Renewing old ties
Ibrahim Nafie, in the Kremlin, met Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of his historic visit to Egypt
Moscovites have been hoping for warmer days as April draws to an end, but during my stay it was not to be. On Friday 25 April, temperatures dropped and sleet fell, in chunks almost as big as a fist, turning everything white. At the Kremlin, the Russian president was putting the final touches on his annual speech to the Federation Council, intended for delivery the following Monday, just before his departure to Egypt. My appointment with President Putin was set for 7pm, but he was still busy in meetings. Out of courtesy, the Kremlin secretary took me on a tour around the palace to pass time.
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Indonesian President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono addresses the African-Asian summit in Jakarta
When I finally met the Russian president I could sense how exhausted he was, at the end of a day that for him started at 8am. But as soon as the interview began, he became animated, responding with calm reasoning to a barrage of questions, and offering us a precious insight into Egyptian- Russian relations.
Your upcoming visit to Egypt is your first ever to an Arab country and the first by a Russian leader to our country in over 40 years. Would you explain the significance of your visit and tell us about the priorities of Russian policy vis- ˆ-vis the Arabs today?
You're right. I haven't visited any Arab country yet. My colleagues and I believe that we have to get in direct contact with Arab countries, starting with Egypt. President Mubarak has visited our country more than once and we have developed strong personal and practical relations. President Mubarak has invited me more than once to Egypt.
Russia, just as the Soviet Union before it, has always maintained close ties with Arab countries, although these ties were not always of a steady nature, but they were cordial, warm and credible, as well as based on friendship. Over 300 million people live in the Middle East and North Africa. It is clear that the issues of the contemporary world cannot be resolved without taking into account the opinions and interests of the nations and countries of that region.
I am hopeful that my visit will result in stronger ties and closer cooperation between Russia and Egypt and enable us to discuss with the Egyptian leadership various issues and ideas concerning developments in this region which is not distant from Russia.
Also [the visit is a chance to] coordinate our positions on urgent international matters and draw together joint plans for coordinated action in the medium term.
What are the priorities of Russian policies towards the Arab world today?
Primarily, to create a climate of stability that allows for the settlement of regional disputes and promotes the right circumstances for developing economic ties.
We have a great interest in Arab history and culture and we're greatly interested in cooperation with the Arab world.
You have strongly opposed the unilateral position of the US administration concerning the war on Iraq. And yet last year you supported President Bush's re-election for a second term. Would you be so kind as to explain this apparent shift in your position?
It isn't true that our position shifted. Differences and discrepancies over one international issue or another does not at all mean that there is no understanding on other important issues on the international or bilateral levels.
The US, just as Russia, is a large nuclear power in the world. We are natural -- more than natural -- partners in matters pertaining to international stability and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are also partners in fighting international terror, a problem from which Egypt has also suffered.
We and the US have sizeable trade and I have good personal ties with President Bush, which prompts me to say that he is a good and reliable partner in the way he addresses many issues; that his decisions can be discussed; and that he is a communicative person and his positions in any country can be predicted.
A new leadership often relinquishes previous stands or goes back to square one, and we didn't want to go back to the square one with an important and significant partner as the US, particularly that relations, understanding and cooperation between us has reached the advanced stage they're at now.
I cannot find a good reason for change. And I don't think my position has affected the decision taken by the US people to the degree some may imagine. The American people don't get affected by external factors, which is normal and common in all countries.
How does Russia view the current architecture of the global political order and calls for a multi-polar world order? And how would you define Russia's main geopolitical concerns in today's world?
At the top of our geopolitical priorities and concerns is the creation of external conditions conducive to the development of the economy first and then the improvement of living conditions for citizens. We believe that such objectives cannot be achieved unless we build an effective democratic system in our country.
This same vision pervades the way we see bilateral relations, international cooperation and the new world order that governs international relations, while taking into account the interests and opinions of all countries, of the members of the international community, in a democratic way.
It is impossible to achieve democracy within each country without respect for the law. Likewise, it is impossible on the international level to conceive of a democratic and just international order that doesn't involve respect for, and commitment to, international law. Therefore, we will continue to support the role of international organisations that bolster the world order of international relations, chiefly the UN.
