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Newly Freed Pussy Riot Takes on Putin; Undiplomatic Language from Israel; Clock is Ticking on Middle East Peace Plan; Imagine a World

Aired February 6, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

And let the Sochi Games begin. Qualifying events have started today and the opening ceremonies are less than 24 hours away. It's a big moment for Russia, a source of pride for most of its citizens. But jittery athletes, speculators and organizers got yet another jolt today when a top U.S. official warned that terrorists could be filling tubes of toothpaste with explosives on flights to Russia.

This after the country, like so many host countries before it, has been buried under a barrage of criticism leading up to the games.

But with Russia, it all seems personal. So much of the venom is directed at President Vladimir Putin himself. The West and many Russians are angry about his wholesale assault on human rights, the crackdown on political opponents and dissent and the harsh treatment of gays.

My guest tonight, Pussy Riot, are some of the sharpest thorns in Putin's side. Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova spent almost two years in jail and penal camps after they were convicted of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred for performing that now infamous riotous punk song in a Moscow cathedral. "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out," were just some of the lyrics.

But Putin released them just before Christmas and now Masha and Nadya are in the United States as defiant as ever. Last night they were the star attraction at an Amnesty International concert, introduced by Madonna no less. Out of jail but not shutting up, they join me now from New York.


AMANPOUR: Masha and Nadya, welcome to the program.

I hope you can hear.


AMANPOUR: I hope you can hear me, and I just wanted to ask you --

NADYA TOLOKONNIKOVA, PUSSY RIOT (through translator): We are in the U.S. right now, but we're here very briefly.

AMANPOUR: Yes, indeed.

So basically what you're saying is that you want to go back home?

MASHA ALYOKHINA, PUSSY RIOT (through translator): Yes, of course. There's no question about this, no doubt.

AMANPOUR: Are you not worried about it because --


TOLOKONNIKOVA (through translator): (INAUDIBLE) Russia, we came here to exchange experience and knowledge with human rights activists here. And we would really like to see American jails.

What we're doing right now is creating a human rights organization called the Zone of Law, which will deal with prisoners' rights in Russia.

And we would like to start international observation of the rights of prisoners.

AMANPOUR: Masha, let me ask you, are you not afraid of going back to Russia? You have been very outspoken. You haven't been, you know, intimidated at all by having been in jail.

Are you not afraid of being thrown right back into jail?

ALYOKHINA (through translator): We were never afraid from the beginning. Neither before our imprisonment nor during it, nor right now; we have no reasons to be afraid. We are free people and free people feel no fear.

AMANPOUR: Mikhail Khodorkovsky told me also that he wants, after spending 10 years in a Russian prison, to lobby on behalf of political prisoners. You're saying the same thing.

I want to ask you both to describe for me the conditions that you face in the penal colony in jail. How hard was it?

First you, Nadya.

TOLOKONNIKOVA (through translator): Well, the first thing I can say about the Russian penitentiary system, it is a system of slavery. People turn into cogs, into factory, a sewing factory. You have no choice where you will work. You are forced to sew. It is -- you have no choice in this matter.

To some, the penal colonies, for example, the one I was in in Mordovia, the work day can be as long as 16 or 20 hours. And the next colony to mine, the work day was 20 hours. And aside from this, prisoners are forced to perform completely unpaid labor, hauling sacks which weigh -- which are very heavy and trying to lift these harms the health of the female prisoners.

They have to haul bags of cement. They have to haul bags of sand. The pay in the colony is approximately $3-$4 a month for the work that we do.

AMANPOUR: Masha, do you think any violence --


TOLOKONNIKOVA (through translator): The administration does everything to make prisoners feel squashed and silenced because it is easier to control people this way.

AMANPOUR: Did you feel any violence? Was there any harm done to you?

ALYOKHINA (through translator): If you're talking about physical violence, then, no, I did not experience it personally. But I would like to say that Russian colonies see violence used to all prisoners constantly. We receive violence from the part of the administration as well as prisoners who work for the administration. They beat people when requested to do so by the administration.

But your biggest global violence is the total lack of health care in Russian penal colonies. If you, for example, are sick and say you have HIV, you have no support from outside. You will simply die in the colony, most likely, because all state programs end at treating such people, do not work. Medication is not shipped and there are no good medical professionals practically in Russian colonies.

