Who’s got the last laugh? Interview with Dmitry Rogozin in Bulgarian “Kapital”

Last week the European Council on Foreign Relations ran a commentary by compatriot Vessela Cherneva, in which she gives a summary of an interview given by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, for Bulgarian newspaper Kapital. In addition to Ms Cherneva’s apt evaluation of the nuances and implications for Bulgaria (and beyond) in terms of Russia’s foreign policy toward Bulgaria and other “lost” spheres of influence in the wider Balkans region, a comment by one of the readers, explaining the notion of the “useful idiot” stemming from pre-Cold War Russian ideology are both well worth reading.

While Rogozin is well known to the international community for his thuggish “sense of humor”, I’m not sure to what extent such thuggishness comes across in a summary of his speech. This prompted me to translate the full interview from Bulgarian, which can be read below. Something else worth noting is perhaps the difference between interviews given to the Western press and the one in this Bulgarian publication. I cannot pinpoint exactly what those differences are, but one thing is certain: speaking to a cultural audience that one considers its adversary and another – its “historically proven and justified” sphere of influence is not the same.

Rogozin, who may or may not be having the last laugh aside, I can highly recommend the analyses and policy briefs published by the ECFR. They are a voice of hope that the EU has not entirely lost its ability for rational thought!

Interview with Dmitry Rogozin

Regardless of the West’s position, Moscow views the conflict with Georgia as unconditional victory. What is your next step?

You mean, who’s next? My colleague, the US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, said that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia face a threat of a Russian attack. I would like to add to this list two more categories: the Marcians and the Penguins. We are getting more and more annoyed of such panic-raising US statements. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has proposed an independent investigation of the events in Georgia. We agree to such measures, but the Georgians don’t. In this case, the Georgian President Saakashvili is the aggressor and the criminal – and, so what? Is NATO going to cease communication with him? If we were to open the facts to CNN, are they going to apologize for the disinformation they were spreading during the crisis? And what are the faces of Dick Cheney and George Bush, the men who financed Saakashvili’s regime, going to be like?

The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was not an easy decision for us, but it was the only way to stop the violence. In the very near future they will be recognized by another 10-15 countries. If a country is not formally recognized, it does not mean that it does not exist. The US didn’t recognize the Soviet Union until 1933. Yet we existed and developed prior to that.

Despite the civilian and military casualties, we can speak of a positive result of this war. Namely, the war was a test in morale, responsibility and who’s worth what in international politics. These things are clear. You can’t not take a side in this issue. What we want is that the aggressor is punished and anathemized by the international community, if not in real at least in moral terms. The second thing we want is peace and stability on the Caucuses for all. Third, it’s clear that our world is fragile and that it can be easily destroyed by one wrong step taken by a drug addict. This is why we have to protect ourselves from dividing into (political/ideological) blocks and to try to find stability for all of us.

You are comparing 8 August 2008 to 11 September 2001. What do you think are the long-term consequences of 8 August?

One thing is sure: we will not be acting like the Americans after 11 September. After they were attacked, instead of taking care of their national security, they attacked Iraq and Afghanistan; what’s more, under a laughable pretext. Russia will concentrate on its national security and will keep to its own part of the geographic map. Our goal is to create a wide coalition for peace and stability in Europe, to change the agreements, and to make security an indivisible issue for us all. You can laugh at me but I support the idea for obligatory conscription for everybody in Russia.

Where else are there Russian minorities that Russia intends to protect as it did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Minorities are not only a Russian problem. There are Hungarians in Romania, Turks in Bulgaria…What’s important is to not provoke one another, but to secure peace of mind for our compatriots. Why, for instance, are Russian in the Baltic states refused citizenship rights? They are the second largest ethnic group in those countries. This stands in the way of friendly relations between Russia and Estonia and Latvia. There is one thing I want to clarify. We intervened in South Ossetia not only because Russians live there. We would likewise protect every small nation in our region, which is threatened by genocide – Jews, Bulgarians, all. How can we stand by indifferent if someone is shooting rockets at a civilian population?

After all the hard words of the past few weeks, is there place for constructive dialogue between Russia and NATO?

As a Washington favourite, Saakashvili has been a force of instability in the Caucuses for years. Since the beginning of August I have been in constant communication with NATO. We wanted to use the mechanisms for cooperation available in order to put a stop to the aggression with joint efforts. For some reasons America blocked this process. This is why we think that NATO’s General Secretary visit to Tbilisi on the 15-16 September, despite being planned way in advance, is amoral and not correct. We were hoping that our colleagues in NATO will understand that such a visit will be taken to mean moral support for Saakashvili, which is totally out of line.

The behavior of the Americans was scandalous. For many people the US was also an actor in this conflict because they were arming the Georgian army. As for the Europeans, we expected from them not just propaganda but an objective evaluation of who played what role in this war, and why. We trusted that they would adopt a balanced approach. We have economic and friendly relations with Europe, we are building together a common European home, which has now been bombarded from within by some revanchists with a Cold War mentality. We did not expect such hypocrisy.

Do you think NATO’s expansion to the east has come to an end?

