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Novoye Vremya (New Times), May 2003

Vladimir Lukin: "We Are Not Inferior To Others. We Have A Distinct History"

By Nairi Hovsepyan

Ideas whose time has come. Different aspects of the September 11 crisis. Putin a mirror of the new realities. Something stronger than the state anthem

Q. The NT editors have a feeling that our country has entered a very important stage of its history. Perhaps this is displayed most clearly in its present relations with the United States. A new choice, a decisive turn, has been declared or perhaps has already been made. Are we exaggerating or is it indeed a turning point in the history of Russia?

A. During his visit to the United States in the summer 1992, Yeltsin addressed Congress. His speech was interrupted with applause almost as often as the speech of President Bush after the September 11 attack. Yeltsin said he had come to tell the Americans that communism was dead in Russia. The legislators naturally went into raptures. It was a flash-point, so to speak. You know that revolution has a dual nature. It is not only a bloody, dramatic and romantic upheaval linked with symbolic actions, often destructive. It is also a renewal of society when each cell begins to live in a new way. In this sense, I think, we are now in a transition period, and it will last for a long time. Many cells of society continue to live as they did under the totalitarian regime. But there are also cells acting in a different way. As a result, we have a medley of various elites: the nouveaux rich, party chiefs, the managers of various plants, gangsters with and without ideas, and so on. Such is the state of the revolution.

I think one more step forward should be made at the next stage. The question is whether our society can take that important step instead of making one step forward and then two steps backwards.

Q. How do you measure this step?

A. The obedient Duma has recently passed a number of economic reforms obviously in the right direction with the exception of details we shall not go into now. There is much positive in the judicial reform that is now at the draft stage. A modern Labour Code is slowly taking shape that will replace the Soviet one. All these efforts need support, but it has usually been weak in our country. I have in mind the president's will, first of all, and the will of a considerable part of his entourage. Russia's national interests, in the classic sense of the word, compel it to be as close as possible to the nations embodying the 21st century. From this point of view, Putin, without hesitating much, took a correct stand after the September 11 events.

Q. Should we understand that, as distinct from the days of Peter the Great, the turn to the West, to world civilization, was prepared legislatively and politically, or was it purely a well thought out choice of Putin's?

A. It was a well thought out and, moreover, arbitrary choice. But such a choice is not made without any grounds for it. I think King Tutenkhamon would not have been able to make Egypt a land of universal literacy, however much he might have wished it. As Karl Marx wrote, there is nothing more invincible than an idea whose time has come. We matured for taking the road to the 21st century in the early nineties, but could not do so for two main reasons. Firstly, the forces of inertia were very strong then. Life lagged behind consciousness, as it was said in the past. Secondly, the leaders of the early nineties were unable to solve this problem. They did not have enough strength to direct the society. As a result, the braking process went on until it reached the stage when every sensible person understood that a deadlock lay ahead and it was impossible to enter the 21st century in such a condition.

A new president, a very cautious man, appeared in these circumstances. He did not show his metal in any way for a long time. But, as the saying goes, there would have been no good fortune if misfortune hadn't helped or, as another saying goes, fate leads those who agree with it and pulls along with it those who disagree. I think that for all Putin's instincts to command, the main vector of his policy is right. Since this is so, changes can be made in other fields. From the standpoint of the macroprocess, the situation is developing normally in my opinion.

The only European in Russia?

Q. I have two questions then. One concerns Putin. Is it right to think that the president has taken this stand resolutely and will not "change spots" in the future?

A. This does not depend on Putin alone. There is no guarantee that the braking forces – and Russia is by nature a sluggish country – will not make themselves felt if the Americans make wrong moves.

I can tell you the following story about Americans. Shortly after the September 11 events, I met with a large group of Congressmen. We took our seats, drank tea, and then some of them asked me what advice I could give them. My jaw dropped. I have been dealing with Americans for a long time but have never heard anything of this kind from them. They usually teach others very politely, without raising the voice. But now they were suddenly at a loss.

I do not feel malicious joy and naturally sympathize with the Americans in every way. Apart from all the horror, the crisis has evidently been edifying, and it is good if the Americans really learn from it. Did you notice that Donald Rumsfeld went first to Moscow and then to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan? The style of his visit shows that the Americans have decided to "reckon" with us. Everyone will gain from the understanding that we are working together at the stage of discussion and decision making.