Because the pay that the federal service responsible for penitentiaries can offer is $150 a month. No one will work for that money.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you something. You know, President Putin has pretty successfully cracked down on dissent. I mean, there's very little ability to protest, very little ability for opposition politics; even journalists are harassed and jailed and, as you know, many have been killed in Russia.

What do you think he -- how do you think he's going to come out of the Sochi Games? Is this going to be a triumph?

ALYOKHINA (through translator): We are not thinking about what Putin will be doing at all. We are thinking about what we need to do and what Russian society needs to do to change our country.

If we keep looking at Putin and his repressive measures, we will have to just shut ourselves in a tiny room, bury our head under the covers and not utter another word until the end of our days. And we have no intention of doing that.

TOLOKONNIKOVA (through translator): Look at the Ukraine. We are sincerely inspired by the Ukranian people's reaction to the measures that the Yanukovych has been using against them.

I think that it is a real example of action.

AMANPOUR: You know, some of the people we've even noticed are -- at least one Russian snowboarder has what looks like a Pussy Riot emblem on the base of his snowboard.

And I'm just wondering whether you think that that message of yours, the protest message, the message for freedom and human rights and free expression can be expanded. Because you know that many Russians really didn't approve of what you did inside the cathedral there.

ALYOKHINA (through translator): That's not true at all. There's an illusion; this is an illusion that is created by federal television and federal television because they are trying to convey the message that Russian society does not approve and they condemn us.

In reality this is not true at all. In this case, you should not be listened to federal channels. You should be listened to ordinary people and ordinary people actually do support us. Among those who we spent time with in the penal colony, we saw many prisoners who knew our story. They knew that we were political prisoners. They knew that Putin has put us in jail for singing a song against him.

AMANPOUR: So, Nadya, how do you foresee going back and what does your future campaigning look like? And do you think you'll be able to do it?

TOLOKONNIKOVA (through translator): I just came back -- I just left Russia a week ago and I'm here for work and I'm going to continue doing what we began doing there as soon as we were released. We're creating a human rights organization whose goal is to help Russian prisoners. And we must let prison administrations know that they cannot steal whatever they wish and remain unpunished.

Fighting for prisoners' rights is the part of our work within the broader context for Russia to become more transparent and open, more open to its own citizens, first and foremost.

And if we didn't believe in what we were doing, if we didn't believe that we could bring change to our country, we wouldn't have begun doing it. We are convinced so much that once we were released, we immediately began continuing what we were doing before we were thrown in jail.

AMANPOUR: Nadya and Masha, thank you very much indeed for coming in. Thanks for talking to me.


AMANPOUR: And while free speech is constrained and sometimes actively suppressed in Russia, not so in Israel where, since its founding, free expression and often fractious debate echo from the streets to the Knesset.

But pushing the envelope of that freedom and insulting their strongest ally, mocking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with a fake video, may strain a special relationship. Daniel Taub, Israel's ambassador to the U.K., joins me to talk about all of this after a break.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. As we said, unlike Russia, Israel has a tradition of unfettered political speech.

For a while now, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been in the crosshairs of Israeli invective, ranging from the comic to the inflammatory. A coalition of right-wing settlers has just launched a video, ridiculing Kerry's ideas to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Take a listen.


(UNKNOWN): What I'm saying is why fight over an old wall? I'll build you a brand new wall close to the beach.


AMANPOUR: So that's some harmless fun, prominent politicians, though, including a member of the Knesset, labeled Kerry anti-Semitic. America's national security adviser, Susan Rice, was moved to push back tweeting, quote, "Personal attacks in Israel directed at Secretary Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable."

And all of this, as we said, for the supposed crime of trying to push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

There will, of course, always be disagreements between friends. But it's probably safe to say that there's never been a time when Israel is at such public loggerheads with its closest ally.

Daniel Taub is a veteran Israeli diplomat. He's been at the center of these kinds of negotiations for years, and he is now Israel's ambassador to Britain, and we welcome him.


AMANPOUR: Thank you for joining me.

Obviously I want to talk about the peace process, but first I want to ask you about all these things that have come up, Messianic, said your defense minister about Secretary Kerry. Anti-Semitic say some members of the Knesset.

You have actually been through -- you know, you have been teaching diplomats how to conduct diplomatic conversations.

How do you, you know, grade these?

