Magazine a-specto sought for comment journalist Nikolay Krastev, BNR correspondent in Moscow on the highlights of the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg; Translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront
The international economic forum in St. Petersburg ended a few days ago. Experts in political science have stated their impression of the dovish statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The world knows how sharp his comments can be, especially in the last ten years. What do you think is this a sign of?
It is obvious that relations between Brussels and Moscow will be improving. Various independent assessments in Russia show that Europe means too much to it in economic terms. Turning to the East last year apparently did not occur in the volume that Moscow was hoping for. So its quite normal to return to the relations they had before 2014. It has always been stressed that the Russian-European relations are the main one for Moscow and that both in foreign policy and economic orientation, no one can replace Europe. Most commentators, analysts and experts say that Europe is something that will always remain fundamental for Russia and for its development. Other that that Russia’s expectations were that Juncker would be softer and more diplomatic, but he expressed the clear position of Brussels – that relationship will go on, but only after the implementation of the Minsk agreements. And the relationship between Russia and the European Union are part of a long process in that clearly suffers in its development. Even political commentators who attended the forum in St. Petersburg spoke in this direction.
Russia naturally wants cohesion, the question is what are the signals given by Europe. In terms of sanctions, you say that they have bound them to the Minsk agreements?
Jean-Claude Juncker said that this is the ultimately the idea. I think this is a reflection of the policy of Brussels in this situation. Juncker before coming to St. Petersburg, said there were people in Europe who were not happy with the fact that he will attend the forum. But the main message of the European Union, which was presented by him, and it is that the door for negotiations should remain open.
Nicolas Sarkozy has said that the sanctions should be removed and that the first to go for it should be the stronger, and that is Putin. Do you think that there will be an effective result of the conversation between Putin and Juncker?
Sarkozy said what Russia wanted to hear. I think he was speaking in a greater degree as Russia’s friend, and his statement was made in a similar tone. More diplomatic statements were made by former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine that diplomacy should return to the “game”. He made the analogy that the relationship today between the EU and Russia seems worse than it was 30 years between the former Soviet Union and the West. He proposed to build a new relationship between the EU and Russia. Commenting on the topic of Ukraine, Vedrine described the Minsk process and Normandy Four as working. According to him, the theme of Ukraine should be removed from the agenda in relations between Brussels and Moscow. It is clear that in Europe there are circles that want to make a breakthrough in relations with Russia. I do not know, however, if alternative policies can help in this process and that they would not slow it down eventually. The main result of the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Jean-Claude Juncker, is that there is agreement on dialogue. Juncker’s in St. Petersburg displayed that the EU wants to be the “first violin” in the relations with Russia, and not German Chancellor Angela Merkel who negotiates directly with Putin. We see now that the EU wants to be a leader in this process.
The heads of such companies as Exxon Mobil, BP and Total were present at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, regardless of the political pressure for them to not cooperate with Russia. Can we say that economic pragmatism will win over pseudo-politics? Is there a chance that business can take down the sanctions since it suffers the most from them?
Business showed interest at the forum. In fact, business is not interested in politics, but instead wants to expand and regain the market it had before, the market that was restricted as a consequence of all the things that happened after 2014. Clearly, business is more eager than the politicians. And they have the desire and ambition to move forward. For them it is logical, because Russia as a market represents a huge area of interest and opportunities. Without a doubt, the big companies have big interests that do not always go hand in hand with politics. I think they even exceed the political expectations of Brussels.
But the forum also showed something else – that politicians are sending messages to business and business is in turn supporting politicians to have a more active dialogue between the EU and Russia. The question however, is whether this can happen quickly. Clearly, things are not happening with the dynamic, which was expected to happen in time. The latest news only a few days ago, that France offers a discussion on the extension of sanctions against Russia indicates that the negotiations will happen, but under certain conditions. Its apparent that everyone in Europe is suffering – politicians, companies, and businesses in general. But this is a period which must be overcome in time. Judging by the statements that were heard there, the European Union wishes to see the road map outlined by them related to the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
At the forum, Putin invited Europe to join “Bolshaya Eurasia”? Isn’t that precisely what startled America and what makes her press Europe toward anti-Russian sanctions (as a small link in the overall strategic plan for rejecting Russia in general)?
