In this sort of situation, one blows hot and cold in succession. A phase of de-escalation, at least verbal, appears to have been started by Vladimir Putin’s statement. He conducted an operation of ‘calculated posturing’, as the military says. What matters now is to define the axis of exit from this crisis. There is no longer any ideological or military reason for a new cold war in Europe. No-one has any interest in that. There is too much interdependence between us for not looking at the road for a durable resolution.
We are not taking that road currently…
From the start there was a big misunderstanding: the EU policy aimed at association with Ukraine, while raising expectations of membership, as Olli Rehn declared, cannot be realised in a sensible timeframe. Membership may not even be desirable. One should not have placed, and must not, place Ukraine in front of a manichean choice: either Russia, or the EU. That is an unsolvable dilemma for Ukraine, given her history. The reality of Ukraine is her diversity. In the East there are russophone populations, and in the West, uniate catholic communities, some of which were once part of Austro-Hungary. It is not sensible to expect a democratic equilibrium in Ukraine, with power alternating between East and West, as we have witnessed since 1991: Kravtchuk in 1991, Timochenko, then Ianukovitch. I see not reason why Ukraine could not become a federal state. It may be what Russia is leading at: that is no reason to disqualifying the proposal, if it makes good sense. As for Crimea, no-one could challenge that it is Russian, as the majority of her population. A substantial autonomy is in the natural order. As Charles de Gaulle once said: ‘There is no worthwhile politics outside realities’.
In your last book you wrote: ‘Without Russia, something is missing in Europe’…
Russia is a great European country. Her space stretches across Europe and Asia, but her people are unquestionably European. Something essential to our culture would go missing without the Russian novelists, Tolstoï, Dostoievski, without Tchekov’s plays, Diaghilev’s ballets, Tchaikovski’s music, Sutin’s painting. Moreover, France is well placed to know how much she owes to Russia: in 1914 we were lucky to have the Russian front buying us time to hold on to the Marne, and more so in WWII. We are in Russia’s debt for her immense sacrifices in breaking the back of nazi Germany. One cannot delete history at a stroke.
Is Russia a democracy?
For twenty two years Russia has been a state based on the rule of law, no doubt imperfectly so, but which comprises all the elements (necessary to) democratic development: political pluralism, freedom of expression – at least in the written press and on the Internet – elections that the opposition can win, as for example in Yekaterinburg, fourth city in the country, last September. The 1993 Constitution, still in force, has been adhered to; in France, twenty years after 1789, we had at least ‘consumed’ seven or eight (constitutions). One has to trust (the effects of) economic development, time, the rise of a middle class: democracy will develop from the Russian people themselves. The thesis of exporting democracy is dangerous: the ideology that states that the West must export its values, norms, standards, can only feed the lingering remains of the cold war. One always has to try and understand what’s in the head of ‘the other’: Russians believe that Westerners, particularly in the US, have not given up on ‘regime change’.
They haven’t forgotten Kosovo, Iraq, Libya etc. Russia defends her geopolitical interests, but she is not the USSR. That disappeared twenty three years ago. One must accept that each country evolves at her own pace and chooses her destiny. I always refer to Jacques Berque who said that every people must find in themselves, and in their motivations, reasons to borrow concepts that at first are foreign, but that those cannot be forced upon them.
Does Europe need Russia?
Since, on the other side, there is a project of euro-asian free trade, why not try and work this out in its entirety, from Brest to Vladivostok? That was the spirit of strategic partnership agreed between the EU and Russia in 2003: to create a vast free-trade area from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Since then there has been growth of interconnected interests: western investment, German and French, in Russia, as well as energy and industrial interdependence. One has to see how this can be developed further in a free trade space that must, of course, include Ukraine.
You have denounced also the ‘ambient Russophobia’…
Russia became a great country at the end of the eighteenth century, with Catherine the Great and Alexander I, as Napoleon found out at his cost. But Russia has long inspired fear. In Germany and the Anglo-Saxon world, there was political Russophobia, geopolitical rivalry between Great Britain and the Russian Empire, as shown in the nineteenth century by the war in Crimea and the ‘Great Game‘. Between the US and the USSR it was the Cold War, from 1917 to 1990.
Germany, in 1918 and 1941, was tempted to expand to the East, by pushing away the Slavs, an old pan-germanic thesis. That temptation has now fortunately disappeared and today German policies towards Russia are infinitely wiser.
