Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov's interview with Diplomatic World. The interview was recorded on 8 September 2015.
Diplomatic World: Your Excellency, as citizens of the world, we are all concerned, our readers are concerned, with international issues and the overall situation. As the Permanent Representative of Russia to the EU, what do you think about the international context?
Vladimir Chizhov: I am afraid that your readers have reasons to be concerned because on a global scale we see certain fragmentation of what used to be called the “world order”. It is a result of policies of some countries to project their exclusivity, to take upon themselves a sort of messianic role as a sole source of values. It is also the result of a number of dramatic developments in large parts of the world, some happening close to Europe where external interferences have led to chain reactions and actually brought results completely different or even opposite to those expected.
The very noble goal behind the creation of the EU itself was very simple and quite understandable: prevent another large-scale war in Europe. It has since evolved into a certain bureaucratic superstructure positioning as the ultimate source of values. When people first created the European Coal and Steel Community they did not talk about values, they just felt that those principal commodities should be taken out of the hands of national governments so they would not be able to produce weapons, openly or secretly, and draw the nations of Europe into a new conflict. In the meantime, the world around us is rapidly evolving, new economic powers are rising – China is often referred to, but not exclusively: India, Latin America in mid-term and Africa in a longer-term perspective are to be considered as well. Therefore, we need to cooperate for Europe not necessarily to increase, but at least to maintain its role and what we all refer to as the European civilization, in this changing world. If we look across the continent and even beyond the Atlantic, there are three pillars of European-Eurasian-Euroatlantic civilization with Europe in the middle, Russia as another pole, and North America as the third. I do not intend to project a vision of domination or create new rifts of North against South, West against East, but rather to encourage us to work together in a peaceful manner in this multipolar world of ours. We already live in a multipolar world, with the economy being already globalised. When problems in the banking sphere occur across the Atlantic, the effect is immediately felt in Europe, including inevitably Russia. Nowadays, people are talking about a “Pivot to Asia”, and, for that, my country is in a unique position. If you look at the official state seal of the Russian Federation, you will see a double-headed eagle which looks both ways – to the West and to the East. Russia has always been a connecting link between Europe and Asia. We are currently developing very fruitful and constructive relations with China and other countries of the Asian-Pacific region; however that does not mean that we are turning away from Europe and other Western partners.
Diplomatic World: Can you be more specific on the Russia-EU relations?
Vladimir Chizhov: I have been working in this area for 16 years in different capacities. This year has marked the 10th anniversary of my credentials’ presentation in two European capitals – in London, because it coincided with the British presidency and in Brussels here with the Commission.
Indeed, we are living through a very complicated period for our multifaceted relations. Even after the global economic crisis and with the unilateral restrictive measures imposed by the EU, it still remains our number-one trade partner and Russia remains number-three trade partner of the EU, after the US and China. It is also the primary source of investment, and we intend to continue this relationship. It used to be called “Strategic Partnership”, but after a number of years I have got used to compare it to a pebble – as round and slippery from frequent use, and as difficult to grasp. The Ukrainian crisis has revealed a number of things – some of the problems that we had with the EU were systemic and visible, perhaps not to the wider public, but to us, those dealing with them on a daily basis, they were visible long before the Ukrainian crisis.
I will perhaps not dwell in too much detail, but pinpoint just two issues:
First, the visa issues. For years we pursued a dialogue on abolishing visas altogether and a parallel practical dialogue on further visa facilitation. Several times when we were almost there, so far that we could not make another step without reaching a final result, the whole process suddenly rolled back for reasons that we could only guess.
