The last of the foreign affairs observers

Fyodor Lukyanov comments on the tandemocracy, gas, and what qualifies him to comment
| 02-07-2012
headshot of Fyodor Lukyanov

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Fyodor Lukyanov, political commentator and editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs spoke at Stanford University in December 2011. He devoted his two presentations to current trends in the post-Soviet reorganization of Russia. The following interview was an unplanned activity for Lukaynov, snatched from of the continuum of his busy schedule. We managed to talk twice, for brief periods between conference panels. This, however, did not affect his enthusiasm or openness in a negative way. The only question Lukyanov declined was my first one, concerning the Government of the Russian Federation Award for Print Media that he received in 2011. "I was recognized by the government of the Russian Federation," he clarified, "not by its prime minister."

Natalia Koulinka: In recent interviews,

though, you've showed more affinity for Putin than Medvedev. You seem skeptical about the latter as a leader.

Fyodor Lukyanov: That's because our existing expectations and understanding of Medvedev were nullified in September when he announced his abdication. But the real uniqueness of the situation is not even the renunciation, per se. What really mattered was how he did it. I cannot recall a single case in world politics when the leader of a state has said, "I don't want to be number one, but I agree to stay and be number two." Then, they made a tremendous mistake when Medvedev said they had been in agreement on this from the very beginning. I don't know what he meant. Moreover, I'm not confident that they really did agree about everything, that it had been planned in advance, that on a certain day 3 ½ years later, Medvedev would leave and Putin would return. When they announced this, they said to their proponents, opponents, and allies – to everyone – "We are not interested in your opinion. We agreed on this long ago, and that's that."

Medvedev's key failure is that these moves discredited everything he had previously said. And he had articulated a number of sensible, important ideas about the necessity of modernization, economic diversification, and the right time for political reform. When he initially said these things, his words were welcomed with great enthusiasm. In time, we've come to understand that there was nothing behind those proclamations, so of course, reactions to his words are different now. Putin, on the other hand, didn't even bother saying such things.

With the announcement of his abdication, Medvedev crossed out everything, made it look like a joke, because it evidenced that he wasn't, nor would he ever be, a real president. His proponents had seen an illusion of a Medvedev temporarily bound, but ready to act with full strength when the time came. It turned out that he never meant to act. So all of his sensible words were, for the most part, discredited. And now everything must start from scratch again.

NK: In 2009, Hillary Clinton spoke of a Russian goal to facilitate the dependence of Europe on Gazprom and its natural gas exports. To justify this claim, the New York Times cited the French energy consulting company Capgemini, which estimated that Russia's share of the European natural gas market will rise from 26 percent to 50 percent by 2030. But my question isn't about the preciseness of this prediction. What I really want to know this: what underlies such U.S. distrust of Russia, and what are the chances of overcoming it?

FL: First of all, regarding gas. I don't believe in the linear predictions because everything is changing very quickly. The future state of the European gas market is unclear. It's very likely that we are witnessing the end of the integration era that was launched in the middle of the 20th century and continued successfully up to its end. The first decade of the 21st century has seen difficulties, and the integration may not survive through the second decade. I don't mean that the EU will fall completely into chaos, but the euro integration will radically change, because it's obvious that in its existing form, an integrated Europe can no longer support itself. So it doesn't make sense to predict how markets will behave in 20 years. On one hand, it's true that Germany's abandonment of nuclear energy grants Gazprom some additional opportunities, but on the other hand, it's possible that consumption will decrease, especially if an expansive crisis affects Europe. It goes without saying that Europe will continue to implement measures to reduce its dependence.

Russia now has a very different goal, as I understand it: not to keep pushing through the European market, but rather to try to do something with Asia. It would be absurd not to. The European Union, obviously not the most dynamically developing part of the world today, possesses a de facto monopoly on Russian hydrocarbons, or at least on gas. This needs to change somehow. Russia must diversify its markets. Among other tasks, Russia needs to resolve its problems with transit countries. Putin's return will accelerate this process. It seems the problem with Belarus has already been dissolved – the pipeline has finally been bought. There still is a problem with Ukraine, though, and the question here is whether to go around it or take control of it. But even despite these opportunities, I think Asia will be more important.