TAUB: Well, as you said, you know, we are not known as a people for our bashfulness. And you know, what we say about other people is probably nothing compared to what we say about each other. And in particular, a case like this, where we're talking about intensive negotiations, we'll talk about them. But we're talking about really the most crucial existential issues.

You know, we've had, just in the last month, 20 missiles fired from Gaza over Israel. There were two that were fired just now, just today.

So you can see that people care very, very passionately. As far as the relation with the U.S. is concerned, I think you really have to look at what our leadership is saying.

If you look at what the prime minister is saying, what our foreign minister is saying, what Tzipi Livni, the head of our negotiations, all of them have been absolutely unequivocal in their support for Kerry, expressing their admiration for his persistence, his commitment, his dedication. And I think that's the true Israeli feeling towards this effort.

AMANPOUR: I just want to push you, because of course, it was the defense minister who first started all of this, calling him, you know, messianic. "Secretary Kerry, who arrived here determined, operates from an incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism. Can't teach us anything about the Palestinian conflict."

You know, he remains in place. But the anti-Semitic charge, that's pretty inflammatory. Again, you are versed in the art of diplomatic conversation. You've taught about it.

TAUB: I think -- I think Secretary Kerry had stated it very well. He said that, you know, I am focused on the goal. We all of us have to be focused on the goal. That's where the Israeli leadership is. In the past, when we've tried to move forward, we haven't let, you know, maybe unfortunate wording or the passions of people divert us.

And I think it would be a terrible shame if we were to do that at the moment.

AMANPOUR: Do you reject the anti-Semitic charge at least?

TAUB: Absolutely, absolutely. It's -- I have to say that I'm not aware of a senior Israeli official that has used that term --



TAUB: -- and I think it was -- I think there's absolutely no doubt that we recognize that at its roots, Israel, the United States have shared interests, shared concerns about the region. And we very much want the Kerry initiative to succeed.

AMANPOUR: Well then, let me move on to that. Obviously, we showed the satirical video, settlers are somewhat up in arms and there are high, high passions.

First and foremost, do you think that there can be an agreement, you know, this framework agreement finalized and everything by the end of the year, as Secretary Kerry has said?

TAUB: I think we actually do have a moment of opportunity here. I think that Israel recognizes that. I think that some of the traditional spoilers in our region, if you spot a terrorist organization, like the Hamas terrorist organization, are actually on the back foot at the moment, particularly Hezbollah for the support that it's giving to Assad in Syria.

I think that there are other countries, our neighbors are looking like us at some of the potential dangers in the region, particularly if you were to see Iranian hegemony. And we're realizing that we have strategic interests in common. We have obviously the United States very dedicated. And we have an Israeli government which is actually doing things, remarkable things, to try and advance peace.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about that before I try to get some details out of you.

You've mentioned, obviously, a lot of opposition from the usually suspects. But the prime minister faces a lot of opposition from within his own coalition, Naftali Bennett has been forced to apologize for actually attacking the prime minister and questioning his morals in terms of trying to go forward with this agreement.

So it's very difficult from your side, too.

TAUB: It is difficult. We're talking about tremendously painful, risky compromises. If you look where the Israeli people are, it's very interesting. You can look at the surveys. And the vast majority of Israelis are prepared to make the tough decisions, the territorial concessions that will be necessary for peace.

But at the same time, they're also genuinely concerned because over the last decade, every piece of land that's we've pulled out of, we've seen turned into launching pads for missiles and terrorist organizations attacks against Israel.

And what we really need to see is some sense of security, some conviction that peace is actually going to support security and actually not work to undermine it (ph).


AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, you've obviously read everything like we -- I mean, you know, the details. We see the Tom Friedman-Kerry plan; we see some Israeli newspapers having put out what they believe are the keypoints of the plan.

So it's going to be unveiled soon, we understand, calling for an end of all conflicts and claims, a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank along the '67 lines, unprecedented security arrangements in the strategic Jordan Valley, although some have said along the Jordan River.

Is that right?

TAUB: You know, I mentioned some of the optimistic elements. The reason why we have a moment of opportunity, another cause for optimism is the fact that the negotiators on both sides have been so reticent about speaking public. And the fact is, when that's happened in the past, that's a sign that some of these things are actually happening.

I think what we can rely on are statements by the -- by the U.S. leadership and others that we have a definite engagement today, dealing with the critical issues in the conflict that we haven't seen for a very long time.

