Russia understands the present difficulties holding up the process of EU integration, just like EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy has never publicly criticised Moscow over the human rights situation in Russia "because he understands it," Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassdor to the EU, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed Russia's ambassador to the EU in 2005, he was his country's deputy minister of foreign affairs.
He was speaking to EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Mr. Ambassador, we are meeting a few days after the demise of Osama Bin Laden. How was the news received in Moscow and what do the Russian leadership and the Russian people think about what happened in Pakistan?
We believe that it was a successful operation on the part of the American special forces, which has led to the killing of a man widely believed to be the mastermind, not only behind 9/11, but also behind a number of other terrorist activities, including some in Russia and the northern Caucasus. The links between Al-Qaeda and terrorists who used to operate in various parts of the world, including Russia, was quite evident.
So we consider this as part of overall international efforts which also included a number of successful operations by Russian special forces in our own territory. Of course the difference being that the Russians operated within their own national territory and the Americans operated in the territory of Pakistan. Well, I leave aside the issue of US-Pakistani relations in this respect…
But in any case you don't appear to share feelings expressed in some circles in Europe, suggesting that the Americans should have captured him alive.
I wouldn't want to speculate on this. Of course bringing somebody to justice is a formula that is usually referred to in the context of bringing somebody to trial. But none of us know the actual circumstances. None of us have actually seen the corpse! [laughs] And we do not know the actual details.
Perhaps at some point they will be published and there will be transparency, but I think [US] President [Barack] Obama has a valid point saying, "putting a picture of a dead body with a bullet in his head could actually ignite feelings in some places across the world".
Of course if Russia wants details, I think Russian President Dmitry Medvedev could speak to his colelague Mr Obama and get all the details…
They will have a chance a couple of weeks from now at the G8 summit in Deauville, just around the corner from here. But I can confirm that actually the Russian government was informed by the US government before Obama went on television.
By the way, if I'm asking about this detail, it's also because when they fight with terrorists the Russian forces usually take no prisoners, if you pardon the expression.
In most cases the people we are dealing with are people who have nothing to lose. They actually are indoctrinated to become a Shahid [martyr]. That's how those suicide bombers come to act.
In many cases, of course, the police and the special forces, each time they provide an opportunity for surrender, but only on very rare occasions is there a positive reaction from the terrorists. In most cases they start shooting, and then there is no other way to deal with them.
What was the Russian reaction to this wave of revolutions in Northern Africa and in the Arab World in general? In several countries Russia has traditionally good relations, therefore there ought to be mixed feelings about it.
I wouldn't like to boast, but I can tell you quite responsibly that Russian diplomacy saw it coming. Of course the situations are different in different countries. We shouldn't compare for example seemingly similar events, say in Libya and in Bahrain or in Egypt.
Some people are talking about "Facebook revolutions" or "Twitter revolutions". But you know in Egypt only 4% of the population actually owns a computer, in Bahrain it is 88%, which makes the whole situation quite different.
In Bahrain it has taken on more of a religious split between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. In Syria only now some people started remembering that the president actually belongs to the Alawites. But you know the current regime in Syria used to be called the "Party of Arab Socialist Renewal". And it was certainly a non-religious regime. Well, in Libya they're all Sunnis, so there is no difference of this kind.
So the situations are all different but there are similarities of course. Some are related to the economic situation, but again the per capita GDP in Libya was several times higher than in Egypt. The nature of the regimes, of course most of them have overstayed their luck [laughs], to put it bluntly.
But also, you see, if you look at the demographics, the average age of an Egyptian is 24. So the average Egyptian had not known any other president. In Yemen, reportedly, I don't know how accurate the figures are, reportedly it is 17. And the president has been around for how many – 32? – that is two generations!
What we're concerned about of course is that the nature of the transitions has in many places become violent and blood was shed and there were casualties, which we certainly deplore. We were quite apprehensive about the developments in Libya. That is why we supported Resolution 1970 which introduced certain restrictions, sanctions, and we allowed subsequent Resolution 1973 to pass by abstaining.
