memri
July 23, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8858

Well-Connected Policy Intellectual Lukyanov: Russia Does Not Have To Interfere In Belarus Elections As Belarus And Lukashenko Have Nowhere Else To Go But Russia

July 23, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8858

Fedor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, and one of Russia's foremost policy intellectuals, sat down for an interview with Alexey Solomin on Echo of Moscow radio station that covered many foreign policy areas. Lukyanov was blasé about the Belarus elections as that country has nowhere to go but Russia. The main task of diplomacy in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is to avoid all-out war, as a negotiated compromise was not in the cards. China was a challenge and not a threat to Russia and particularly in terms of territorial expansion. Erdogan turned Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque, because he is an Islamist and not because he sought to irritate Russia. Russia's military may be fond of Khalifa Haftar, but Russia is not committed to anyone in Libya. Excerpts from the Lukyanov interview, with Solomin's questions in bold type, follow below.[1]


Fedor Lukyanov (Source: Interfax.ru)

― [...] I would like to start with Belarus. An acute situation there arose after the CEC [Central Election Commission] refused to register opposition candidates. What, from your point of view, is real Alexander Lukashenko’s rating in the country now?

― [...] I can’t judge what his real support is. We have polls, which give diametrically opposed results: the official ones show 80% [support]; oppositional ones show only 3%. I do not think that either of the two corresponds to reality. By the atmosphere, and collating different facts, we can assume that, of course, the real support is lower than of that President Lukashenko is used to.

And the campaign is going very stressfully. We observe this ... I have little doubt in a result of these elections. But what will happen next... I think that very difficult times are in store for Alexander Lukashenko, because during this campaign it turned out that he is opposed and has a major beef with Russia and even tries to exploit the "Russian factor" that allegedly has a role in his election campaign.

But he has nowhere else to go. However after the elections have proceeded and concluded, the same set of question on which Russia and Belarus have been clashing for a minimum of a year and a half to two years will resume on everything that is related to the so called union state in its new meaning. But in general, Alexander Grigorevich's space for maneuver is narrowing although he is a skilled player and a very strong fighter....

― [...] I would like to know about Russia’s position. Does [the Kremlin] want Lukashenko to be the president for a new term?

― Russia, it seems to me, this time is in a perfect position. Russia does not have to do anything...

― Just observe.

– Just observe:  In Russia, Lukashenko is hardly a favorite candidate .... If it were a different country and a different leader, all those words that were addressed to Russia over the past year and a half, would not have been left without a resolute response...but it is clear that Lukashenko does not enjoy the warm affection that he previously enjoyed in Moscow ...

― So why is he [Lukashenko] forgiven this. You said that the things that he uttered towards Russia, would not have been forgiven if they were said by someone else?

― [The Kremlin] has a very long history of relations with him. After all, Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years. So on the one hand, they just got used him. On the other hand, there is an understanding that, in general, he and the Republic of Belarus have no other options. Economic ties [between Russia and Belarus] are so close and deep that it is impossible to change them without catastrophic consequences for Belarus...

― [...] Does any of Alexander Lukashenko’s rivals carry a "Kremlin mark"?

― Almost no opponents nor remain for Alexander Lukashenko. I doubt that one of them has a Kremlin mark...Perhaps your listeners will not believe it but Russia has no special need to interfere in the Belarus campaign... the previous trend [in Moscow - Minsk relations] will remain: a gradual forcing of Belarus to a new closer relations and economic ties. If somehow this will not happen, then, I repeat once again, the space for maneuvering for any Belarus leader of is very narrow...

― [...] Before the amendments to the Constitution, political scientists discussed at a serious level the possibility of the union super state [of Russia and Belarus] ... supposedly Vladimir Putin could be the head of this state after the end of his presidential term. Is this project completely discarded today...?

- ...Even if there is an idea that Belarus needs to be integrated in some way, this has nothing to do with the prospects of Vladimir Putin. Because Vladimir Putin is an experienced politician and has been in this business for a long time... to make his future dependent on relations with another country, especially with the complicated relations that developed with Belarus, would be short-sighted from his perspective...

― [...] Aggravation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan... what triggered to this escalation?

― Well, this, in general, does not matter. It could have been an accident, or it could have been a desire to check the enemy’s readiness... conflicts, incidents in such cases and in such zones erupt, are programmed. The next question is always a desire and ability to stop this escalation... And the incident is difficult, because there are a lot of victims. On the Azerbaijani side, the casualties are very significant: a general got killed and senior officers.

And given the existing tension in both societies (in Azerbaijan in particular), this is a very sore subject .... It is obvious, that Azerbaijan accumulated strong resentment and dissatisfaction with the situation. This is a rather complicated issue for the Azerbaijani leadership, because it is impossible to change anything radically.

If, God forbid, a full-blown conflict breaks out, no one of the external players will allow it to develop...

