Russian ambassador: Moscow and EU need to pull themselves out of ‘this mess’

File photo. Russian Permanent Representative Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov speaks to the press at the start of a conference on 'Supporting the future of Syria and the region' at EU council headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, 25 April 2018. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA/EFE]

In a wide-ranging interview, the Russian Ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, discussed the current tensions against the background of purported covert operations by Russian military intelligence GRU on EU soil, jailed dissident Alexei Navalny, the Sputnik vaccine, and the upcoming Economic Forum in St Petersburg.

Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed ambassador to the EU in 2005, he was Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs. He spoke to EURACTIV’s senior editor Georgi Gotev in an in-person meeting on 12 May.

Mr Ambassador, why did the Russian Federation impose sanctions on David Sassoli, the European Parliament president, and Věra Jourová, the Commission vice president? Mr Sassoli is from Italy, a country relatively friendly to Russia, and Ms Jourová – what has she done to offend Russia? Please explain?

Whatever decisions were taken by the Russian side in terms of adding some names to the stop list were reciprocal.

You have mentioned just two names out of eight

Those two are more familiar.

All right. Shall I remind you of when the chairpersons of both houses of the Russian parliament were included on the EU stop list, particularly on groundless claims? I mean Ms Valentina Matviyenko and Mr Vyacheslav Volodin. So you shouldn’t be surprised.

You say “groundless, but still, I remember that the EU states a reason when imposing the sanctions.

Do you remember the reasons? “Being close to President Putin”, is that a reason? Because any other wording, be it participation in mythical “annexations” or violation of the notorious “rules-based world order” looks rather Jesuitical, with all due respect.

But what was the reason for Mr Sassoli and Ms Jourová?

Reciprocity. Compounded by the position of the European Parliament. You will say of course that the president of Parliament is not responsible for all of its members, but still, he is the person leading the European Parliament. Regarding Ms Jourová, she has been quite vocal in promoting, in her capacity as vice president of the European Commission, certain views vis-à-vis Russia that were as unflattering as implausible. That is a fact. But again, whatever we do, it is only in the framework of reciprocity.

I thought Ms Jourová was put on the list because she is Czech, in the context of the current tensions between Moscow and Prague.

No. Definitely not.

You were asked by the EU side to explain the blacklisting, did you give the same explanations?

Actually they didn’t ask me any questions.

So I’m asking more questions than they did?

[Laughs] Perhaps you are. But they stated they do not agree with the decision of the Russian side. Of course, don’t expect me to enter into details of that conversation.

But the spirit was the same? You told them this is tit-for-tat?

Yes.

But your mission has not been disturbed by expulsions of diplomats.

No. The same for the EU delegation in Moscow.

When Russia decides to put someone from the EU side on the black list, you are consulted, of course?

As far as decisions concern individuals working at the EU institutions, yes, of course.

But you were aware of the upcoming decision to sanction these EU officials.

I knew that there would be reciprocal measures.

So you read their names in the press?

Yes, you can imagine…

Like me? OK… In any case, relations are worsening. Do you have the feeling that you may be the last Russian ambassador to the EU?

[Laughs] I can answer by quoting former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who once asked me how long I intended to stay here in Brussels. I said I feel it’s my duty to stay here to see our relationship restored and rectified. He tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Then, you are staying another hundred years”. But I seriously hope it won’t take that long.

But seriously, do you have a lot of meetings, do you speak to a lot to EU officials?

With the pandemic, nobody has many meetings these days.

But some people have a lot of teleconferences. Do you have such?

Well, I sometimes find time to sleep at night.

I’m asking because when we met previously, and we have met a number of times, you always told me of the busy agenda of EU – Russia relationship, which may be largely invisible, because many meetings are of a technical nature.

In the “good old days”, we used to have dozens of delegations, people traveling back and forth. Now this has been radically downsized. But that has resulted in additional burden falling on our shoulders here. Instead of expecting somebody to come from Moscow for certain negotiations or consultations, we are obliged to conduct them ourselves, or participate in VTCs. But frankly, these modern technologies, unfortunately or rather fortunately, cannot replace normal diplomatic work.

Yes, but when there was this physical meeting with Mr Borrell in Moscow, it didn’t go well.

Actually it went better than reported. I was there, and I can confirm it was a very professional discussion. The way it was portrayed afterwards, and especially during his appearance in the European Parliament… Perhaps he should have followed the Belgian rules, like I did when I came back from Russia. I kept the quarantine for several days, he didn’t. Had he kept it, perhaps emotions would have died down.

But since that visit, the climate has worsened.

I’m afraid, yes. And that’s too bad. Because the longer this abnormal situation is procrastinated, the more joint efforts will be required to pull us, Russia and the EU, out of this mess.