Well you can ask why we didn't veto, that's the reason, because we did not in any way condone what Muammar Gaddafi and his government was doing. We didn't vote in favour because we had doubts, like other countries did! Like Germany did, similar doubts. Because the resolution, which was positive in essence, was also vague in terms of means of implementation, and subsequent events have shown that our concerns had been at that stage quite legitimate.
In particular there was this attack against a building where Muammar Gaddafi was believed to be, and the attack killed one of his sons. Is this something that Russia doesn’t accept?
I personally believe that it has very little to do with establishing the no-fly zone and protecting the civilian population. So some of the actions of the coalition are quite questionable. Now, here in Brussels we hear about the EU planning and of a military operation of its own to provide security for humanitarian assistance, in case there is a request coming from the UN.
But there is no such request inside at the moment. I want to make one thing clear, and I want to put emphasis on it: a request by the UN should not be a request by certain officials at the UN secretariat or even a request from OCHA [the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs]. A "request from the UN", strictly speaking, is a request from the Security Council.
So we cannot exclude that the course of events may require such an operation but in this case the EU should go through its member states, should go to the Security Council, and ask for a new resolution, because this would go way beyond what the Security Council has approved so far.
But what would be Russia's main motivation to agree? Massive bloodshed?
I don't want to sound like a Cassandra in this situation! I believe that the whole Libyan crisis has only one way of being settled, that is the way of political negotiation. I am personally somewhat concerned that the mediation efforts undertaken so far by, for example, the African Union, have not been successful because there was a negative stance, not from Tripoli by the way, but from Benghazi!
The Transitional Council with which we are in correspondence has not been forthcoming in accepting a ceasefire. But how can you launch a political process without a ceasefire?
The latest that I read this morning, somebody from Benghazi saying "all we need to achieve a clear military victory is $3 billion". [laughs] I would be quite cautious in opening up the purses!
No-one can sell arms even to the rebels, even if they have money.
Precisely! According to Resolution 1973 a complete arms embargo covers all sides in that conflict. And that includes sending military trainers or advisers.
Is the Russian position closer to the position of Turkey, which is a position of mediation?
We were not planning to mediate ourselves, but we welcome all efforts, be it the African Union, be it the Arab League, be it whoever. First of all to put an end to the bloodshed and to open a political process.
Even if Gaddafi stays in power?
That's for the Libyan people to decide, isn't it? If there is a compromise that is acceptable to all, we will be able to live with it. If the people demand – well, who are the people? If you look at what's happening inside Tripoli, you will see rallies in support of Gaddafi. So you cannot say that 100% of the Libyan people demand that he leaves. It means it is a political crisis, with unfortunately a resort to violent means.
Are you happy with your relations with your counterparts in the European Union, with Catherine Ashton, for example who is under fire in EU circles?
She has been under fire from the first day that she is in office! I have a lot of sympathy for her, because this was a structure that was built from the top down. So she was given the steering wheel without the other wheels or the engine, and was expected to drive immediately in four different directions!
How do you work with her?
I work with her quite well. I've known her since she was commissioner for trade, before she became high representative. The future will judge whether it was the wisest of all decisions to combine the functions of several people in the previous incarnation of the European Union into a single post and not even give her deputies.
Well, they say several commissioners can act as deputies at the political level…
Of course they can! [laughs] But I've seen that in a number of cases already when she was physically unable to participate in some events, she was replaced not by commissioners but by the Hungarian foreign minister. What is the impact of this substitution on efficiency? Perhaps it is too early to judge.
I would like to come back to the agenda of Russia-EU bilateral relations. Are there any big events coming up? How would you assess relations?