― [Recently] Polad Bulbuloglu, the Azerbaijani ambassador to Russia, said, that 10 million people [in Azerbaijan] cannot wait 30 years for 2.5 million people [Armenians] to live the occupied territory... Do you think that the rhetoric of the Azerbaijani authorities indicates a readiness for a military solution?

― No, I do not see any readiness for such actions. This rhetoric is being repeated regularly... the Azerbaijani leadership is very experienced and they are well aware that the 10 million people, of course, cannot wait, but they have to. And in this regard, changing the status quo by military means, in my opinion, is in principle impossible. And the point here is that a certain balance has developed. Azerbaijan had quite an unsuccessful military experience, and [we shouldn’t forget about] external factors. Russia is a military ally of Armenia. Naturally, Russia doesn’t not want to get into a situation where it would have to defend one of its important partners (via military means) again another of its important partners. Armenia is a formal ally, and Azerbaijan is simply an important country for Russia...

― The political leadership of Azerbaijan bears certain risks if it fails to convince its people that this issue will be resolved somehow?

― Of course... This is also true for Armenia. The economic situation in Armenia, as I understand it, is rather difficult, the pandemic struck the country quite painfully. Therefore, both countries need some positive stories...

― The Karabakh problem has indeed lasted about 30 years. Can you recall a period when the parties were at least a little closer to a compromise solution? ...

― [...] There was once a period of very intense diplomacy. If I remember correctly, when Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev was the president of Russia, he devoted a lot of time [to this issue], he met with Aliyev and Sargsyan several times. And really put a lot of effort into it... Anyways, there has been no war in Karabakh since the mid-90s. But I am afraid that there is no chance to achieve anything through negotiations... the idea that Azerbaijan unlawfully lost territories, which must be returned, is rooted in the Azerbaijani political narrative. And in Armenia, respectively, the opposite is true – "Karabakh being a part of Azerbaijani was the historical injustice, which was corrected, and we won’t let it be changed." ...

― Do I understand correctly, that a compromise is impossible?

― The compromise, of course, implies concessions. Today I can’t imagine what could be done. For external mediators ... maintaining a balance and the prevention of war is the main direction of diplomatic efforts. In fact, no one seriously expects that in some historical perspective we will be able to resolve this conflict.

― [...] So, from your point of view, did Nikol Pashinyan’s rise to power in Armenia give hope that the Karabakh issue would be changed in a positive way?

― In my opinion, no, because, as I said before, this issue is not connected with personalities... the previous two presidents of Armenia were both natives of Nagorno-Karabakh, veterans of the Karabakh war. And, of course, during their presidency, in principle, the conversation could not even start... he [Pashinyan] has nothing to do with this Karabakh region, it would be very difficult for him, even if he wanted to, to make a decision that could affect the status of Karabakh...

― The Armenian ambassador Vardan Toganyan drew attention to a statement made by Turkey. Turkey supported the Azerbaijani side. Is there Turkish influence?  And if so, how strong and important is it?

― [...] Turkey now has its own problems. The fact that Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan is not news at all. The fact that Turkey cannot settle relations with Armenia because of Karabakh is also a fact... I think, Turkey will certainly fully support Azerbaijan rhetorically. Will it intervene in other ways? I think not.

― Lets move the conversation to other neighbors. After the words of Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Reznikov, talks began about a possible Ukrainian withdrawal from the Minsk agreements. Dmitry Kozak already commented on this issue: "Russia expects some more clear statements on this subject." From your point of view, is Ukraine really going to quit these agreements?

― I do not think anyone wants these agreements to end. Just for one simple reason: there is no legal basis between Russia and Ukraine for dealing with the well-known problem of the East of Ukraine, except for the Minsk agreements... The Minsk agreements create a sort of a framework for the political and diplomatic process. Even if this process doesn’t go anywhere...

Theoretically, Ukraine can leave Minsk agreements, it has every right to do so. In that case the peace process will freeze in an incomprehensible and very dangerous form. Because there would be no basis [for negotiations] at all. Conflict, in principle, can flare up again it will take only one provocation ....

― Does this mean that these documents should be at least revised in order for them to work?

― Revision in this case is impossible, because we must remember the circumstances under which these agreements were signed... there was an agreement to end the war, which was very brutal at that time. And in fact, those points, which are being disputed now by the Ukrainian side (and, in particular, by comrade Poroshenko), were signed by him precisely in order to stop a very difficult conflict... To reach some sort of revision, which would suit everyone is simply impossible... I believe that any revision can only happen, through an outbreak of a military conflict. But no one is interested in this. God forbid that this should happen.

― [...] Let’s talk about a different topic ... What the Far East means for Russia? Some compare the Far East with the colonies of an empire. Some say that Moscow actually has long lost control of this region, and this region is very economically dependent on the countries that border it. Do you think this is true? ...

