Igor A. Makarov, Associate Professor at Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), sat down two weeks ago with IRAS for an interview about Russia-Europe relationship after the Ukraine Crisis. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The question often raised in Iran is whether Russia considers herself a Western state, or does she assume another identity for herself?
“In terms of cultural development and, in general, in terms of the development of civilization in history, Russia definitely considers herself a Western country, and she never distances herself from Europe in this regard. However, it shouldn’t impede Russia to recognize that most of economic opportunities do not lie in Europe, but in Asia and especially in the Central Eurasia. One of the characteristics of European civilization to which Russia belongs is rationality, and certainly it is rational for Russia to turn to the East. So the nature of the “turn to the East” strategy, starting in Russia a few years ago, is economic. Due to the Russia’s confrontation with the West as well as development of her relations with Asian states, the Russian dependence on Europe has decreased. At the same time, despite the progress in relations with Asian countries, economic cooperation with them is still modest, especially given their current role and contribution to the world economy.”
The next issue is how Europeans view Russia; do they also consider Russia as a Western state?
“I think they take Russia as a Western country that is not willing to play according to the Western rules.”
Is this not problematic?
“Of course it is, and it was a primary reason for the crisis in Ukraine and the current Russia-West confrontation on the whole. Russia has stopped playing according to the rules imposed on and accepted by her in the past two decades.”
Is it true to say that Europe and the US and, in general, the West are looking to demonize Russia or create a negative image of her; especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East?
“Really, there has been a trend in the West to talk of Russia as an enemy. The major reason lies in the fact that Western states have serious domestic problems. For instance, in Europe, looking at Russia as a common threat is an important way to consolidate member states within the European Union and mitigate numerous internal contradictions between them. For the same reason, political affiliation between the US and Europe has intensified for last years, and Russia as a common threat was considered one of the tools and pretexts to unite Western societies.”
Is Russia not doing the same? For example, introducing the West as her general enemy to the Russian people?
“Yes. The same instrument is used by some Russian politicians. Maintaining the spirit of hostility, finding numerous threats around Russia is a good way to consolidate the Russian people around the state and personally around the President, to divert attention from domestic social and economic problems. Unfortunately, the West has used sanctions that have facilitated use of this instrument. In this sense, they contributed to the further weakening of the political competition and Russian civil society.”
You just said Russia considers herself Western, but does not behave according to the Western rules. Are not these statements contradictory?
“In my opinion, there is no contradiction. When I said Russia considered herself as a part of the West, I meant it in terms of culture and civilization. But the rules applied by Western states - developed in recent decades - they didn’t produce the desired results for Russia, and Russian political elites decided to stop follow them. However, we now see that these rules are now challenged in the Western countries themselves. Elections held in European countries and in the US for the last years revealed the drop in popularity of liberal values,, people from the outside of liberal establishment are winning.”
What do you suggest for the détente between Russia and the West at the state level? Is there basically any short-term or long-term solution for this purpose?
“First of all, both sides need to stop creating enemy image of each other. In my opinion, Russia and Europe can develop closer relationship over time. It may not be as warm as it was 15 years ago, because contradictions are still very strong. However, Europe and Russia are too important for each other to maintain the state of confrontation for a long time.
“In 2000s, among those numerous experts and policy-makers from both sides who desired the common future for Europe and Russia, the idea was popular to create a single economic space from Lisbon, Portugal, to Vladivostok, Russia. In its initial form, this idea has failed. However, it may appear again in the more developed form: creating a single economic space from Lisbon to Shanghai or from Lisbon to Singapore or from Lisbon to Seoul to which all the states of Eurasia can join. In other words, now we can imagine such institutions and initiatives as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Chinese initiative of Silk Road Economic Belt and Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a part of the larger Eurasian project, and hope to see areas in which the EU also finds it useful to be involved in it. It is especially promising now due to the rising turbulence in the EU-US relations in the wake of Trump’s victory and due to the deepening structural crisis in the EU.”
How do you think Europe can benefit from the Eurasian Union that would encourage other states and strengthen the Union?
“Europe is now experiencing a difficult situation. The UK exited the EU, the referendum held in Italy aiming at strengthening the role of Italy in the EU has failed, in many other countries the politicians are coming to power who are skeptical toward the development of the EU. European states need a new impetus to restart their common European project that is now coming to a standstill. Some groups of European political elites saw this impetus in the development of Eastern Partnership (partnership with states of Eastern Europe) with participation of Ukraine and closer relations with the US, primarily through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But these plans have failed so far, so European countries need a new impetus. Now European political elites imagine Russia as a threat, but this perception may change in future. A new strategy is necessary to the EU, and the participation in Eurasian project can become a part of it, and I think Russia will suggest this plan to Europe in near future.”
How does Russia see her future? In what direction will she go?
“Unfortunately, this is probably the main problem that while Russian political elites achieve its international objectives relatively efficiently, they pay little attention to domestic issues, especially economic development. Of course, issues like sustainable economic growth, diversification of the economy in order to decrease its dependence on oil and gas, and becoming an innovative economy are discussed widely in Russia. But no tools to achieve these objectives have been proposed by the authorities so far, and I think the main challenge for Russia in the next few years will be finding a strategy that will help her not only gain achievements in the foreign policy, but also overcome the domestic problems.”
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