I will perhaps proceed chronologically. Before the end of this month, apart from the encounter in Deauville which will be the G8 summit, we will have a permanent partnership council (PPC) in the field of freedom, justice and security in St. Petersburg on 19 May with the ministers of justice and interior of Hungary and Poland, participating and [Home Affairs] Commissioner [Cecelia] Malmström. It's not foreign policy so it's part of the domain where the national presidencies are still valid.
Is it about visas?
It's going to cover our visa-free dialogue. It will cover our dialogue on updating the existing visa facilitation regime. I hope it will be able to launch a dialogue on migration. It will cover our cooperation in the anti-terrorist field, in fighting organised crime, drug trafficking, our cooperation with Europol and Eurojust, and above judicial cooperation in criminal matters, in civil and trade matters, and so on.
So it's a very broad agenda. And understandably these PPCs take place twice a year. So there is the meeting on 19 August in St. Petersburg but another one is planned for October in Warsaw.
And then we have our 27th summit which will be taking place on 9-10 June in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, but not as far east as Khabarovsk or Khanty Mansiysk [where similar summits took place before].
Nizhny Novgorod, the former Gorky? I remember its citizens didn't like the name 'Gorky' because it means 'bitter', and there is nothing bitter in Nizhny Novgorod: it’s a beautiful city on the Volga…
That was the pseudonym the famous author Maksim Gorky took for himself. He had a dry sense of humour! [laughs] Indeed…
And also our parliamentary cooperation is proceeding. There was a working group of the parliamentary cooperation committee last week in Astrakhan. There will be another before the end of this month in Sochi. And a formal annual meeting of the committee will be in Warsaw on 1 September.
Also our negotiations on the new basic agreement: the process overall is continuing but we've taken a technical pause to sort out some issues that have arisen in the area of trade and investment. So informal consultations are ongoing. There was a round last week in Geneva. And the next one is planned for next week in Moscow.
And of course the partnership for modernisation is underway. There will be a meeting of the two coordinators on the EU side and the deputy minister for economic development on the Russian side.
How about the more strategic projects? Prime Minister Putin spoke of a "harmonious community of economies from Lisbon to Vladivostok". Are you thinking of putting flesh to this idea? For the time being relations between Russia and the European Union are managed by yearly summits, but for such a project, maybe a new institutional framework will be needed?
The new institutional framework will be the concluding chapter of the new basic agreement. When we approach the final stage of those negotiations we will certainly create a modern effective structure of our relationship. In the meantime of course, "harmonious economic space" presupposes that Russia becomes a member of the WTO.
Which it is going to become, according to recent optimistic statements.
Yes, I am quite confident.
Are there any new problems?
When you have negotiated something for almost 18 years, all the big issues have been settled. Then the small issues became big issues. They were settled. Now it's the remaining tiny bits that understandably are being blown out of proportion.
By some countries?
By some countries. And I would say there were two exogeneous factors. One was the global financial economic crisis, which has led to certain anti-crisis measures being taken by most countries, including the EU and Russia, which require certain explanations as to their temporary, anti-crisis nature, and compatibility with WTO rules.
And secondly, while we continued negotiating, and actually some of us becoming frustrated by the lack of expected progress along that negotiating track. We were more successful along a parallel track of creating a customs union with two former Soviet countries, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
So this also led to a certain intellectual effort, brainstorming how best to create an interface between WTO membership and this customs union. And the customs union is already evolving into a single economic space.
All three members of the customs union have applied to join the WTO but each is at a different stage of accession, Russia being the most advanced. Kazakhstan actually is not far behind. But Belarus for reasons which have nothing to do with trade or its economy is actually at the beginning phase.
So this had to be addressed also in the context of our negotiations on the new basic agreement with the European Union. So this has taken some time, understandably, but now we believe we are proceeding at a satisfactory pace.
By the way, all this is taking place against the background of a number of frozen conflicts like Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Do you think that this 'harmonious community of nations' could co-exist with those frozen conflicts or that these should be solved in the meantime?
