EXCLUSIVE / If the West decides to sanction Russia by boycotting the G8 summit in Sochi, this gathering of the world’s major players will not become a G7, but will simply disappear, and Russia will not see it as a blow, because it considers Ukraine as more important than G8, Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed ambassador to the EU in 2005 he was deputy minister of foreign affairs. He spoke to EurActiv's senior editor Georgi Gotev yesterday (4 March).
Russian President Putin gave today a wide-ranging press conference on the situation around Ukraine. Perhaps we could go into details of things he said. Let’s start with the sanctions which the EU may adopt against Russia. President Putin said that sanctions could hit back at those who impose them, and warned that they should “think about it”. Is this some sort of threat?
Of course it’s not a threat, rather a piece of friendly advice. If we speak about trade and economic ties, it’s always a two-way street. And partners that are so closely interlinked and interdependent as Russia and the EU, certainly rely on each other on many issues. Our trade turnover, I’ll give a very simple figure, is one billion euros a day. And that is a figure that is worth considering before taking any restrictive measures.
On certain possible measures that were announced at the [EU] Foreign Affairs Council yesterday, they do not appear to be overly impressive. I would even add that they are more restrained than the political rhetoric that surrounded them.
You refer to freezing the visa dialogue? As Russians have not got a visa free regime, such a freeze means nothing, is this what you mean?
Yes, because the process is already frozen by the EU. Because it’s not going anywhere. On the new [basic bilateral] agreement there is a similar situation. The ball is squarely in the EU court. Before the last [EU-Russia] summit we had in January we suggested that we should re-invigorate the process, and use the summit to provide political impetus to those negotiations, but the EU chose to postpone it to the next summit in June. So we’ll see what the European Council comes out with on Thursday.
But what if G8 becomes G7? Wouldn’t this be a blow to Russia?
Well, the G8 will not become G7, it would fade away and fizzle out. Because actually it’s been overtaken to a great extent by the G20, as far as economic issues are concerned. On the political side: you know, chairing the G8 is not a privilege, it’s not a gift given to Russia. It’s a huge burden of responsibility. And every presidency of the G8 has to organise hundreds of meetings, apart from the summit. If there is a pause in that work, that would only increase the tension in further work on preparing the summit and beyond. And you know, for Russia, I will tell you my personal view, what happens in Ukraine is more important than what happens with the G8 summit.
Ukraine is important, but we see a dialogue of the deaf between the EU and Russia in terms of qualifying the political events in this country. The EU sees what happened there as a democratic revolution, while President Putin calls it…
A coup d’état.
He said an “anti-constitutional coup d’état and armed seizure of power”. Similarly, the EU and Russia diverge on the election of a local government in Crimea. President Putin called it today fully legitimate, while in the eyes of the EU it looks like a parody of democracy. I can give more examples, but my question is: if you are not speaking the same language, how can we expect that the crisis be defused?
First, I wouldn’t say that it’s a dialogue of the deaf. Actually the phone lines between Moscow and EU capitals, and Washington too of course, are functioning on a 24-hours a day basis. For example Chancellor Merkel and President Putin in the last two weeks spoke six times. Foreign minister Lavrov is seeing Catherine Ashton now, as we speak, in Madrid. So there is no lack of communication. There is a certain difference of opinion and assessment, yes. What we see having happened in Kiev is indeed a coup d’état. You know, one of the demands of the opposition was to go back to the constitution of 2004. But each and every Ukrainian constitution, as well as constitutions of most other countries, provide certain options regarding the termination of presidential duties. Option one, the President dies. Option two, the President resigns.
Or option three, impeachment.
Yes, impeachment. But none of the three took place in Ukraine.
Because he ran away from the country.
Well, what do you mean ran away, he went to Kharkiv, which is the second largest city.
After threats he received from extremists and nationalists.
But he was also discredited when people saw his lifestyle, when they found the documents he had tried to destroy.
But if you go a hundred metres from there and see the house of the current prime minister, Mr. Yatsenyuk, and then go see the palaces of the others, you know, that house that Yanukovich had would pale [in comparison].
Really? How do you know that?
I saw it on Russian TV.
They also call it Russian propaganda.
Well, what is propaganda, if there are huge houses belonging to the new leaders of Ukraine – that’s a photographic fact.
There was, at one point, an agreement signed by Yanukovich as president, by the three leaders posing as the opposition, and the foreign ministers of Poland, Germany and France…
And there was a Russian representative…
There was a Russian representative who did not sign, because he believed, and he was proven right, that three opposition leaders would not be able to deliver on their promises, and that’s what happened. According to that agreement, what did Yanukovich have to do? He promised not to introduce a state of emergency, he promised to withdraw the police and the special forces from the centre of the city and to send them to barracks. And he agreed to a constitutional reform and early elections at the end of the year. And he delivered on all those…
Well, he didn’t have time to deliver, frankly…
But the police and the Berkut squads were withdrawn from the centre of the city and went to barracks. The opposition promised: to disarm, to hand over the weapons stolen from police headquarters and even military units in various parts of the country, numbering 1,500 firearms, to dismantle the barricades, to vacate administrative buildings, to launch the constitutional reform and hold elections afterwards. And above all, they agreed to establish a government of national unity. Nothing of that has been fulfilled.
But the game changer was Yanukovich running away – a revolutionary situation…
It’s not a revolutionary situation.
It was a vacuum of power which was filled by a new government and interim head of state, voted by the Parliament and considered legitimate by the EU.