This idea, which Putin presented to participants at the forum, is actually heavily debated in Moscow in the expert and political circles, as well as by people dealing with foreign policy strategies. They are keen to expand the Eurasian space. Its not a coincidence that at Putin said that for this Eurasian economic space, a keen interest manifests China, India, Iran, outlining these countries as close partners of Moscow in this region. The fact that at the end of the week Vladimir Putin is going to a visit to China is not a coincidence either. The expectations in this direction are very serious – businesses can realize with an even greater pace, the plans for joint projects between Moscow and Beijing. There is reason to implement a number of energy projects, and now they can be contracted directly in Beijing between the two countries. On the other hand asking Central Asian countries to expand the Eurasian space seems like a curious request in terms of the geopolitical ambitions of Moscow. To what extent Europe could participate and cooperate there, I do not know.
President Putin himself made the small but important difference between the European Union and Europe, when he talked about countries that are interested to come together and participate in the project of Grand Eurasia. What these countries are, I can only guess. Maybe some countries neighboring Bulgaria, because only they are outside the European Union.
In any case, this is something that will evolve, we will see how it will develop and what direction it will take. As they say, Rome was not built in a day, it took time. At this point, it seems just as an idea. Only time will tell how viable and realistic it could be. The ideas generated in the offices are not always applicable in the field. The dynamics in international relations are very serious and all processes that occur and can influence such ideas should be considered.
Europe does not want to leave this relationship and wants to develop it and participate in it. We observe an international competition for Central Asia at the moment. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini went on tour late last year. China and Japan are also very ambitious in this region. Recently the Indian prime minister was there. Many of the leaders of Central Asia also visit Iran. We see a multi-vectoring in these relationships. From the viewpoint of Moscow, the idea of a Grand Eurasia is not impossible to accomplish, but that reflects only one viewpoint. The point is to have reciprocity in these processes, for there to be a desire for realization.
We can read the situation as a seduction of Europe by Putin. What impressed you most during this forum? I understand that you met with Nikita Mikhalkov. Was there something interesting that Nikita Mikhalkov shared with you, something that might have been left out of the recorder.
Outside the subjects of big politics and business, for me this was most interesting. The political things reflected by each envoy are clear – you work and produce news about what happened. But opportunities to meet people of great art that are recognizable in the east and west alike, is something that leaves a memory for a long time in your mind.
First, for me this meeting with Nikita Mikhalkov was unexpected because in was not planned in any way. We didn’t always have access to all the panelists and participants in such conversations. It was just pure journalistic chance to be in right the moment when he appeared on the stand of one of the Russian regions, I waited for him to conduct his talks with the leaders of this Russian region and I began to ask him a few things about what is happening currently, between Russia and Europe. I must admit that it was amazingly easy to get answers my questions. I knew it was complicated to get into contact with him for an interview, but when the factors of time, opportunity and good spirit work themselves out, things can be successful. And to me that was a very interesting interview in my journalistic career. I am a person who has had the opportunity to talk with representatives of senior political and business elites in many countries of our region. But this interview for me remains one of the very serious, because it shows very much, what is today Russia, how things are in it and how the average Russian sees them. Such an interview is a litmus test for a person to set their clock to the mood in Russian society.
The interview will be heard on Bulgarian National Radio, but give a little of what Mikhalkov said to you?
He said something typical, something that is reflected in his films, namely that as for the Russian things become worse, the better he actually feels, because he’s accustomed to living in complex conditions. Of course, this largely explains Russian behavior. According to Mikhalkov if anyone outside thinks he can influence Russia with sanctions, they are simply lying to themselves. He is convinced that since Russia has not started this process anyway, it can not change it. I asked him how actors live now, the people with whom he has contact. I asked easier to film, is it easier to participate in television projects and films. He replied that everyone obviously has to make compromises, that if before they filmed for a good salary, now maybe the time has come to get a bit less, as whats important is that you stay recognized and remembered. This was his evaluation of the arts.
As a correspondent of BNR in Moscow, you have a clear view of what is actually the situation in Russia. Do you feel the worsening economic situation about which there is so much talk in the Western media? What are people talking about, how do they feel the situation, do they understand the reasons for it?
People present different perspectives on governance in the country and have a different perspective on what is happening in Russia, and its weight in international affairs. In no small part people feel there is a lack of money. Not surprisingly, a few weeks ago during during a visit to Crimea, Prime Minister Medvedev just told people that there is no money and that they had to wait. It is clear that economic developments in Russia are not going very well.