As for the other issue, I don't think we'll see the distrust between Russia and America vanish in the near future for at least one reason: as long as the two countries possess nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the other country (and there is no other practical use for these arsenals), they will see each other through the lens of strategic deterrence, at least in the nuclear sphere. In addition, the United States is not going to give up its position as global leader and dominator. Russia, along with a few other big but significantly less influential countries, will resist this as much as they can. With the world's new geopolitics and everything shifting to the Pacific and Asia, the effects of this distrust over the next 10-20 years are difficult to predict for the time being. In the Pacific, Russia and America have more mutual interests. The problem of China is, to some extent, common. Neither America nor Russia knows what to do or how to establish a relationship there. But overall, I think the predisposition for distrust will last.

NK: You mentioned Russia's purchase of the Belarusian gas pipeline. This deal certainly gives credence to those in Belarus who, for instance, blame Russian provocation for Lukashenko's gratuitous brutality toward his political opponents after the 2011 elections, since it benefitted no one else.

FL: First of all, I take Aleksandr Grigoryevich Lukashenko very seriously. It seems to me that he just does whatever he wants. The longtime Western perception that Lukashenko is a sort of Moscow puppet has never corresponded to reality. Lukashenko has skillfully exploited Russia's moods, phobias, and fantasies. Up to a certain point, he almost always took advantage of this. At the same time, due to Lukashenko's anti-Western attitude (not his pro-Russian position), Russia continues to act in accordance with the belief that Belarus won't and can't leave its side. As for the elections, I don't think anyone provoked anything. I can offer only one rational explanation for what Lukashenko did. He reacted to the speculations that were taking place throughout 2010 in both Russia and Europe: that for various reasons, the time had come to renew the leadership in Belarus. Europe had one clear grievance against him, and Russia began waging а propaganda-filled ideological war, with documentaries on Russian TV. By his actions, Lukashenko made it clear to both sides that they shouldn't consider any alternatives to him. To what extent those actions were carefully calculated from his side, I don't know.

It's also questionable whether or not he actually lost "European money" in the process, because it's unclear whether or not he ever stood to receive any. Europe is quick to promise, but as a rule, it finds excuses not to keep its promises. Lukashenko instead received money from Russia. Moreover, I think Lukashenko is fully aware that he has no future in the West. Even if he could turn there, Europeans would initially meet and take steps toward him with pleasure, but then they'd recall his crimes, murders of opponents, and so forth. In short, he knows that nobody there will give him security assurance. Meanwhile, Russia can.

This also may signal the end of an era for Lukashenko. For his almost entire presidency, he has been, in a sense, the most sovereign leader of Europe, which is strange. It's a small country, sandwiched between the EU and Russia, but he has managed to do whatever he wants. He's a peculiar sovereign in the style of a medieval feudal lord, but a sovereign all the same. Now, this seems to be ending. He is furiously trading and fighting for every piece, but nonetheless, he is ceding his sovereignty to Russia. That's why I think his story will begin to change. But we'll see. As a politician, there's no doubt he's skillful.

NK: You appear confident as an expert. When did you begin to consider yourself an expert and what – knowledge, education, or experience – allows you to function comfortably in that capacity?

FL: It's not education. I have never formally studied the area in which I am considered an expert. Rather, it's experience. I have been heading a journal on international relations for almost 10 years now. I read, travel, and interact with people a lot. This doesn't give me deep knowledge, but it does provide me with a tremendous amount of current knowledge.

I left journalism in 2002 because I was bored, just fed up with it. Newspaper work has its good points, but the everyday assembly line... I was fascinated with that work for a long time (I worked for 12 years in mass media), but my enthusiasm eventually dried up. When one just enters the profession, one feels excitement that every day brings something new. Time passes and one starts realizing that, of course, it's new, but at the same time, this "new" is always the same. At that point for me, an offer turned up to launch Russia in Global Affairs, and I accepted. For me, it was pure adventure because I had no idea what to do, but gradually, something came out of it.

