organizations that continue to work to promote and defend human rights, political freedoms and the rule of law in Russia,” he told the Senate.
Kara-Murza pointed to youth engagement, noting that although the scale and geography of the weekend protests surprised him, the demographics did not.
The majority of Russians who flooded the streets were young – many of them university students – and some were even high school students, he said.
These young people are fighting pervasive government corruption “despite the threats and crackdowns and the pressure,” Kara-Murza said during the press conference.
“This young generation of Russians, who are fed up with living in a corrupt kleptocracy, and who want to see Russia become a normal modern democratic country, is the best hope for the future,” he added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had called Wednesday’s hearing to build support for a “counter-Russia” account in the spending bill to help frontline states fight back against the Russian government.
Graham said the U.S. must not “forgive and forget” Russian meddling in the U.S. election, and called for a bipartisan bill to sanction Russia for its interference, which he hopes to deliver to President Donald Trump’s desk by September.
Noting that “words are important,” Kara-Murza cautioned lawmakers to be careful with the language they use in sanctions-related legislation.
“It is essential to make clear that the U.S. does not seek to punish the Russian people for the actions of a regime they can neither unseat in a free election, nor hold to account through independent media or a legitimate legislature,” he said.
At the same time, the Russian dissident noted that Putin will be emboldened in the absence of a meaningful response to its election meddling.
The Russian president has watched for reactions from Western democracies, Kara-Murza said, and has determined by the lack of response so far that “it’s basically OK to carry on.”
Still, he called on lawmakers to engage civil society and prepare for a post-Putin Russia.
“Let us consider the long-term interests and prepare the groundwork for future cooperation between the United States and Russia by maintaining – even in these difficult times – an open, productive, and mutually beneficial dialogue between our peoples and our civil societies,” he said.