Q. One more question along this line. Is Putin the only European in Russia? What about the elite and other leaders?

A. I don't think it is so now. It was not exactly so even in the days of Pushkin. We may recall visitors of the English Club. But that was just an exotic fashion of the aristocrats. Today there are European enclaves in Russia – European not owing to smart clothes but because the European rules of the game have been adopted in the process of globalization. What is the difference between Russia and the West? In Russia, work was called presence, that is to be present, while in the West it is a function, that is to do work. The situation has changed now to a certain extent, and Putin rather reflects the new reality than creates it out of nothing, from scratch.

Q. Is Putin the only European among the people whom he trusts and has brought with him?

A. I think he has surrounded himself with like-minded people. There are two aspects here – the economic, which he understands quite well, and the psychological. Russia is not a simple country, and it is not easy to carry out reforms in it. The real historic task is how to keep the state strong during reforms and prevent its trasnformation into a monster. I don't know to what extent this task is understood by the present authorities. Judging by their statements, they seem to realize it very well.

As far as I remember, the president declared a real anti-bureaucratic revolution in his addresses to parliament. But to proclaim a revolution is one thing, and to carry it out is quite another matter. The task is far more difficult than putting the squeeze on the head of the railways, Aksyonenko, or anybody else of this kind. Someone rightly noted a while ago that we need reforms, not arrests. A number of officials have been arrested. This is also necessary. But only a few officials should be arrested, mainly those who are hindering the reforms.

Decorations with a criminal nuance

Q. Would you comment on the Aksyonenko affair? Various opinions have been expressed. Some allege it is a matter of settling scores between officials, while others think Putin is changing his entourage, a measure natural with a change of presidents. How would you describe these events – as reforms or arrests?

A. The Aksyonenko affair is clear. I think the head of the Auditing Chamber, Stepashin, had every reason to be discontented with the minister of railways. However, it does not mean that the materials have been falsified. I am far from suspecting that. I think that Stepashin has put his heart and soul into this work useful for Russia.

There are also other aspects. The Ministry of Railways is the only government department functioning simultaneously as a commercial firm and money is flowing in both directions. If things had been put in order earlier, perhaps no charges would have been brought. All criminal cases have been brought as a result of hack-work, negligence and the reluctance of the authorities to carry out real reforms.

As regards Shoigu, I noticed that some time ago an exhaustive study was made to establish whether his being minister for emergency situations and, at the same time, a party leader conformed with legislation. In this context, the "investigation" of the work of his ministry is likely due to the fact that Shoigu has become an eyesore to somebody. To whom? I cannot even guess. This does not mean everything in the ministry accords with the law. I think there is a coincidence of circumstances here. But I have been around too long to believe that the whole affair was set going without the consent of some Kremlin bodies. I don't know what bodies, but I think they were very high ones.

Of course, there are also elements of the normal change of decorations made under all regimes when new people come to power. But in Russia it has a criminal nuance, and this is not surprising. If a person is told to resign and refuses to do so, even though he had a finger in the pie, an order is given to check his work -- not to attribute anything to him that he did not do, but to check what has been done.

It is said now that Golovlyov, a member of the Duma, is being persecuted for political reasons. But he and another Duma member, Yushenkov, are roughly in the same political situation. Both took part in founding a party with Berezovsky's money and on his initiative. However, Golovlyov is being persecuted, while Yushenkov is not.

Q. How would you explain the Duma's decision to go after Golovlyov and why was it done in a strange way – in two stages?

A. Apparently the time was ripe for such a decision. Golovlyov's trip to Paris speeded up the process. Many people in our country envy those who go to Paris. Isn't that so? Nothing good comes of greed.

Ink or blood?

Q. Aren't you afraid, as a foreign affairs expert, that we have the Saudi Arabia phenomenon here in Russia today. The right, even pro-American, foreign policy justifies any domestic policy, as the Golovlyov case shows?

A. I'm not afraid at all. Russia is not Saudi Arabia. As you well know, that country has a theocratic Wahhabite regime. We were Wahhabites under communism. But today, thank God, we are not Wahhabites any longer. I understand that polemics in politics is a sharp thing, but I wouldn't compare Russia with Saudi Arabia. Go to that country and proclaim some atheistic values in Mecca. If you like, I will accompany you and then try to rescue you, but to no avail.

Q. Let me put the question in a less polemical way. What about politics here? When Putin came to power, the media stressed on his previous work, saying he was a chekist, an agent of the secret services, and so on. What changes have you noticed in this respect?