It’s certainly not a government of national unity. Even the head of that government, Yatsenyuk, went public in the parliament, saying “we are a government of winners”. Which of course raises the question who the losers are. And evidently the people in the Eastern part of the country considered themselves the losers in that situation. They were never consulted, they are not represented in that government, and their interests are not taken into consideration. Neither the eastern part, nor the southern part. And may I remind you of the demographics. It’s the east and the south of Ukraine that constitute the majority of the population, and the majority of voters. So in any free and fair national election, it’s not those people sitting now in the government offices in Kiev that have a chance of winning.
So you still say that a majority of Ukrainians don’t want the Association Agreement with the EU? You told me that a few months ago.
Actually I believe this will be an issue on which there is and will be no consensus.
What if Mr. Yatsenyuk signs the Association Agreement on Thursday?
Well, I hope the EU is prudent enough to count on a more legitimate government as a counterpart in this signing ceremony.
Do you think elections on 25 May could be legitimate?
That will depend on how they are organised and held. If they only take place in half of the country, of course they will not be legitimate. If they take place under pressure from the extremist-nationalist gangs that hover across Kiev and other parts of the country, of course they will not be legitimate. That’s why I believe the right way, the correct way would be to go back to that 21 February agreement. And do it in a proper sequence. First the constitutional reform, then the elections, not the other way round.
So that’s the main message you have today. Can I ask you to explain this new doctrine that raises concerns in some EU countries. President Putin says that Russia acts to defend the people which it sees close in an historic, cultural and economic perspective. Countries like Latvia, that has a sizeable Russian minority, but also Lithuania and Estonia are deeply concerned. One day Russia could say this population is not well represented and we should do something about it…
Speaking of Latvia and Estonia, that population is not represented at all, because they don’t even have citizenship in those countries.
Does it mean that you will send troops there?
Why do you switch to this cold war mentality?
What I know is that these countries have concerns. They have approached NATO because they feel a threat to their national security.
Russia is not threatening anybody. Russia is not going to war with anybody, be it Ukraine or Latvia, or whoever. What we are doing is fully in line with international law and our obligations. Of course, when people in parts of Ukraine, including the Crimea, appeal to Russia and the Russian president: please help us, please prevent us from being harassed, beaten and killed by those nationalist thugs that are planning to send trainloads of bandits from Kiev and the western part of Ukraine into the Crimea. What else should they be doing? Of course, they try to organise their self-defence, in whatever way possible. But you mentioned elections in the Crimea. In the Crimea, the local parliament has elected a new speaker. So what’s illegal about that? And that parliament elected a new head of the local government. That’s perfectly legal, perfectly within the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, which is enshrined in the laws of Ukraine…
Well, this gentleman has three MPs from a parliament of 99 and his election is widely seen as doubtful. That’s the problem of the different interpretations. And while you see trains of “bandits” going into the Crimea, we see Russian troops going into the Crimea, sometimes wearing uniforms without national distinctions.
Those are not Russian troops.
President Putin has said so, but it’s very difficult to imagine that they have been locally organised.
Why? You know, there is a Russian naval base in Ukraine, it’s been there since the 18th century. And a lot of former sailors and military personnel stayed on to live in the Crimea. So they may look professional. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed in the Crimea on the basis of a bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreement of 1997, which originally was signed for 20 years and then was prolonged until 2042. And there are conditions, including lease payments, and certain ceilings for the number of personnel. The actual number of personnel in the last years has been much lower than the agreed ceilings. So whatever additional troops may be sent to Ukraine, it’s within the agreed ceilings. And no one has fired a shot.
Let’s hope that no shots will be fired at all.
Certainly. As far as the Ukrainian military presence is concerned in the Crimea, the fact is that the newly appointed commander of the Ukrainian navy, appointed by the way by the current authorities…
He did not defect, he changed allegiance, he took an oath of allegiance to the Crimean authorities. And as many of 6.000 members of the Ukrainian army and navy followed him. Not everybody, but the numbers are quite significant. So there is no conflict in the Crimea, unless people come from other parts of the country and organise some disturbances. By the way, adjoining regions of Ukraine, southern regions, have applied for becoming part of that Autonomous Republic. That’s an indication of the mood of the population.
Let’s return to the 21 February agreement. What do we do with Mr. Yanukovich? I think that if he returns to Ukraine, he will not find it very comfortable.
So, 21 February agreement without Yanukovich?
Let them do proper presidential elections without him. But following the constitutional reform. I don’t think he will run for President.
Any suggestion what kind of wise decision could come from the EU summit on 6 March?
I hope it’s a reasonable decision. Actually I’m trying to explain not only through you to the public opinion, but to EU institutions here, the real situation, and outline our view what should be undertaken. Actually I was a bit surprised, looking at the conclusions of the [FAC] Council yesterday, seeing no reference to that agreement, from 21 February, as if it didn’t exist at all. As if the signatures of three EU foreign ministers are worth nothing.
I think this was an agreement which was the victim of the departure of Mr Yanukovich…
It was a victim of the irresponsible stance of the opposition. Do you know what those who signed from the opposition did? Klitschko, the huge boxer, he went to Maidan and he started apologising for having signed it. Instead of delivering the message that this is the compromise, this is the best possible way out, and you guys, on the square should fulfil your own obligations. Instead, he apologised for having signed it and for having shaken the hand of Yanukovich.
We saw on TV Polish Minister Sikorski saying angrily: “If you don’t sign…”
“You’re dead”. I saw that. I think Sikorski didn’t anticipate that the signature he was demanding from the opposition would become worthless in a matter of hours, as would his own.
Do you see some troublemakers inside the EU, who make your life more difficult?
The usual culprits [laughs]. I don’t want to name countries. But I certainly see some differences in positions.
And your favourite interlocutor? Must be Ms Merkel?
My favourite interlocutor is of course Baroness Ashton who represents the 28 countries in that sense. And of course President van Rompuy and President Barroso.