We consider further NATO expansion as counterproductive and very, very dangerous. If NATO had not promised Georgia membership, the situation would not have escalated to aggression. Saakashvili took this promise as an indulgence. Until recently we treated his behaviour in the way an elephant would react to a puppy barking. But when he started to exercise violence over a small nation like South Ossetia, which only four years ago suffered the tragedy in Beslan, we could no longer pretend that nothing is happening.

If NATO likes to pretend that it doesn’t matter whose hands it is shaking and refuses to see the blood on these hands, then an organization of this kind can no longer be our partner. If NATO offers Georgia a plan of action toward membership, we will terminate all our cooperation with NATO.

What will happen to eastern Ukraine if Kiev decides to pursue NATO membership?

Ukraine is another version of the Caucuses drama. There the governing coalition split apart over the question of NATO membership. The Prime Minister and the President are on non-speaking terms because of this. This shows again how dangerous it is for NATO to step in the region. Many in Ukraine are now apprehensive, and with a good reason – President Viktor Yushchenko was selling weapons to Saakashvili. Besides, we have information that the Ukranian air forces may be involved in the shooting of Russian planes over Georgia.

All other issues aside, Ukraine is for us the cradle of Russian civilization. We come from Kiev. Ukraine is our mother; this is our family. You can’t just tear apart a child from its mother – we will not let this happen.

As the winter is coming, is there danger of cutting gas supplies to Europe?

Where are such fears coming from? We have never put forth the question of cutting supplies to our European partners. There are two elements in our country which remain unchanged no matter what happens: the discipline in our energy supplies to our partners and our readiness to apply our rocket systems. Both are in order. In 1991 nothing worked in Russia – but even then these two elements were in “readiness”. Don’t doubt our reputation in these two areas.

Are you ready to use the second element the same way you apply the first?

It is the guarantee to our sovereignty from the time of the Cold War until now. It is our guarantee for security.

The Black Sea is a strategic security zone. Is Russia ready to share it with NATO?

All the countries in the Black Sea region have to be very careful when it comes to this issue. No military activity should be developed there, otherwise there will be an ecological if not military disaster. There is sulphuric hydrogen at the bottom of the Black Sea – in case of military activity, this can lead to an ecological disaster. This is why we are warning NATO to stop flexing its muscles in the Black Sea region. They say now that they are delivering humanitarian assistance to Georgia. But why use navy ships? We want the Romanians, the Bulgarians and all countries bordering the Black Sea to be very careful what they’re doing and what they allow to be done in their waters. The Black Sea should be used for trade and tourism, not for military purposes.

Bulgaria has historical ties with Russia but today is a NATO member, a host of American military bases and supporter of Georgia’s membership in NATO. Does Russia view Bulgaria as a competitor in this respect?

Russia has lost many lives fighting to protect Bulgaria and we have never regret this. We have the same religious beliefs, the same blood, and there are no bad feelings between us. Your President Parvanov is my personal friend. However, Bulgaria has abandoned us many times, but afterwards always taken the correct decision when victory was on our side. Now Bulgaria once again is in the wrong camp – NATO. But this is your own fault and it depends on you to correct it at some point.

This week the EU sent over its most senior representatives to Moscow to discuss how Russia sees its future relations with Europe. How do you interpret the answer they were given?

We want to implement the “Medvedev-Sarkozy” plan – every step of it. But there’s a problem with this plan. Actually there’s more than one plan: one signed by Medvedev and the French President Sarkozy in Moscow on 12 August; in Tbilisi, however, Sarkozy was unable to convince Saakashvili to sign it, and the word “statut” was changed to “security” for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This plan was given to US’ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and this black American panther managed to get Saakashvili to sign a different plan, one that does not at all include the 6 points. Then the Security Council changed the plan again…We are going to discuss only the original document signed by Medvedev and Sarkozy in Moscow. The EU is mostly interested in how many Russian troops there are in Georgia and when they are going to be withdrawn. I will answer immediately. We have 400 people military personnel in the demilitarized zone, which are stationed in 19 check points. They will stay there until a peacekeeping mission of the OSCE or a common mission between us and the EU arrives there. Then we will return to our pre 6 August positions.

You have proposed a new foreign policy concept for changing the security architecture in Europe. How does this idea look now in the aftermath of the recent events, and is there place for the US in this scheme?

This concept was presented in July. There is a need for a common security system for Europe, the US and Russia. The US is part of this. We are talking about a security zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok. We must stop acting divided in blocks, and move into a common, inter-related security system.

In the last month the fear from Russia was revived; investors left and your country is understood in this international isolation. Was the war with Georgia worth the price?

History will be our judge. The historical truth will be on our side. The West has become cynical and double-faced. It is morally poor and acts according to double standards. A few months will pass and everything will normalize. But we are going to draw our lessons learned. Two countries will pay the bill – Georgia and the US. Georgia has to cure itself of its nationalist-populist illness. The US has lost its reputation. What America has done in the past few years, has degraded it in the eyes of many people around the world.

So Russia is back in the Great Game?

(Long silence.) Yes. But everything will be ok. In the past there were moments when I thought that we have lost everything in the face of insults and hatred. I used to tell myself that things will turn around, that a time will come when we can look back at the situation and laugh. This time has come and I would like to conclude with a fitting joke. In Russia the optimists learn English; the pessimists learn Chinese; and the realists learn how to use a Kalashnikov.