An interview with Kremlin envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky

A Russia-European Union summit will be held in the city of Samara this Friday, May 18. Here to discuss the summit’s prospects is Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Putin’s special envoy for developing relations with the European Union.

A Russia-European Union summit will be held in the city of Samara this Friday, May 18. Here to discuss the summit’s prospects is Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Putin’s special envoy for developing relations with the European Union.

Question: It’s no secret that our president intends to raise the question of the Bronze Soldier monument situation at the summit. Senator Likhachev has suggested that after the summit, people will be saying that the Europeans have never seen a Putin like this – not even in Munich. Would you make an equally grim forecast about the president’s speech at the summit?

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: With all due respect for the senator, I’d like to point out that he is not involved in summit preparations. So I don’t know where he’s getting these forecasts. As for our intentions, the topics discussed at the summit will include some “awkward” issues – for both the European Union and Russia. One of them concerns the actions of the Estonian authorities in relocating the war memorial away from central Tallinn. However, since this topic has been at the center of our dialogue with the EU ever since the most acute period of the crisis, raising the issue won’t come as a surprise to the Europeans.

Question: What is Russia aiming to achieve? Does it want the summit to adopt some sort of resolution condemning the Estonian government’s actions? Or will this be nothing more than an unflattering discussion among senior officials?

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: The European Union won’t be adopting any resolutions. We are striving to ensure that they hear what we’re saying and understand the deeper reasons for our concern about the Estonian government’s actions, which are part of the trend of glorifying Nazism. Most importantly, they are subtly nudging European countries toward a comprehensive revision of the Second World War’s outcomes. The Estonian government’s actions are a challenge to Europe’s established post-war political traditions and values, one of which is the rejection of Nazism. And we don’t want the EU “neophytes” – often people with an exaggerated opinion of themselves and deep-seated neuroses about history – to achieve a turnaround in European public opinion.

Question: The European Union also has some complaints against Russia. For example, there’s the dispersal of the Dissenter March in Moscow. German Chancellor Angela Merkel intends to raise this issue at the summit. How will our side respond?

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: If this issue is raised, we shall explain to Frau Merkel what really happened in Moscow. She will be told that the opposition forces had the opportunity to express their views, and they received permission to hold a rally in a specific location. But these people then started an unauthorized march – obviously with the aim of provoking law enforcement officers. The opposition activists really wanted the police to take action against them, because they sought to make the headlines in European newspapers. And that’s what happened.

Question: Since Poland still hasn’t lifted its veto on negotiations toward a new Russia-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, there’s some danger of this summit being a waste of time. How concerned is the Kremlin about this prospect?

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: We are not concerned, since no summit is ever a waste of time. Neither the Europeans nor Russia can permit ourselves the luxury of spending one-and-a-half days in a meeting that doesn’t achieve anything. Think back to when the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya was in its active phase. The European Union stubbornly refused to understand Russia’s position, and the Chechnya topic was fairly acute at our summits. But none of those summits could be described as a waste of time! Almost a full day of face-to-face communication makes it possible to discuss many issues. A few of them are the focus of public attention – but behind them is a vast layer of work on expanding cooperation. For example, the number of joint projects in cross-border cooperation has risen substantially. The EU is allocating 307 million euros for these programs, and Russia is contributing 122 million euros. In the past four years, over 300 Russian academics and research teams have taken part in about 200 joint projects with the EU. But this is never reported in the media! No, I’m not opposed to discussing acute problems. However, I also believe that the media should remember that our relations with the EU are not confined to problems.

Question: But too many of them have accumulated. Javier Solana, for example, described Russian-EU relations as “the worst they have been for some time.” EU Trade Commissioner Mandelson said that mistrust between Russia and the EU has reached “a level not seen since the Cold War.”

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: There is some truth in those statements, although there is far more emotion. At present, we are seeing a rare concentration of problematic knots in Russian-EU relations. But we believe that this friction between two global actors is not a sign of some sort of crisis. Such friction is natural, even inevitable, in relations between any major players.

Question: So why are EU officials so critical in their assessments of the current level of “friction”?

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: They are not obliged to see the situation as we do. And we’re not obliged to see the situation as they do.

Question: You and your European colleagues seem to have very different world-views.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: But that’s quite normal. There have always been some problems, and there always will be. Only their content changes. Nevertheless, the cooperation train is steadily moving forward. Still, we can’t move faster than the European Union’s train. Like any train, it depends on the last carriage and who is riding in it. Not only riding, but dragging their legs along the track in an attempt to slow down the train.

Question: How likely is it that other countries might join Poland in its obstruction, also attempting to sort out their own problems with Russia at the expense of the whole EU? For example, Lithuania has already said it might veto the negotiations unless Moscow resumes oil exports via the Druzhba pipeline.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: There are some grounds to assume this could happen. The example of Lithuania, which is considering the possibility of joining Poland’s veto, shows that we were right to warn the EU that problems with Russia cannot be resolved in this manner. The language of blackmail, chosen by Warsaw, has no future in our relations with the European Union. The EU would do better to sort out these problems before they are raised at the Russia-EU level.

Question: Can you see any way of preventing a chain reaction of vetos?

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: There’s one way to prevent it: by not giving in to blackmail, and working calmly to ensure that our demands are met. No matter how loudly some may shout, we shall not import meat products from Poland until its veterinary and customs services restore order along their borders!

As for a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Russia and the EU, of course we’re interested in seeing negotiations begin. But life will go on even if no new agreement is signed. We’ll still have the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which can be extended indefinitely.

Question: But extending the old agreement indefinitely would indicate a full-blown crisis in Russian-EU relations.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky: No crisis! This wouldn’t make relations worse, after all – it would only prevent us from taking the next step forward, in legal terms. How could this be described as a crisis? So we’ll wait until our partner is mature enough to move on. In this case, not all EU members have matured to the point of starting negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.