But why has the situation worsened? You can tell me your perspective. Mine is that some ‘cold cases’ have been unearthed, just like in police novels when new technologies allow to find evidence to unsolved old cases. It was discovered that Russian intelligence is behind…

You don’t really believe that, do you? If you mean the Czech story, it’s ridiculous.

I believe the law enforcement services of the EU member countries.

Well, as relatively modern history shows, excessive trust in own special services may let down not only journalists, but even heads of government and foreign ministers… There were numerous publications on the threat coming from Russian military intelligence, the GRU, which in the words of the authors of these publications was able to penetrate every keyhole across the globe. But now it appears that there are only two operatives in this service…

Two are more famous than the others, because they touched this substance, Novichok…

Which substance?

Novichok.

What is Novichok?

A military-grade poison.

You know, one of the popular jokes in my country is that Navalny gets an email reading “Alexey, don’t worry, no one has ever died of Novichok. Signed: Sergey Skripal”.

When we spoke on one occasion you said ‘discussing Navalny is pointless’.

Still is. And discussing Skripal is even more pointless.

But we saw the photos of how Navalny looks in jail.

Well, he chose to go on a hunger strike. If you or me go on hunger strike we will probably also look not very attractive.

But he was the subject of treatment bordering torture.

Who said that?

He said that.

You know, as far as prison conditions are concerned, I’m more surprise to see that, being an inmate of a prison, he freely communicates with the outside world.

But I wonder if Russia is concerned about its status…

Russia is not concerned about its status.

Russia could free Navalny. Keeping him in prison causes your country more harm.

Well, he was offered an opportunity to travel freely to Germany for treatment, in spite of having open court cases against him. And he decided nonetheless to return from his protracted journey, although he knew very well that he would be arrested.

So, he’s a provocateur?

You said that.

Is he a CIA asset?

Well, you know, when this whole story started unfolding, of the so-called poisoning which has never been proven, I had the impression that he had been half-forgotten, or written off by his sponsors. Evidently he needed a boost in his political standing and perhaps financial support.

His sponsors, that’s the CIA?

I don’t know. Again, you said that. At least the German government was generous enough to provide him with 24/7 security during his whole stay, taking him on excursions around the country in motorcades of a dozen armoured vehicles.

Before I came here I used a search engine with the keyword “Russia” and I found only negative news. Do you have some good news to share?

If you please: our vaccine has been certified in more than 60 countries.

But not in the EU.

Don’t forget, the European Union is just a small minority of the world community. Or as former Commission President José Manuel Barroso said, “Looking at the EU from here, I see it is just a small peninsula”. That was said at one of our summits that took place in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East.

Having the Sputnik V vaccine certified in the EU would help Russians travel more easily.

That would depend on the EU institutions.

Has Russia launched a proper request for certification?

Yes, with the EMA (European Medicines Agency), the relevant research procedure was launched on 4 March. And experts from that agency have been travelling to Russia, talking to Russian colleagues, seeing facilities where the vaccine is produced, so we are waiting for a positive decision any day or any week now.

Other good news?

I hope that we may see the results of the announced strategic review of relations with Russia, that the EU postponed a number of times. Hopefully, it will give an impetus toward normalising our relations.

You believe so?

I am an optimist, I told you many times. If we look at the core interests of EU countries and Russia – they are all suffering because of this bad situation.

Of course they are. If I were a businessman, I would not invest in Russia. If I had already invested, I would consider pulling out.

But that would put you in a minority of one. Because all major companies that had been investing in Russia have chosen to stay. Some have been increasing their investments, actually.

Then, this is the good news. You should have started with this.

The business community is playing a certain moderating role. Soon, next month, and that is another piece of good news, we will have the St Petersburg Economic Forum again, last year it could not take place because of the pandemic. A number of people have been invited, including from the European Commission, and a number of world leaders have reacted positively to the invitation, some will come in person, others will join by teleconference.

We have not closed any door; we have not shut any venue for cooperation. All the “freezing” exercises have been taking place on the EU side. Which I feel very bad about, because I personally spent many years of my life trying to promote Russia – EU relations.

Mr. Lavrov basically pronounced the EU-Russia relations dead.

He actually meant practical cooperation and what we call the architecture of our cooperation. But he never said we intend to shut down diplomatic relations with the EU.

Please state your message to the EU.

I am convinced that basic interests of Russia and the EU are not only compatible, but they are inter-dependent. We are living in a multipolar world, this is today widely accepted. Looking into the future, the best way – or perhaps the only way – for both Russia and the EU and its member states, Russia being of course part of Europe in the broader Eurasian context, to maintain a role as a pillar in this multipolar world is to join forces. To make the best use of the complementarity of our economies, of our societies, of our cultures. To build upon the fact that we represent various parts of the same cultural and historic sphere.

Angela Merkel once said that we share the same landmass. Of course we do, but we share much more than just landmass. We are parts of the same civilisation.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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