A. I think the super-opposition can say: poor Russia, they could not even establish dictatorship!

Q. The state anthem does not seem enough for you.

A. The state anthem is not blood but notes. Do you remember what the poet Galich wrote: "I asked him: is it blood? It is ink, he replied." The state anthem is a symbol. I was against a symbol of this kind. But, it should be noted, the president proved to be a very skilful politician in this case. He or his advisers (I'm not going to go into detail) worked out the present variant and began to carry out reforms. The new tax and other laws are stronger than the state anthem.

The president clearly understands that the policy of firm support for the anti-terrorist coalition is not actively backed by a majority of the people of Russia. What policy is backed? An attack on oligarchs, an attempt to exert pressure on them, and this is what we are witnessing today. Putin felt that he needs time for the reforms to win popularity and drove some oligarchs and top government officials into a corner, thus giving much pleasure to the people. If my guess is right, we can expect new reform initiatives. Isn't that a serious policy? I think it is.

Q. I think there are circumstances highly beneficial for Putin. For instance, economic growth. It was not brought about by Putin. Or the September 11 events, however profane it may be on my part to mention them. There have always been circumstances helping the president to show what he can do. Can you say to what extent he is assisted by the present realities?

A. No man, even a superman, creates reality. He makes use of it. Reality is created only by the Almighty, and people can take advantage of it within certain limits, or they may miss the opportunity. Our respected Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin lost much after August 1991, when he went on a long trip instead of striking while the iron was hot. A wise political advice was given in the film "The First Boxing-Glove": learn to wait, learn to attack, and if you are attacked learn to fight back. A good politician, unlike a bad one, makes use of reality by advancing towards an aim which fits in the context of history. Putin is obviously taking the bull by the horns, and he is right in doing so.

Q. Is he effective?

A. Very effective and competent in relations with the United States. They have found the precise measure of participation. The collection and exchange of information is certainly useful. US planes have been allowed to land in the south of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is not a very popular measure, but I can assure you it would not have been done without our consent and support. Everything will depend now on whether the Americans understand that they have to do something too. I am not saying we must act according to the principle "one good turn deserves another". Putin rightly said we are helping the Americans without expecting anything in return. We have been guided by moral criteria. The United States is now responding to our steps. Some progress has been made in the Russia-NATO relations, in the talks on the ABM treaty, and on economic problems. It is believed that the talks on Russia's entry into the WTO have reached the point where, if we hurry a bit, we will be joining the WTO together with China.

Confidence to the extent of 600 missiles

Q. Do you think Russia stands to gain or lose if it joins the WTO?

A. If put that way, I favour our entry. But it is not a matter of whether we should join quickly or wait a little. The main thing here is on what terms. At the last high-level meeting with the European Union in Brussels, and the European Union is our main trade partner, they promised to draft "new realistic proposals" by November. The idea is that we lose in the short term and gain in the long term. It is the eternal problem of a bird in the hand and two in the bush. We should simply calculate everything and argue over each kopeck. In fact, it means practical talks. We should be very obstinate and concede at the last moment right after they do the same.

Q. Now concerning political bargaining. I have a feeling that Russia has inherited very many false stands and false values from the past. For instance, the endless struggle over NATO expansion and the ABM treaty, and the whole logic of missile cuts. In fact, everything has changed in the world, but we are still expecting concessions from them, we are bargaining and are not giving in. Perhaps there is something wrong in principle here. I think we have a right to hope for a revolution in the understanding of realities and the ditching of needless obsolete policies at the Washington summit.

A. I agree and disagree with you. Indeed, it is so on the whole. It has been said more than once that new problems and threats have arisen long ago. The matter is that both sides or, if Europe is included, all three sides have to abandon the policies of the past. However, difficulties have cropped up in this respect. The charming Condoleezza Rice and the more charming Donald Ramsfeld tell us that the ABM treaty has become obsolete because there is no Cold War any longer. I ask them: "And what about NATO?" It is also a legacy of the Cold War. This bloc was formed to oppose the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union. Both have ceased to exist. Why is there one-sided expansion of NATO without including Russia in it? This should be discussed and now is a propitious time.

Or take the issue of nuclear parity. Indeed, it is a survival of the Cold War. But it could be fully eliminated if there was a high level of mutual trust. We have not yet reached such a level, though it has sharply increased now. Nuclear parity means that if country A strikes country B, the latter, though utterly destroyed, will still have the potential to deliver an equally devastating blow at country A. However, there is a big difference between the nuclear potential of 600 missiles and the 6,000 missiles which Russia has today. Sooner or later, we will dismantle the warheads as obsolete. So it is better we reach an agreement now, when the Americans are likely to make concessions.

