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Two Wars: Interview with climate activist, Arshak Makichyan

Until 24 February, the Russian climate activist Arshak Makichyan was chiefly known for his stance on climate change. When Putin launched his full scale aggression against Ukraine, he had to leave the country. Now the Russian authorities are threatening to revoke his citizenship. But this is not the first hardship the young man has experienced. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh forced him and his family to flee their homeland 20 years ago. We talked to Arshak about activism, his political position and the role of the global community in regional conflicts.

Being a political activist in Russia has always been risky. But you only left after the start of the war. What changed?

I went to Berlin at the end of March. All through the previous month, we’d been going out on protests, but every week there was a smaller turnout. The third week, we went out but instead of a crowd of protesters, we found police on every corner.

By then about 15,000 people had been detained across the country. We realised peaceful protests didn’t work because the Russia we had been living in had gone.

In the first few weeks, it had still seemed possible to roll everything back, to return to ‘peaceful’ authoritarianism. But soon we realised Russia had become a dictatorship. We were constantly being shadowed, we expected to have our houses searched, the police were going to our friends’ houses.

So we bought the cheapest bus tickets. We hoped we’d be able to go back before long, but then Russia started proceedings to revoke my citizenship.

On 24 February, I married my partner. The wedding turned into a small anti-war protest: I had Fuck the War written on my shirt, and my partner had a blue dress and yellow flowers.

This used to be the practice in the Soviet Union – dissidents were forced to leave, or were expelled from the country and stripped of their citizenship. But it’s illegal now. How do the authorities justify what they’re doing?

I was born in Armenia, but I’ve lived in Moscow since the age of one, so my right to citizenship isn’t based on birth. But I’ve lived in Russia all my life, I don’t hold any other citizenship.

Taking away my citizenship is against the law, but so many things are against the law now. This is just a new way to put pressure on people. The Duma has already discussed removing citizenship from people who are anti-war. I think my case might be the first.

They’d already threatened to take away my citizenship a year ago, at the time of the Duma elections, in which I was planning to stand. But that was purely political, and the Yabloko party [the only liberal party allowed by the authorities to participate in elections] refused to put me forward, citing the threats. At the time I treated it as a joke, because you can’t take someone’s sole citizenship away.

Why are you continuing to fight, even now you’ve left Russia?

Despite all the polls showing that 80% of Russians support the war, it’s not the case. I consider this sociology compromised, at the very least because in Russia it’s forbidden to call the war a war and speak out against it.

So most people simply refuse to take part in polls, or they say they’re for the war because they’re afraid they’ll have their children taken away from them or be jailed themselves. [The Russian authorities have subjected some active dissidents to ‘deprivation of parental rights’ – WAW].

In fact there was a case in Chechnya recently when some women protested and their husbands and sons were then sent to fight in the war.

It’s very beneficial to Putin for the world to think that all Russians support the war. This also helps him instil the idea into Russians that the world is against them. Basically, it helps propaganda to say the whole world wants to annihilate Russia, and that the war, or ‘special operation’, is for the very existence of Russia.

On the whole I hold a pro-Russian position, in that I think Putin is destroying Russia. I’m trying to defend the interests of Russian civil society.

What’s happening in Ukraine is horrific, and I think if we don’t talk about our problems there’ll be no way out of the dead end. Russia will be frozen and become a huge North Korea. But that’s not an option for Russian civil society.

You’re a climate activist first and foremost and you want the use of hydrocarbons to stop. What do think the role of oil is in this war?

As activists, we advocated a fuel embargo on Russia from the start of the war. I believe that if European politicians had been brave and stopped buying fossil fuels as soon as war broke out, and not after a year, there would have been no energy crisis and no war.

All in all Putin’s earning more from oil and gas now than he was before the war. This covers the cost of the war and the economic losses from the withdrawal of foreign companies. The fact that Western leaders carried on consorting with the Putin regime after the war in 2008 [the Russian Federation’s ‘Three Day War’ against Georgia in August 2008] was a mistake.

Putin is a threat to every democracy in the world. Now many public figures are talking about the need to negotiate with him, but that’s a road to nowhere. Just as Hitler should not have been negotiated with in the 1930s, Putin shouldn’t be negotiated with now.

We should not wait until he uses nuclear weapons. It’s the same with the war in Armenia. Now Europe needs oil from Azerbaijan, its politicians are willing to shut their eyes to the war crimes against Armenia.

At the moment, Armenia is going through a slow-moving conflict with Azerbaijan. Your other homeland is constantly under assault from its neighbour. Tell us how you feel about that.

My own feelings about what’s going on aren’t very important. I just try and tell people about that war. The conflict in Armenia is closely linked with what’s going on in Russia.

The world has got used to the order that was established after 1945. The victors found their bright future, but most of the world has just been left with cold conflicts, which came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were just some inconvenient, superfluous conflicts and it wasn’t expedient to admit that Karabakh had been illegitimately handed over to Azerbaijan as part of the USSR’s imperial policy.

Because of the war in Karabakh, my family and I had to leave Armenia all those years ago. So I really understand the Ukrainians who are fighting for their land now.

All these years, Armenians have been dehumanised in Azerbaijan. There’s been a terrifying programme of hate, significantly worse than Russia’s against Ukrainians. But the world has found it easier not to see it.

The Russian opposition is often accused of not checking Putin strongly enough. Do you think more decisive action should have been taken?

Well, in Russia’s there’s also been a war between the authorities and society all this time. Every year, protesting has become more dangerous. I do think my methods of protest weren’t the most effective. Perhaps we should have been tougher, like a partisan movement.

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