AMANPOUR: Can you imagine NATO troops along the Jordan River?

TAUB: I -- if we're talking about the possibility of international troops, I'll share with you the fact that Israelis are concerned because it's not the first time we've had international forces introduced in our region.

AMANPOUR: Would Israel agree?

TAUB: And I just want to share with you the Israeli thinking about it. You know we've seen Israeli forces been introduced; we had a European Union assistance mission, trying to monitor the border between Gaza and Egypt when we pulled out of Lebanon. We had what was called a robust UNIFIL.

Today we see UNIFIL there. We've actually more rockets in its armory than Britain, Germany and France combined. And so we are concerned.

The phrase that one Israeli commentator used is that international forces are sometimes like an umbrella that melts in the rain. And if, at the end of the day, we are putting our security, the security of our families on the line, then we need to be sure that this is something that's going to be very resilient.

AMANPOUR: I want to get your genuine feelings on the necessity to come to an agreement; as we've seen, even with the Scarlett Johansson SodaStream controversy over the ad, the idea of boycotting and sanctions, that whole BDS movement has now entered the mainstream.

There are many, you know, big European entities that are boycotting and divesting and stuff.

Are you concerned about that? Is that something the expansion of this that is concerning Israel right now?

TAUB: We are concerned about it. I don't think that is the reason that we want peace. Actually, the reason that we want peace is because we want peace, because we don't want to be at war. We don't want to have a situation where our kids have to go into the army and so on and so forth.

And in fact in practice, I actually have to say that I think even today the boycotters, these people, these activists, are really not the mainstream.

I see, for example, U.K.-Israel trade, which has doubled over the last 10 years and is continuing, particularly in the technological fields, in medical sciences and so on. We have Google and Yahoo! and Microsoft, you know, straining at the leash to come and do work in R&D in Israel and so on and so forth.

I think there is a mistake, however, in the thinking of the boycotters, because if they genuinely want to advance peace, what they're really doing is they're sending a double message, which is very problematic.

The first message they're sending is they're sending a message to the Palestinians is that you don't need to be sitting at the negotiating table. And one of the hardest things that we have to do is to actually keep the Palestinians there.

We are releasing, as you know, brutal murderers simply because the Palestinians have asked us to release these terrorists to keep them at the table. And so the suggestion that they can go off to other places to try and get political gains, I think, would be very, very damaging.

AMANPOUR: Lots more to discuss at another time. Very briefly, though, you think by the end of this year there will be something to celebrate?

TAUB: We very much hope so. We very much hope so. Israel is putting itself on the line, showing flexibility on the most crucial positions. And nobody wants peace more than we do.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Taub, thank you very much for coming in.

TAUB: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And while ridicule and name-calling may cause tensions between Israel and the U.S. as we just said, imagine a war of words -- or more precisely a war of tweets between the United States and Russia, pointing fingers and poking fun when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where the Cold War may be over, but the Twitter war between the United States and Russia is heating up. As if the two don't have enough to disagree about, such as Syria, Snowden, human rights and political dissent, Pussy Riot has now become a bone of diplomatic contention.

On Wednesday in New York, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met with our two guests earlier tonight, the two Pussy Riot members who we had on. She met with them at the U.S. mission to the United Nations and then tweeted this simple message, "Met some brave troublemakers today."

When asked about it, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, responded to reporters with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, I guess, "Hasn't she joined the band yet?" he asked. And then tartly added, "About Ambassador Power, I would expect her to invite them to perform in the National Cathedral in Washington, St. Peter's in Rome, Mecca and end up at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem."

But Power had the last tweet. "I can't sing," she said. "But if Pussy Riot will have me, Ambassador Churkin, I say our first concert is for Russia's political prisoners."

Who knew diplomats did standup comedy? And in fact, all of this reminds us that 25 years before Pussy Riot, another protest group, this one in the United States, also chose a church, a cathedral, to express its political outrage.

Back in 1989, radical AIDS activist known as ACT UP gathered over 4,000 demonstrators outside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Dozens of them went inside and interrupted the mass. Some chained themselves to the pews and others lay down in the aisles. They were protesting the church's opposition to condoms and AIDS education.

Over 100 of them were arrested. But all were quickly released and ordered to do community service.

Yes, they had offended many churchgoers, just as Pussy Riot did in Russia, but none of them went to a penal colony for two years.

That's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.