Q. I think you are being a bit idealistic. It is the classical theory of convergence.The impression is that we were right while the Americans were wrong in the past. Perhaps we should admit that we were wrong about European standards and sincerely try to adopt European values. Fate dealt such a blow to the unfortunate Americans that they are even ready to consult with us. I would like to know what experience of ours qualifies us to give advice. The brilliant results in Afghanistan or even more brilliant results in Chechnya?

A. I liked what Stanislav Govorukhin once said about that. I think, he noted, that in some 200 years we would be as rich as the Americans and, four years later, as stupid as they are now. Russian A is more clever than American B. It is a statistical observation. In the United States, the people are living without effort. Our brilliant Jewish boys knew they had to work hard the whole day to become famous violinists, for instance. The lack of a need for constant serious efforts and of the feeling that something must be done now or never does not help reveal what a man is capable of. The Americans are a very energetic, talented and young nation. The youth means natural egoism, self-sufficiency and the feeling that anything can be done and everything is easy.

I don't think we are inferior to others, we have a distinctive history. Indeed, our movement towards a law-governed state began later and is encountering age-long traditions. But I think we can learn much from the Americans – the rules of democracy, for instance.

Between the opposition and a telephone call

Q. A "pact of four" was discussed in the run-up to the election of deputies to the Moscow City Duma. The Unity, Fatherland, the Union of Right-wing Forces and Yabloko agreed to campaign jointly so that extemists would not infiltrate the Duma. It is hard to believe there was an urgent need for such an alliance. Then why? Is this some sort of new reality?

A. I am not terribly enthusiastic about the new alliance, though I understand there is such a notion as political realism. You know how the political process in Moscow goes with rare exceptions. As Mayor Luzhkov says, this is the way it is done. Isn't it? I understand that if a party has no other way of getting its candidates elected and influencing policy then, it should proceed from this reality. In politics, there is no choice between an absolute evil and an absolute virtue. The choice is made between pluses and minuses. I think there are more pluses in the above-mentioned solution, though it is not at all ideal.

Q. Can you objectively assess what influence our parties exert on the authorities and the public?

A. You know that, unfortunately, the Communists are the strongest and most developed party in Russia. They exert influence on authorities at the regional level – not by taking direct part in the government but by putting pressure on local authorities. As regards Yabloko and the Union of Right-wing Forces to some extent, they are real parties, but small to my regret. True, it often happens in young democracies that a party which is not represented in parliament today may gain 80 percent of the vote tomorrow. For that reason I would not say in advance that one or another party is doomed to oblivion.

Yabloko is a rather influential party. The authorities heed what it says about the economy. The tax system and other economic measures proposed by Yabloko have been adopted by the Duma. But the government proved more skilful and stronger politically and attributed this success to its efforts, not the work done by Yabloko. In politics, if you do not succeed, you lose. Nevertheless, I think the influence of Yabloko in society is greater than its electoral results which depend on many factors, not only on the will of the people.

Q. One gets the impression that Yabloko has recently changed its tactics and is behaving differently than before the elections. Is that so?

A. Yes. A party unable to develop is worthless. We should react to essential matters. If what I have said is true, if there has been progress in economic policy, the judicial reform and foreign policy, we should not kick up a row and call for the overthrow of the government only because we are not in power. That is not being serious. Therefore, we support what is right and criticize what is wrong in our opinion. I think that is a sound policy.

In general, a party's opposition is not measured now by how many times it backed and did not back the government. If a party takes no decisions in general or adopts them on the mobile telephone, it has no relation to the development of the political system.

Q. Is Yabloko still an opposition party then? The Union of Right-wing Forces replies to this question in a very ambiguous way. If you say "no", it means that there is no longer an opposition in parliament. Does this mean the development of a law-governed state?

A. Naturally, I cannot say "no" now. Let me put it this way: we are the opposition on the issue most important and essential for the democratic movement – we oppose attempts to build a civil society as a system of driving belts, including political parties. In my opinion, it is a fundamental issue. We are for a self-governing, not a guided democracy. We are the opposition in this sense.

Q. Tell us, please, why we have been saying for ten years now that there is no civil society in Russia. Is it so indeed?

A. We are sitting and talking here. Isn't it a civil society? The main thing for a civil society is that there be groups of people and that people have autonomy within the system. If we are autonomous, we may go to a meeting of the Memorial Society and say what we think necessary there, we may take up any issue that we consider important with the authorities and a congress of Yabloko or the Union of Right-wing Forces may adopt a decision agreeable or disagreeable to the authorities. This is what a civic society means.

See also:

Understanding Russia

State Duma Elections 2003

Presidential Elections 2004

Novoye Vremya (New Times), May 2003

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