An interview with Dr. Vladimir Yakunin

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This year’s Forum included speakers such as Joschka Fisher, Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany (1998 – 2005); Mikhail Bogdanov, Special Representative of the President of Russia for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia; Robin Wright, Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Distinguished Scholar of the Woodrow Wilson Center; Ibrahima Fofana, Prime minister of the Republic of Guinea; and Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel (2006-2008).

Helsinki Times had a chance to interview Dr. Vladimir Yakunin, Chairman of the DOC Research Institute Supervisory Board and head of the State Governance Department Faculty of Political Sciences of Moscow State University. We talked about the Forum and the issues discussed in it. Below are some of the highlights.

HT: There are always two sides to a story and the Western media has its own point of view. One of the positive characteristics of this forum has been a willingness to tell the other side of the story. The participants have been telling the other narrative that you don’t often hear in the West. But it seems that this year there has been a shift to a softer tone. I wonder if this change is intentional and has the pressure from the Western media affected that?

VY: I am not sure I would agree that the tone is softer. For example, if you saw the opening panel discussion yesterday, the exchanges between Mikhail Bogdanov, Joschka Fischer and Robin Wright were far from soft. But I agree that the forum has evolved in recent years. You are absolutely right that the Rhodes Forum has set itself apart by its determination to provide a platform for the other side of the story. It’s just that we won’t achieve the principal aim of DOC if we only bring in people who tell this “other side”. Real dialogue can only take place if we make the forum open to people from all sides. By the way, even within the DOC itself, we have many different countries, cultures and perspectives represented, and were pleased when French national Jean-Christophe Bas joined DOC as CEO earlier this year.

Fundamentally, the aim of the forum is to look at latent or existing conflicts, help to understand the root causes, and to try to arrive at practical solutions. Most international forums are guilty of trying to look at problems through a single lens. At DOC, we are trying to avoid that mistake by working hard to bring in people from all countries, cultures and perspectives. This year we had delegations from Iran and Israel. In the last we have had Sunnis and Shias at the same table. This makes for some very hot dialogue at times, but it’s better to have hot dialogue than hot war.

HT: In general does the media coverage affect the direction of where the DOC will go?

VY: Of course we follow all the media coverage, and pay attention to what is written about us. In Germany in particular we have had some quite critical coverage, based I would say on a misunderstanding of who we are. The fact is, we are very happy for media to look at us critically and challenge what we say. In fact this is how media should look at any think tank or organization – we should always be ready to have our opinions challenged, this is what creates dialogue. But some of the critical coverage looked more politically motived, and was written by journalists who weren’t going to let facts change their preconcieved ideas. This kind of coverage we try to ignore. But for anyone who is open to genuine dialogue and debate, we are always open.
Ultimately, we want to be judged based on substance – the substance of what is said and achieved at the Rhodes Forum, the quality of our research work, etc.

HT: What do you think about the coverage of Russia in general in the Western media. How often, by the way, do you Google yourself, for example, or Russia in English?

VY: I believe that a lot of coverage of Russia in the Western media is very simplistic, and one-sided. There is a certain caracature impage of Russia that has formed over the past years – where Russia is the ultimate evil, and somehow Russia is portrayed as being behind every single “bad” or unexpected event everywhere in the world. Anything negative in the world, the Russians are responsible. It somehow seems to be more convenient to pin everything on the Russians rather than to look at the underlying reasons for this or that unexpected event.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that all criticism is unfounded. As a Russian citizen, I know the problems of my society and my government as well as anyone. But it is my society, it is my government. And whether I’m completely in agreement with some particular members of the government or not, what I read [in the news] sometimes seems to be absurd. All too often, facts and objectivity give way to dogma and advocacy.
This is not only a problem of Western media, of course. It’s a global problem. This is why we felt it was an important issue to cover at the Rhodes Forum – as we brought together media from America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa to talk about the challenges of rebuilding trust in media in the age of post-truth politics.

HT: There is a discussion of the lack of impact of Russian soft power in the world and cultural impact of Russia. I mean where are the Pushkins and Dostoyevskys and those great filmmakers today? Why don’t we hear anything about the positive cultural impact of Russia in the world?