Another example is our cooperation in crisis management, a totally different area. Certainly, we have some positive examples – like our successful cooperation in peacekeeping in Chad and Central African Republic, or our cooperation with ATALANTA – the anti-piracy operation launched by the EU. However, every time we raised the issue of creating a proper legal framework to cooperate on an equal footing, it did not work out: the EU always said “this is what we have, take it or leave it”. That was not really helpful. We spent several years negotiating a New Basic Agreement with the EU to replace the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which dates back to 1994. My country has changed over the years, the same goes for the EU which became bigger and transformed itself following the Lisbon Treaty. The process started long before Ukraine appeared on the scene. I had the privilege to lead those talks from the Russian side, sitting together with different interlocutors. In the meantime four of them changed, the last one was David O’Sullivan. He was the Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service and now is the EU man in Washington.
Diplomatic World: What has the Ukraine crisis revealed about Russia-EU relations?
Vladimir Chizhov: Ukraine has shown in a nutshell the problems we had. We viewed the creation of the Eastern Partnership with an open mind, saying that we would not be part of it, neither an object nor a subject of this endeavour. However, we would be open to see if there were any specific projects that might be of interest to the EU, to the focus countries and to Russia. We have been waiting for five or six years, and not a single project appeared, not a single time did the EU come and say “this is something Russia may be interested in”. On the contrary, one foreign affairs minister of an EU Member State (I will not name the country) said as early as 2013 that “EU should win Ukraine in a geopolitical battle of Europe”. This was a totally wrong approach. Meanwhile this project has evolved and appeared as an effort to pull those focus countries away from Russia by severing the millions of ties uniting us from the years of our common past as parts of the Soviet Union. The interests of ordinary people were neglected. The Association Agreement that had been negotiated for five years before the crisis erupted was feeding the Ukrainian public opinion, particularly the young generation, with sweet dreams of how Ukraine would overnight become a part of the EU. I would claim that very few of the first protesters who came out into the streets, if any, had actually read the Association Agreement. When former President Yanukovich chose not to sign the Agreement, those young people were frustrated because they had their suitcases packed ready. Yet, 1200 pages of the text do not include a single word about visa-free regime.
Diplomatic World: What was the immediate impact on Russia-EU cooperation?
Vladimir Chizhov: Having made this big mistake, the EU, instead of rectifying the situation, actually went further because after two or three weeks the whole situation in Ukraine degenerated. You would no longer see EU flags, but red and black flags of ultranationalists instead. Nevertheless, the EU continued to support the opposition of those days, now part of the government, as it all ended up with a coup d’état. That created a certain environment, that was not conductive for continuing our cooperation, and the EU chose to freeze most of the big network of our bilateral institutional arrangements. Not all channels were closed, as we continued discussing things on an informal basis. There are ongoing contacts and we continue to cooperate on the international arena, like in the Iranian nuclear talks, within the Middle East Quartet, but also bilaterally on lots of other issues.
Diplomatic World: What did the EU target by imposing sanctions against Russia?
Vladimir Chizhov: These EU restrictions against Russia are unilateral and illegitimate in the first place since the only recognized authority empowered to introduce sanctions is the UN Security Council. I believe that EU has shot itself in the foot, driving itself into a corner. It is not an issue we are discussing with the EU; it is not a subject of negotiation. It is a problem created by the EU, and it is up to EU to solve it. Your question has been partly answered by nobody else but US Vice-President Joe Biden who admitted publicly that Americans had to twist the arms of Europeans to make them follow the US lead in this. It was perhaps a major factor, but there were also others, such as, shall I say, “newer” Member States of the EU. I am afraid they are still possessed by phantom pains of the past. I will not dwell more as I think it is obvious.
Diplomatic World: Do you foresee anytime soon a significant shift in EU’s approach towards Russia?
Vladimir Chizhov: Going back again to the days of Maidan, the people who are now in the Ukrainian government signed an agreement with the German, French and Polish Foreign Ministers proclaiming that they would create a government of national unity. Two days later they went to the same rostrum saying that they were the government of winners. What could the people in Eastern Ukraine think? That they were the losers? So they stood to defend their rights and their interests. Instead of resolving the situation politically, the new authorities in Kiev launched a military operation. This is where we are today.
