“Since we know who’s the leader we can talk politics”
Andrei Kazantsev, expert from the Euro-Atlantic Security Center of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, shared with a VK correspondent his opinion on Russia’s prospects with the WTO and the so-called Eurasian Union, as well as on the ‘Arab spring’ and some other topical issues.
- First of all, we would like to know your opinion on the prospects of the Eurasian Union that has been in the focus of media and politician’s attention recently. Is it possible that this idea will eventually succeed? What countries could join the Union?
- The idea of the Eurasian Union isn’t new to the CIS leaders. It is associated with the name of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was its first and most devoted partisan. The idea is so attractive due to a number of reasons: first of all, the world-wide economic crisis, as the system of economic ties based on US dominant position is breaking down. So the post-Soviet governments aspire to restore stability and protect themselves from new global turbulences by creating a new economic system. For example, Russia imports great quantities of vegetables and fruits from EU countries, from Africa and South America, but in fact these products could be purchased from Ukraine, Central Asia or the Caucasus. It is more convenient as far as transportation is concerned and it would restore traditional economic ties. Secondly, all efforts at liberal modernization have obviously failed in Russia and other CIS states, so the governments – and the nations - are searching for a new way, and the Eurasian model is fairly attractive to certain groups of people. Finally, there are a lot of external threats, such as possible re-activation of Taliban activity in Central Asia after the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. This opens a way to the possibility of new ‘Islamic revolutions’. So Central Asian leaders need Russian political and economic support to prevent such a scenario. To fight these new threats, CSTO efforts should be combined with some sort of economic integration – the one that the Eurasian Union could provide. So, as you see, the idea has bright prospects.
But of course there are a lot of problems too. The first one, even if it’s not so obvious, is that the post-Soviet states’ economies were de-industrialized, so the lion’s share of our income comes from raw products that we sell to the EU and China. And as all CIS states are selling basically the same goods, we are not partners, but rivals. For example, Russian oil competes with Kazakh, Russian gas – with Turkmen product, etc. So there’s no harmony between our interests. Secondly, during Putin’s presidency, Russia has tried to rationalize its energy trade with CIS states, but we still can’t stop providing Ukraine and Belarus with irrationally cheap energy sources. And there’s a risk that these two countries will try to use the idea of the Eurasian Union in order to preserve this state of affairs.
Thirdly, all post-Soviet states lead a multi-vectored policy (pro-Russian Belarus and pro-Western Georgia) and thus participate in different integration processes involving China and the EU, as well as Russia. They have economic ties with the West and with the Islamic East, not only with Russia. So there’s a certain risk that some (namely, Kyrgyzstan, which is a very poor country, so it has to agree to all deals offered to it) will fail to observe their obligations towards the Eurasian Union in favor of some other international organization. Kyrgyzstan is a WTO member, so there’s a risk that, after entering the Eurasian economic space, it will become a transit hub for cheap Chinese merchandise on its way to the Russian or Kazakh markets.
- What do you think about the xenophobia breakout in Russia on the eve of the Duma and presidential elections? Do you believe that the multi-cultural strategy that is implemented by European and post-Soviet countries has failed?
- We all know that even the most active partisans of the multi-cultural strategy among European countries are starting to wind it up. The very idea of multiculturalism is postmodernist in its nature: it suggests that a state doesn’t have to have a single national cultural identity; instead there should be many cultural identities for each country. Of course, in the framework of this idea all Muslims, coming to Europe or Russia, should be allowed to build mosques, have their own schools, etc. It is good when young people know and respect the religious and cultural traditions of their ancestors. I believe this component of multiculturalism should be preserved in Europe and in Russia. We have no right to stand between Muslims and their religion. But there’s another aspect of multiculturalism that is not so attractive: when people who come to a country from abroad are not assimilated into the society. For example, in France some immigrants from Muslim countries live in Paris suburbs on a social allowance, they don’t work, instead they are involved in criminal activities, they don’t even bother to learn French. And this aspect is what made the multiculturalism policy fail in Europe. We have to try to avoid this problem. I believe that all those who come to Central Russia from other regions or from abroad should be granted all possible rights to develop and preserve their languages and religions, but they should also be integrated into the society that already exists here, observe our laws and norms of social behavior. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should force them into being Russian, but we should try to create a society where every ethnicity feels comfortable.
- Some say that some ethnic groups are genetically ill-disposed towards cohabitation. Do you think such a myth can influence public opinion?
- Well, such a suggestion is hopelessly outdated. It is based on 19th century science. Back then, sociologists believed that each ethnic group has its own stable and unchanging cultural basis. So, if Russians and Dagestanis had a war back in the 19th century they will never be able to co-exist peacefully. But that’s absurd! Even in the 19th century, after the war, our peoples lived in peace. Historically, there are no precedents for any two nations to be incapable of living in peace. Of course, there can be such a thing as a heavy historical legacy, like between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But it doesn’t mean that people can’t get over such a legacy.
- And what does one do to overcome it?
- Political elites have to choose the right policy.
- What new prospects do the Arab revolutions have after Gaddafi’s death? Will the movement spread to Iran or Yemen? What further developments are possible for Syria?
- Such a movement has already been attempted in Iran after the presidential elections, but it was suppressed. So I don’t believe that it will start there over again. But there’s such a sociological notion as the ‘domino effect’, as with the so-called ‘colored revolutions’ in post-Soviet space. The effect is limited. What happens in Georgia can’t affect Iran. Events in Arab countries won’t have any impact on Central Asian developments. I don’t think that Arab influence on our Islamic population is strong enough to cause any harm.
Some questions can’t be answered now, for example, if the revolutionary forces in Syria will win or lose. The situation is very complex there, and it involves political and religious aspects. Alawites – followers of non-orthodox Islam – are now in power there, and the Shiah Muslims confront them, while Syrian Christians support the government. The pro-government population has prevailed in central regions of the state, so all demonstrations involve only the periphery.
As for Yemen, the revolution has already happened there; the president had to run off. Whether Yemen will break apart like Somalia is still unclear.
- My last question is about Russia’s efforts to enter the WTO and the negotiations with Georgia. Is this membership really so profitable for Russia? And in what way could Georgia restrict us?
- If we continue to sell only crude oil – there’s no difference, if Russia is a WTO member or not. But if we try to export even semi-finished products – then we need this membership. As for other aspects – they depend on our negotiating strategy.
Georgia is a serious obstacle on our way to WTO membership, but we can still work around it. Georgia’s claims are political, not economic.
But the main problem is that Russia itself isn’t yet sure whether it wants to enter the WTO or not. We need the WTO to improve our international status. But our policy is still somewhat contradictory. But now, when it is clear who will be our new leader, we can finally define our politics.
Interview by Evgeniy Krishtalev, exclusively to VK