VY: You touch a nerve with your question. Because in fact, I completely agree with you. Whatever is said about the rising soft power of Russia, as a Russian citizen and someone who is travelling a lot, I should say it has no comparison with what was done during the Soviet era. Yesterday I had a very interesting talk with a former minister from Iraq, and we were talking about the contemporary situation in Iraq, in Syria, and the surrounding area, and he said “There was a time when we were studying Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, we were exposed to Russian culture, exhibition, literature, films, nowadays there is nothing. And this is bad. “Soft power” has become a deeply politically loaded term, and so I’m not sure I would refer to this as soft power in the way that it tends to be understood today. This is dialogue of cultures as a subset of dialogue of civilisations. And if we are not exchanging these cultural artefacts, or if I may say so, achievements, then we are lacking the background for actual dialogue.

HT: About Syria, you know Russia has had an important role in basically bringing the country back to balance and Western countries, despite the noise, have actually done their best to destabilise the country with money, weapons and direct intervention and they still continue to do so. And of course, they portray Russia as the bad guy and themselves as the good guys. Despite Russia’s positive role in helping fight terrorism, it allows US, France, Britain and Israel to come and bombard every now and then. Why is that? Is Russia unable to stop them or is it intentional, like a guardian angel who kills some devils, but tolerates other ones?

VY: It is difficult to answer this question because you know I have no connection to policymaking in Russia. I can only share my personal opinion. Judging by the statements of officials in Russia, and by the coverage in Russian media, Russia was suggesting from the beginning a coalition to the United States of America: “let us do this together”, but the suggestion was turned down. We then went on to see the rise of ISIS and the dangerous atrocities they committed in Syria, they observed convoys of trucks full of oil crossing the border with neighbouring Turkey – you know, everyone should think about that: On one side declarations from the West that “we fight terrorism”. On the other side, we could see the financial support of terrorism right before our eyes. With all this surveillance from space, from airborne systems, nobody could notice that? And only when Russian fighter planes destroyed the convoy did the world media suddenly start to publish articles saying “listen this is not good” and “that is the financial stream supporting ISIS”. So I suppose here Russia achieved something positive, in terms of fighting terrorism. Again I can refer to the discussion with one of the participants of this forum, he said that, “from where we are standing, the side of Assad, and the side of opposition forces, appear equally ugly”.
I don’t remember who said this but possibly Nixon, once referring to one dictator, he said “Okay he is a dictator, he is a bastard but he is our bastard.” I am not saying this kind of thinking is always applicable in the modern world. But at the same time this persistent ideology that we see in the West of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is an ideology that has proven time and again to be highly short-sighted and ultimately very counterproductive – I am often surprised this principle continues to underpin so much of many Western countries’ foreign policy.

HT: But do you think Russia should have or could have basically ended this conflict much faster if it had claimed exclusivity. If it would say that “We are in Syria, now there is a no fly zone here for everybody else” and that’s it.

VY: I don’t think it was ever Russia’s intention to have some exclusivity here. Russia doesn’t want, to my mind, to repeat the mistakes of others. Even if we do not learn from mistakes, at least we should try not to replicate them. Remember the “no fly zone” in Libya? What do we have now? I don’t think that the Russian authorities would like to have something like that.

HT: What do you think about the flight of capital from Russia and the dominance of US Dollar, are these big problems?

VY: These are probably two separate questions, albeit partially linked. Capital flight out of financial markets is one story, and one can always see fluctuations here depending on a variety of external factors. In fact what concerns me more is the lack of suitable conditions to facilitate long-term investment into the real economy, and this is in part an economic policy question that needs to be resolved domestically.
As to the dominance of the US dollar, I don’t believe this is particularly sustainable, and more likely we will see the emergence over the coming years of several strong global currencies. This list will clearly involve the Yuan, presumably the Euro to one degree or another, though here we need to see what happens post Brexit, and assess possible knock-on implications on the European currency. In time I can even see the Rouble in this list, although probably we need a lot of time before this happens – there are a number of issues to resolve in the meantime.