In France there is an ideological Russophobia. It was defined in 1839 by the Marquis de Custine in his famous formula: ‘Siberia starts at the Vistula’. That Russophobia is deeply detrimental to the interest of our country, and to that of a peaceful Europe. In ‘Le monde’, for example, the historian Françoise Thom, wrote of a ‘civilisation choice’ about Ukraine: are we going back to Samuel Huntington‘s ‘clash of civilisations’ (1994)? If Bernard-Henri Lévy and a few others could resuscitate Joseph Stalin it would give them their ‘raison d’ être’!
How do you see Vladimir Putin?
After the economic collapse of Russia in the decade that followed the end of the USSR, when Russian GDP was halved, Putin improved that situation considerably (with average annual economic growth of 7% between 2000 and 2010). He has adopted policies that are socially appreciated. Paradoxically he has contributed to the rise of a middle class that is not particularly supportive to him. He has restored Russia’s international role. Russian public opinion appreciates him. In the main the French media project at best a reductive vision of the Russian reality. Certain things of course may shock us: gay propaganda towards minors is legally suppressed. This may be interpreted in many different ways. But we forget that thirty years ago, in France, interference with minors was more heavily sanctioned for homosexuals. That cannot be the sole benchmark to judge a country. Death penalty is not abolished in Russia, but there is a moratorium, and no executions. One cannot say the same of all countries, including some of our closest allies. A majority of the Russian people supports Vladimir Putin, and the opposition is divided. M. Navalny, leader of the opposition, received 28% of votes in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin likes to present himself as the inheritor of the European christian roots…
Are we in a confrontation between Eastern and Western christianities? In a poll, seventy four percent of Russians below the age of 30, were ignorant of the ‘filioque‘, the theological quarrel that led in 1054 to the schism between the Byzantine Church and the catholic Church of Rome. It was a question of knowing if the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. What surprises me is that 26% of young Russians still know what that was about! Russian society is more religious than ours: a simple walk though the basilicae of the Golden Ring shows the many worshippers, of all generations, praying fervently in front of the icons.
The truth is that Russia has an identity problem, now she has been pushed back to her sixteenth century borders, and that she sees NATO extended far beyond West Germany’s boundaries, contrary to the 1990 agreement. Russians remember that NATO wanted to include Georgia and Ukraine in 2006 – which France and Germany opposed. They consider that Russia’s status as great power would be threatened by NATO’s extension to these two countries. They probably exaggerate the threat, but they don’t enter easily into the western leaders’s reasoning. We have seen many of the same leaders, a few weeks back, posturing on Maidan square, making unreasonable speeches, and displaying themselves in the company of unsavoury characters. Was that sensible? The agreement concluded with Ianukovitch, countersigned by the three foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, was then emptied of substance. And one speaks of interference!
You speak in your book of the inevitability of a ‘variable geometry’ Europe, as the sole solution to managing a Union of twenty eight plus countries…
Why not linking the Euro – as a single or common currency – and the Rouble: Europe represents more than half Russian foreign trade. We have a strong interdependence for energy and economic growth: few French citizens know that more than a million cars built in Russia, or a third of the total production, are made by French automakers. Few people are aware of the scope of investments in the Yamal peninsula to exploit natural gas. Those are considerable investments, in which Total, among others, has a stake. Russia’s is a resurgent economy close to us, with Moscow a mere three hours from Paris. French businesses in Russia do not wish for this crisis to worsen.
And the American alliance?
We must maintain our alliance with the US, but an alliance does not equate with subordination. The 21st century cannot be reduced to a confrontation between China and the US. It is desirable that Europe organises herself to exist by herself. One must think of a ‘variable geometry’ Europe associating different countries, each choosing how it converges its policies toward a common European interest.
For the past eight months Europe and the US have been negotiating a commercial agreement dubbed ‘Transatlantic Treaty‘, which aims at improving the conditions of free trade between the two Atlantic shores: do we have anything to gain from that agreement?
My fundamental criticism is that the Euro/Dollar exchange rate can vary in a 1 to 2 ratio. The Euro was at 82 cents in 2000, and $1.60 in 2006. So (in these conditions),what does the suppression of our custom duty (3 to 4%) and norms harmonisation mean?
Today the Euro is worth $1.40, a very high level for the French economy, which is not in (trade balance) surplus with the US like Germany’s. Behind that treaty is a US will to group all the countries of the Atlantic shores, as those of the Pacific, to isolate China.
There is then the will of some large multinational corporations to implant themselves in low-cost areas: Mexico, and even the US, for financial reasons.I cannot see what our country can gain from that.
What is your view of the sanctions decided last Thursday by the EU?
The European sanctions (against Russia) are a double-edged sword. They target all Russian nationals, contrary to the US measures targetted at the leadership, except Vladimir Putin… The only virtue I see is that they are easily reversed…