You know, even the European Union has changed its terminology. It no longer refers to "frozen conflicts". It refers to "protracted conflict", which in the case of Transnistria is correct, but which in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is no longer correct, because those conflicts have been settled. There are two new vibrant democracies that appeared on the world map with whom my country has established full diplomatic relations.
How the government in Tbilisi has used that is of course their problem. In our view it should get accustomed to realities on the ground. And what is important is that in order to bring stability into that part of the world, the first thing that needs to be done, I would say, are durable guarantees of non-recurrence to use of force by Georgia.
But Georgia has the support of the European Union. You may say it is their point of view, but they have 27 countries on their side.
In considering that their territory is occupied by a foreign force.
No, the European Union has not referred to the notion of an occupation, which would have been wrong from the point of view of international law. Because occupation means that a foreign power is exercising administrative rule over the whole territory of another country or part of it, which is not the case there.
There are credible reports of ethnic cleansing, which unfortunately cannot be verified…
If they cannot be verified, they cannot be considered credible!
Yes, but it is Russia which prevents European observers from going to this territory.
No. It is the local governments. The EU should address the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia if it wants to enter their territory
The EU doesn't recognise them. But my question was in this sense: Do you think that a big political project between the European Union and Russia can take place amid all these conflicts?
There are many conflicts, unfortunately, across the world. There are still several conflicts, protracted conflicts, in Europe. There is the conflict over Kosovo and both of us know that EU member states have different views on that. We, as Russia, we share the view of those five countries that have not recognised Kosovo.
There is the unresolved Cyprus problem. Actually there is an ongoing UN peacekeeping operation within EU territory. So nobody's perfect!
You seem to like the fact that due to various internal problems the European Union has an immigration wave, which puts France and Italy in a situation where, if you like, there is a 'discount price tag' attached to human rights and to basic freedoms in the European Union…
No, I'm actually quite unhappy about the recent problems with immigration in the European Union, because you will understand that is not very helpful in terms of creating a positive environment around our own dialogue with the European Union aimed at abolishing visas.
Actually I believe that the achievements of European integration that have taken place so far, including the introduction of the euro, including the introduction of the Schengen system, they are major achievements. Of course they are coming under strain and that is quite understandable, because in the financial field you have a single currency but the fiscal policies have remained in the hands of the individual states, and that was bound to clash.
In the field of immigration, again, having a single Schengen space which covers most of the European Union requires the need to jointly address issues of immigration. Both illegal and legal migration, which in many cases had remained, again, in the competence of individual member states. That is why we have seen what we have seen.
Next time Herman Van Rompuy speaks about human rights in Russia, will you speak to him about human rights in the European Union?
Herman Van Rompuy has not spoken on this publicly, because I hope he understands the situation. It may not be perfect. I will never claim that the human rights situation in my country is perfect, but it is improving. And there are consistent efforts by the authorities to promote dialogue with EU civil society, to improve the work of the judiciary, to reform the policy, which are currently taking place, and of course we do have a dialogue on human rights.
Actually the day before yesterday there was a full day of consultation on human rights with the European Union, which according to reports from my colleagues who work in those consultations took place in a very positive and constructive atmosphere. This is confirmed by the press release published by the EU yesterday.
I think you wanted to add something.
I am happy to be able to inform you that a public criminal case about a prominent lawyer, Markelov, and a young girl journalist who were both killed in downtown Moscow: this has been resolved.
[Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, had just come out of a press conference when he was shot on a sidewalk. Anastasia Baburova, a journalist, was killed trying to defend him. Markelov worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist, and with Natalya Estemirova, a human rights campaigner, both of whom were killed in separate attacks.]
And this morning I saw reports that the two perpetrators, a man and a woman, the man who actually did the shooting, he got life. And the woman got 18 years. So this has been resolved. So don't write that not a single case which is so often referred by various human rights activists, has been resolved! There is some progress.