― [...] I think that this metaphor, that the Far East supposedly has always been a colony, is false. Because in a colony there is always a colonized population and some kind of community that becomes an alien population... As for the Far East dependence upon the neighboring countries, it certainly exists, but not to such an extent that one could say that Moscow does not influence this territory anymore...

The question, it seems to me, is different... For the last 10 years Russia has intensified its policy of the so-called "turn to the East", that is, to intensify its presence in Asia... This turn is going on rather "creakily", but, nevertheless, is taking place. This is a large federal, state-wide project, which is associated with the Russia’s position in Asia. But the inhabitants of the Far East, of course, have their own needs, aspirations and demands ... Now, as those people do not really feel the results of this policy, this apparently, frustrates the population ...

― It is just, that in this connection, some suggest that there is a risk of Moscow losing the Far East. The more entrepreneurial (for example the same Chinese) who are economically very strong, will influence the region.

― [...] According to my not very qualified estimates, this is quite exaggerated. There is no doubt that the Chinese, of course, see all of Asia and all of Eurasia as a potential space for their entrepreneurial efforts. But some sort of an assault, in my opinion, is impossible... Is China a threat? China is, as people like to say now, a challenge. It’s different ... to imagine that China will want a piece of Russian territory is unimaginable. China has completely different tasks, completely different problems, especially now, when their confrontation with the United States resembles a real Cold War.

... of course, I agree with many colleagues, who say that for the coming decades there will be no more important task for Russia than building positive, constructive working relations with China, which at the same time would not make Russia dependent on China.

― [...] You mentioned a serious conflict between China and the United States. Please rate the likelihood of an open military conflict between the two countries. How real is it today?

― Today, this is completely unrealistic. No one can imagine such a scenario ... in the current situation it is simply impossible, because the losses of the parties involved will be huge, and the interdependence of China and the United States remains extremely high.

In addition, at the moment, the United States is controlled by a man who is not a warrior at all. That is, Trump prefers any other means of influence and pressure, but not military ones. China also does not feel ready, as it seems to me.

[...] In addition, both countries are powerful nuclear powers. America is a superpower, China is just a nuclear state, but it has the means to "respond" [to the US].

Now, the main front of confrontation between China and the United States is not a military one. It is the economy: there were technological opportunities that China has actively used in recent years, and now the US is trying to stop them. This is a rather fierce and serious battle... This aggravation is extremely unnerving, for most Asian countries, especially for the region of Southeast Asia. All Southeast states, in general, have benefited a lot from the previous era of globalization, when China and the United States worked harmoniously within the framework of global economy... This [conflict] will lead to dramatic changes in the world. So far, no one can even understand what those changes might be.

― [...] Let’s get back to Turkey. There are two topics: the first one is related to the Hagia Sophia. Do you think these actions by the Turkish leadership irritate Moscow? ...
― Well, I think that it caused some frustration in Kremlin. Especially for those who view religion as an important topic. But in general, the whole hype around this topic (not only in Russia, but around the world) surprised me... Erdogan is an Islamist. He came to power as an Islamist. He was always a very deeply Muslim. His actions in this regard, I think, are fully consistent with his beliefs.

In addition, Constantinople fell [to Turks] around 500 years ago. And, I'm sorry for the cynicism, but maybe it's time to get used to the fact that Hagia Sophia is not an Orthodox church. Actually, until 1934 it was a mosque. These are the internal dynamics of Turkey, ... this is Turkish territory and Turkey’s building too. Therefore, one can be indignant, but, strictly speaking, there is no ground for the claims.


Erdogan in Hagia Sophia acting upon his beliefs (Source: Dailysabah.com)

― From your point of view did Erdogan want to offend Russia?

― I think that in this issue he wasn’t even thinking about Russia. This is in general a domestic policy of Turkey...

― Another topic related to Turkey is about Libya. Do you think there is now an understanding of how this conflict is developing? The Libyan forces (the parliament that supports Haftar) are calling on Egypt to become a party to this conflict.

― Egypt is already a participant in this conflict... it seems to me that, firstly, Russia is not the main player in this conflict... Turkey plays a key role, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates play a key role... By and large, Russia does not have any important interests there...

― You are talking about Russia’s distancing from the parties to the conflict. But Turkish President Recep Erdogan accuses Russia of using Wagner PMC in Libya.

― Russia might be using Wagner PMC, or Wagner PMC might be using Russia to earn money there under the Russian flag. I do not know. But the fact is, that Russia is present in this conflict. It is true that there are many in Russia (especially among the military) who sympathize with Haftar.

But Russian politics in this case is really quite diversified. Russia does not have any kind of strict obligations to any of the participants...

 

[1] Echo.msk.ru, July 15, 2020.

Share this Report:

HELP BRIDGE THE LANGUAGE GAP – DONATE TO MEMRI’S 2020 SUMMER CAMPAIGN