According to a survey of the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, about the attitudes of Russians before the holiday season, which was presented at a press conference in Moscow, 45% of people said they would spend their summer holidays in their homes, an increase compared last year by 5%. The All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research is one of the influential polling agencies in Russia. 35% said they will rest in their villas, an increase of 9% compared to 2015, while only 3% will travel abroad, ie outside the territory of the former USSR. 17% of respondents plan to work during the summer, an increase of 6% over last year.
Financial problems are the main reason for the refusal of a summer holiday, and this is a strong indicator that things are not going particularly well. People feel that money is melting away and that they do not have the opportunities they had two years ago. There are analysts in Moscow who say that even if it weren’t for the sanctions and international economic processes, sooner or later Russia would reach this crisis because of its ineffective strategy for the sale of gas and oil. According to them, the economy should develop in the direction of high technology and added value. This serious problem is accounted now – there were chances missed when into the economy, other means to achieve more options could have been introduced.
People are divided on the topic. Those with whom I talk, think in one way, but you can meet people who think quite differently. There is a peculiarity of the Russian national character, people tighten up and do not criticize their country in front of foreign correspondents. But what you can hear from them in their personal conversations, when they decide to admit in a more familiar environment, is an internal disappointment that yet again restrictions are imposed and that they influence them negatively.
If I go to back to the forum and judge by the statements made, there are apparent differences in the approaches and models for economic development of Russia, between the minister of economic development Ulyukayev and the minister of finance Siluanov. Should the Russian economy be flooded with cash to stimulate consumption and production, or seek external sources of funding to contribute to the development of the economy under more favorable conditions from foreign banks. So for Russia itself, it is not clear which model should be implemented. And in the society you can hear different sporadic statements of pros or cons of this or that political model, and this goes higher up in the system of political development in Russia. The situation is mirrored at all levels and shows that the complex internal social processes in the country are not to be underestimated, and that in one year the number of poor in Russia has seriously grown.
Do you think this affects the rating of the president? Do people still believe he is the right person and that he leads the right policies, especially internationally. Putin got them back on the international political scene, and again raised the prestige of Russia.
Again it depends on which perspective one approaches to answer this, but ultimately they are separated. Putin has an 83-85% approval rating, judging by recent public surveys. We do not know whether the surveys are correct, but we assume that those who made them had a professional approach and have done a good job. For much of Russian society the role of Putin is clear.
According to them, he returned Russia towards the big politics. Another issue is that Russia is not accepted as a full partner and player in all of these international processes. You see what happened in Syria was not fully understandable for the West. But in any case, Putin remains a figure who unites the country, this is the conclusion of attitudes in Russian society. At the same time, Putin is aware that his rating and the rating of the government, the ruling party “United Russia”, suffers from everything that is happening. That is why he sent such a strong message to the International Forum in St. Petersburg, saying that no one can blackmail foreign business, no one can mislead foreign business in Russia. If we want to have investments in Russia, we must work in this direction and have legitimacy, this was one of the key messages of Putin’s speech. There will be no compromise with those who are trying to blackmail foreign business that come to Russia. There are private expert estimates that show that doing business in Russia is risky, Russia should get rid of this image if it wants to do business with the West.
So Putin is inviting foreign investors, stating that he will provide them with good conditions?
Yes, and that was one of the messages in his speech during a panel with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. He said that no one should even think to blackmail Western business. But I think that was also a message to the Prosecutor General of Russia Yuri Chaika who was in the audience, and who only a few days before the forum in St. Petersburg was approved for the third time for the at the Duma on a proposal by Putin. Chaika has very serious problems associated with the business of his son, he’s almost seen as the man who patronized the criminal business of his son Artem and his links with the underworld. So I think it was also a message to him because Putin does not make coincidental speeches.
I can say that almost all of the Russian government was at the forum. Everyone perceive Putin’s message as if it was personally made to them. Of course, listening to the message itself, from the mere introduction from Putin, we had the opportunity to observe the responses of individual ministers, who heard about the state of their area. I think Putin is largely aware of what is happening and does not want the image that he has built over the years to be tarnished, and so he should take action to solve the problems in the sphere of justice. In his speech Putin and throughout the forum there were the main two or three lines related to geopolitics, economics and opportunities for Europe and Russia to do business. But not in the way that this business is perceived so far in Moscow or in Brussels. Putin apparently seeks new opportunities for the development of Russia ..