Exclusive WSN Interview with Georgi Arbatov: "Do not ignore the deficits of the system Putin!Russia needs new thinking and grass roots democracy!"

Posted in Russia | 25-Jun-04 | Author: Dieter Farwick

Pope Johannes Paul II talking to Georgi Arbatov
Pope Johannes Paul II talking to Georgi Arbatov

As a long-time Director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies (ISKRAN) for many years, which he founded in 1967, Georgi Arbatov had the opportunity to meet and talk with the Western "enemy” in Moscow and in Western capitals. His memoirs are a very interesting read. For decades he was a member of the inner circle of power in the Soviet Union and in Russia. Even though retired, Georgi Arbatov cannot stop thinking about global politics. Here is the proof.

Mr. Arbatov, you are a leading expert in world politics. We would like to share your view of the present situation in the most important parts of the world.

Georgi Arbatov: Actually, it is much better than it was during the Cold War. But I think we—the Americans and most of the Europeans—have missed the unique opportunity created at the end of the Cold War. We speak much about stability, but the world remains unstable and I see examples of major problems, which will create troubles for all of us. One problem is that we have to live without an enemy. For the military it is an impossible situation, a tragedy.

Well, we have to learn and get used to it. What is the future role of Russia in your view?

Georgi Arbatov: Russia is a big country and it cannot disappear from the political map of the world. However, it has been in a deep crisis for quite some time. I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I do not want to blame Putin, maybe he could not do differently. He was very inexperienced when he came into office. Having been member of the KGB is not the experience needed for a statesman. He brought with him people from the KGB and the province, from St. Petersburg, which is a deep province, politically. These people were brought up in an environment very far from real politics – and from statesmanship. So, you have a lot of brilliant people there, but there is another point. The second thing which troubles me is that the level of intellect in Russia, the United States and, I am afraid, in many European countries as well has decreased dramatically.

Georgi Arbatov with Colin Powell
Georgi Arbatov with Colin Powell
During the Cold War America had an enemy, we had an enemy. We mobilised all intellectual and material resources. When the enemy was away, we relaxed. About my country, I must tell you for sure, we have to activate intellectual resources. They were more mobilised during the Cold War than they are now.

You know, after Gorbachev all the leaders I served were not very interested in really clever and bright people in institutions or academies, or others which could have helped them. They were satisfied with their group of friends and advisors and not all of them were good. This is also true in North America. It is really sad for me to see that the intellectual level has dropped in the Senate, in the House, in the Presidency, and in the administration. You see far fewer brilliant people, and they had a lot of them. We see only some small remnants.

Is the present situation more challenging than it was before? We do not have the enemy but we face a lot of risks and challenges.

Georgi Arbatov: Yes, but you need an intellectual understanding. Now, you have to really understand the complicated situation and also complicated ways out. So, war is an awful thing, but at least one thing was clear: When you destroy the enemy, then the enemy is gone. Now, how do you kill the terrorists? How do you fight against these people? You can use neither nuclear bombs nor tanks. We have reached a situation in which a very smart and complicated policy is needed. And cooperation, cooperation between those who have never cooperated – like the different secret services in Moscow, they have to cooperate.

Georgi Arbatov - aide of then President Boris Yeltsin
Georgi Arbatov - aide of then President Boris Yeltsin
You know, if somebody is satisfied, it is very difficult for him to fight. We need the ability to really understand, to know much more, to foresee much better, and I am afraid we have not reached this level. Neither in Russia nor in the United States.

Now, to the Europeans. Europeans in general are more politically sophisticated than the Americans. So, I hope that they will help America and us. It is a very challenging time. Therefore, it is a time of great opportunities.

Let’s come back to Russia. Before I came to Moscow I saw the great exhibition in Bonn with the treasures of the Kremlin. It was striking to see the amount of European culture forming a part of Russia. Do you see Russia as a European power or an Asian power or neither?

Georgi Arbatov: You see, European history was not always very nice. There were awful things: The Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War. You had everything, the Inquisition, for example, which was terrible. Peter the Great wanted change. Sometimes he did it with Asiatic means, but he wanted a European cultural influence in Russia. Look, in music I think Russia and Germany are first and second in the world. I do not know who is first and who is second but they are the best. In literature as well. Look at the 1920s and 1930s. Look at the movies. We had the best theatres, we had the best literature.

Henry Kissinger discussing with Georgi Arbatov
Henry Kissinger discussing with Georgi Arbatov
You know Germany quite well.

Georgi Arbatov: Look, as boy I lived five years in Germany—four years in Berlin and one year in Hamburg—because my father worked in the Russian State Department. My German is “Kindersprache,” which I remember from this time. Coming back to Russia I spoke German better than Russian. I have great respect for Germany, I love German culture. People there and in Europe love and live culture. You know, our “old rich” did a lot for culture. They built theatres, museums, and hospitals. Now the “new rich” do different things; they will buy a soccer team.

Let’s go back some 15 years. What went wrong after the end of the Cold War?

Georgi Arbatov: The West did not help the Soviet Union and Russia. The enlargement of NATO, for example, was not necessary and not very intelligent. What does NATO gain by the membership of Estonia? On the other side, NATO’s enlargement was supportive to “old thinking” in Russia. These people could talk about Russia’s encirclement and the threat by NATO. By this, they could block Russia’s way to the West. They could blame Gorbachev and Yeltsin for selling out Russia’s interests.

What other mistakes has the West made?

Georgi Arbatov: You concentrated too much on the individual person, like Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin, and now with Vladimir Putin. The West said that they could do business with Mikhail Gorbachev, then with Boris Yeltsin, now with Vladimir Putin. You neglected the political system in the Soviet Union and Russia.

What do you think about the younger generation of politicians in Russia ?

Georgi Arbatov - close to the President Breshnev and then President Nixon
Georgi Arbatov - close to the President Breshnev and then President Nixon
Georgi Arbatov: They really have had no chance to develop with the present quality and composition of the Duma. Normally, the parliament is the learning field for young politicians. They should be able to learn by doing, gain political experience and competence. That is not the case in the Duma we have today. Even talented and qualified young politicians get no chance. [Arbatov’s son was for some years in the Duma but his party lost all their seats.]

Would a federal system of Russia give them a better chance?

Georgi Arbatov: Indeed, if we had a federal system they could make their way outside Moscow.

Since the presidential elections the “system Putin” is in a very strong position. How could the West help Russia to become more pluralistic and federalist?

Georgi Arbatov: You should not ignore the deficits of the “system Putin”. You should criticize the wrongdoings of the government. You should not ignore the violation of human rights. You should not ignore that the elections were not free and democratic. You should not ignore the suppression of free media. That is the only way to start ”new thinking” from the bottom up. We need grassroots democracy.

What is your personal view of Vladimir Putin ?

Georgi Arbatov: He is no statesman. He and his advisors come from the province. They have no experience of world policy. He has a KGB background. He can only think in vertical structures and military hierarchies. He relies on the people of the Secret Services and the military as well as on the bureaucracy. There is a lot of “old thinking” in the system.

Thank you very much for your frankness and thought-provoking comments.