I began to be considered an expert about seven years ago simply when people started seeking my opinion a lot. However, I don't feel like an expert. And I don't call myself a political scientist, although others have used that word in reference to me. But a political scientist is a person who has a proper education. I like to relate myself to a profession that has almost died in Russia. In the Soviet Union, it was called "foreign affairs observer." It was people like Alexander Bovin, Vladimir Tsvetov. I would like to follow in their footsteps, although not in every regard, of course. There have been blatant propagandists in that group. There were, nonetheless, people even under ideological censorship who managed to speak their opinions relatively well. It seems to me that this niche is for me and that I can be useful there. An expert in full meaning of the word – a scholar – I will never be. When one is almost 45, it's a little too late to start.

At the same time, modern journalism doesn't satisfy me for various reasons. In Russia, there are additional political reasons, but that's not even it. The core is that modern journalism has turned out to be extremely shallow, and often instead of informing people, it misinforms them, though not necessarily consciously. Many don't have cunning propagandistic designs, but the drive toward faster, timelier, simpler, and sharper has lead to a situation wherein information has become its own parody. I fear that objective tendencies will wither even more with the development of new media.

For the time being, I am completely satisfied with the position I'm in. What the future will bring, I don't know. But what I do now seems important because Russia in Global Politics, for those in Russia with an interest in the topic, is somewhat unique. And people read with pleasure this thing somewhere between scholarly research and the daily newspaper – this thing that is timely on the one hand, and on the other, not extremely hot.

NK: There was a period in your career, from 1993 to 1994, when you worked for Sawyer Miller Group (USA), which collaborated with Russia's State Privatization Committee. What did you do there?

FL: I was a very small fry there. I wrote a variety of official papers, press releases, and paid articles. It was a PR agency, and I quit the job after less than a year. I realized it wasn't my sphere. I didn't want to do it. But to see the inside of foreign assistance to Russian reforms was tremendously interesting. I saw a lot. Since then, I have taken speculations about the West helping Russia through hardship… let's say, soberly. Because I have seen that it was a mix of good, kind intentions, a poor understanding of reality, a low professional level of many employees (though not everyone), and sometimes aims to take advantage of corruption. Overall, that assistance was more harmful than beneficial. There are probably different examples, though.

NK: You claim Soviet political cartoons as your only hobby. What attracts you to them?

FL: The political cartoon is a complex genre. It's a real art. In Russia, it has almost died. The cartoons of the Soviet period, however, combined a high mastery of drawing with wit and talent. It also had to include a plot that grabbed readers. I believe that Soviet political cartoonists succeeded in this. Unfortunately, I don't have enough time truly to lend myself to this hobby, so my interest is usually just realized through purchasing old magazines and albums when and where I can. I have, for instance, a collection of the Smekhach (Смехач) magazines from 1924. The cartoons there are strange, and nowadays may seem a bit primitive. But in them is a whole history of international relations. There are few political cartoons now and it is pity. Moreover, they are mostly in the form of caricatures. In Soviet political cartoons, in addition to amazing portrait likenesses, there was always a plot.

NK: There is a section in Russia in Global Affairs in April 2011 devoted to the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR. In your article for this section, titled "The Last Will of the Soviet People," you claimed that the Union was doomed because the desire of the national leaders to possess full power could not be sated with decisions that were only partially effective. At the same time, the title refers to the referenda in which Soviet citizens voted to keep the Union alive. So in your title, I hear a sound of warmness. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, now that the euphoria has dissipated, what do you think about the collapse?

FL: I will express an opinion that is not widely supported in the West. I feel pity for the Soviet Union. I think the Soviet Union was an interesting, complex, and culturally and politically rich country that would have been worthy of preserving without the Communist Party. I realize that was perhaps impossible, but on a pure emotional level, I feel pity. I feel pity because in the past, Kiev was a part of my country and now it is not, because Tashkent was and now is not. One might call me a Russian imperialist, but nevertheless, I feel pity for what happened at the end of the '80s. Sure, of course, there have been objective reasons for that, but at the same time, it seems to me that a number of individual factors –Yeltsin's and Gorbachev's and others' –tremendously worsened the situation. Although, perhaps history's revenge on the Soviet Union was that the country had these leaders during such a crucial turning point.