We are, of course, trying to find a political solution to this situation in the East of Ukraine where the conflict is going on. I guess, by now everybody understands that there can only be a political solution. We have the Minsk Agreements which are the basis, but we see procrastination on the part of the Ukrainian Government on political aspects. President Poroshenko launched a process of amending the Constitution without any consultations with representatives of the self-proclaimed republics – something that contradicts the Minsk agreements. The same applies to upcoming local elections, as well as the commitment signed by President Poroshenko to introduce a law on amnesty which is nowhere to be seen. The law on special status of those areas has not yet entered into force and has been left hanging in the air.
Diplomatic World: How would you explain this delay or procrastination, as you said?
Vladimir Chizhov: The main problem is that Kiev does not want to talk directly to Donetsk and Lugansk. The “Normandy format” has been helpful so far: it includes two EU Member States, Russia and Ukraine. It is a mechanism to assist direct negotiations, but the latter have yet to take place. The Contact Group was meeting today (ndlr: 8 September) in Minsk again; we will see how that evolves. It has to be followed by political measures and restoration of the economy of the eastern regions which used to produce something between 20 and 25 per cent of the Ukrainian GDP.
Now, what we see as the way ahead is leaving the EU to care about the sanctions. They are hurting EU as well, what we saw yesterday in the streets of Brussels is a good indication (ndlr: on 7 September thousands of farmers protested in Brussels). In many other Member States this is visible as well.
Some people have the tendency to blame Russia for everything. A few days ago there was a clash between ultranationalists and police forces in Kiev, and President Poroshenko blamed Russia even for that. The same goes for the influx of refugees into the EU, which is supposedly due to Russian support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his government.
Diplomatic World: How would you like to address those critics?
Vladimir Chizhov: Objectively, one should have a look at who bombed Libya and the consequences it involved. The people trying to cross the Mediterranean towards Italy are not Libyans – they are mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, who travel across the continent. Libya is just the staging point. Those who put migrants in rubber boats and send them off do not care if they reach Europe, they just take the money and do not bother whether there is fuel or not, whether there are holes in the rubber boat or not. The EU has now launched a naval operation which is at its initial stages (planning mostly), but in order to be active on the high seas and particularly in territorial waters of Libya where 90 per cent of those boats sink, they need a UNSC resolution. For that, the consent of the host country, Libya, is needed as well. The question remains: “Where is the Government of Libya?”
In my country’s view, the main problem in Syria is not what the Syrian government is doing. Even though it is not perfect and there are no angels in that – or indeed any conflict, the main danger and the main reason for those people to flee the country is the so-called Islamic State, ISIS or DAESH. Instead of establishing a sort of interaction with the Syrian government to combat DAESH, the EU and other Western countries are trying to manipulate the conflict and support what they call the “moderate opposition” whose ranks are dwindling – not because President Assad is so successfully stamping them out, but because they are changing ranks and joining ISIS which pays more. Last year, through our diplomatic efforts in cooperation with others, we managed to solve the very acute problem of Syrian chemical weapons. How? We all cooperated with Assad, including the Americans. So, Assad is legitimate partner on this issue, but he is not on another issue – that is double standards.
If we take the broader picture: those terrorists steal oil and they sell it very cheaply and they get the money to continue the war. But who buys that oil? How does it get to the customers? Obviously through Turkey. How did that ragtag bunch of terrorists become a quasi-professional army? Is not it because thousands of Iraqi officers of Saddam Hussein’s army, who were thrown out without any means of survival, joined the ranks of ISIS just to survive?
As regards refugees from Syria, there is a popular expression saying that “the root causes should be addressed”. What we believe is that we need to unite all forces prepared to combat the terrorist threat – be it Assad, be it Egyptians, be it Saudis, be it Iranians – and work together. This is the most recent Russian proposal and it will be discussed on the forthcoming session of the General Assembly in New York – the creation of a wide international coalition. Not the one that is bombing Iraq and Syria, not the one that is bombing Yemen. By the way, comparison between Yemen and Ukraine is unavoidable: the Saudi-led and American-supported coalition is bombing Yemen to bring back to power a former president who has been ousted from the capital and fled to another country, Saudi Arabia. Does not that bring back the memory of Yanukovich?
Diplomatic World: What is Russia’s relation in the energy sector with China? How ready are the pipelines? What are the recent developments in the energy sector?
Vladimir Chizhov: Ten years ago, on 5 October 2005, we had one of Russia-EU summits in London. UK held the Presidency, everything went smoothly until a British journalist during the press-conference asked a question addressed to Tony Blair: “Mr. Prime Minister, are not you concerned with the degree of dependence of the European Union on Russian energy supplies?” I could say that Mr. Blair looked genuinely puzzled and said “Why are you asking me? This did not start on my watch, it started 30 years ago, nobody complained at the meantime and it has worked well”, and then switched to other issues. Later I got to my hotel room, switched on the TV; all the news channels had only one issue to address: increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. It was as if they had received an order from the ideological department of the central committee of the European Union.
Russia is a traditional energy producer. Some countries are blessed with a lot of sunshine, so they produce oranges, and Russia is cursed with a harsh climate but blessed with an abundance of energy. Trunk pipelines for both oil and gas from Russia to Europe were built in the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s at the height of the Cold War. I remember the days when President Reagan introduced an embargo on steel pipes exports to the Soviet Union, but Western European leaders, those of Germany and France, filled the gap. They were brave enough to withstand that pressure at the time, even during the Cold War.
We are completing a huge infrastructural project with China called “Power of Siberia” from eastern Siberia to China mainly, but also with branches to the Russian Far East. It is a huge contract for many years, but that does not mean that it is at the expense of our customers in Europe. The problem here, on this side of the world, is that when pipelines were built – let me put it with due political correctness – there were fewer transit countries. Russia and the European Commission have to address the situation with both supplies to Ukraine and transit through Ukraine for the winter season.
Diplomatic World: May the influx of migrants lead to islamisation of Europe?
Vladimir Chizhov: It is not a question that appeared today or yesterday. In Brussels, in Paris, in some cities in Germany, there is already a certain percentage of Muslim population. It needs a lot of work and patience to create a model of cohabitation. This is not something Europe has to build a wall around.
Russia is not much different, but it has a different history. I spoke at a conference here in Brussels a few years ago. It was about political Islam. Nobody ever mentions political Christianity or political Judaism, but political Islam, whatever it is… At one point I said: “Maybe you would like to listen to the representative of the largest Muslim country in Europe?”. The audience fell silent. Yes, indeed, it is Russia that has over 20 million of Muslim population.
Diplomatic World: Have you experienced problems?
Vladimir Chizhov: Islam and Islamism are different notions. There were some restless guys in Chechnya a few years ago, but actually they were not islamists in a classical sense. They were mostly nationalists-extremists. If you look at the ethnic composition of Russian population, number one are Russians, second Tatars and third Ukrainians. Russia has over 100 nationalities and 14 officially registered religions with a 1000-year history of cohabitation. Tatarstan which is in the middle of Russia has 8 million inhabitants. So if you go to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, you will see a big Orthodox cathedral and a big mosque facing each other. Ivan the 4th actually conquered Kazan in 1552. He is widely known as Ivan the Terrible, but in fact he was the first proponent of human rights; he sent a letter to the French King, protesting against the St. Bartholomew’s night massacre, defending the Huguenots.
Diplomatic World: Your Excellency, what is the message you would like to give to our readers?
Vladimir Chizhov: People often ask these days: “What is the future of Russia and EU relations? Opponents or partners?” I think the answer is obvious – we are destined to be partners, by virtue of geography, history, culture, people-to-people contacts, economy, etc. That, however, requires a partnership based on equality and due consideration of each other’s interests, rights and values.