How do you view UN reform and the enlargement of the UN Security Council?
UN reform should take current international realities into account. When making decisions, we have to apply all the necessary procedures. Experts are currently assessing all proposed reform options on the basis of regional criteria, the weight and status of the countries involved, and the criteria of economic ties and contacts. Russia is very active in this process.
It is difficult right now to predict the outcome. Decisions should be made on the basis of agreement and compromise. But we are fully convinced of the need to preserve the mechanisms and tools that are currently effective in the UN, chief of which the use of the veto at the UN Security Council.
There should also be a re-evaluation of some of the missions the UN assumes, including, for example, the mechanism involving the use of force. Should the reform process end up robbing the UN of the essence it developed over the years, [the UN] would face the same fate as the League of Nations, the organisation that preceded it before the WWII.
Allow me, Mr President, to switch back to the issue of Iraq. What possibility do you see of Iraq regaining peace and stability?
You were right when you said that we have strongly opposed the war in Iraq, and now we see that our position was right. At the same time, we have to admit that good and strenuous efforts were made recently in Iraq with a view to achieving domestic stability.
The holding of elections in Iraq was undoubtedly a success. Despite all the drawbacks associated with this process, it wouldn't have been possible to resolve accumulating problems and complications without these elections, which took place under unusual conditions.
We believe that in order to continue the process of stabilisation successfully, the interests and views of all religious sects and ethnic communities in Iraq must be taken into account. The new Iraqi leadership should have the courage, wisdom and ability to reach an agreement with various Iraqi groups, to ensure that their interests are taken into consideration while writing the new constitution.
The aim is to consolidate domestic security and achieve national reconciliation ahead of the date set for the withdrawal for foreign forces.
On our part, we will continue to cooperate with Iraq and its new leadership in reconstruction, building on our long-standing and solid ties, and hoping to develop these ties in the future.
Moving on to the Russian domestic scene. Russia has witnessed significant economic growth over the past two years. How do you explain that?
Russia has achieved significant economic growth over the past five, not just two, years. Over the past five years, Russia has seen its GDP increase by an annual rate of 6.5 to seven per cent.
This happened due to various reasons, chief of which is domestic political stability and the people's support of the reform process that was undertaken by the country's leadership and government. This enabled us to pursue an economic policy that was particularly solid and successful.
Among the positive factors that contributed greatly to this growth is the favourable international economic situation, which has been in Russia's interest. I would like to refer to the importance of pursuing a well-balanced social policy with specific objectives, chief of which is to boost the citizen's income and improve his standards of living.
Of course, we had hoped that the process would happen at faster and higher rates, but we have to take into account that increasing the citizen's income beyond the rate of economic growth would cause direct harm to the people themselves.
Over the past few years, the state budget has doubled and the foreign trade balance grew to the point where the reserve of gold and foreign currency with the Russian central bank is nearing, and perhaps exceeding, its level during the time of the former Soviet Union. This situation poses other problems concerning the equilibrium of cash flow in the market, the macro-economic aspects and the control of inflation. We're not deceived by the great successes that have been made. We understand very well that we have many difficult problems ahead, and we'll try to resolve these with calm and harmony.
What are the challenges and obstacles you encountered since you took office in 2000?
The first and foremost problem was the deterioration of state institutions and the economic troubles that created a state of social tension. But we have managed to achieve much, although not at the desired speed. As the popular saying goes, he who does nothing makes no mistakes. We have great hopes for the future.
Arab and Muslim leaders have strongly denounced the Beslan terrorist attack [against a school in southern Russia], but Chechnya remains a thorny issue for Arab and Muslim public opinion. In your opinion, how can this situation be addressed?
We would like our friends in the Islamic world to get closely acquainted with the real situation not only in Chechnya but in Russia in general.
Few are aware that dozens of mosques have been built in Russia in recent years, something which couldn't have been possible without direct support from the Russian leadership and government.
Few are aware of the opportunities we offer to everyone who seeks and wants to see the Chechen people living in prosperity and stability, irrespective of political views. We have more than once declared amnesty and allowed participation in political and other processes ongoing in Chechnya for all groups, except for those who want to impose their opinion and wishes through force, such as those who carried out the atrocity in Beslan.
We are now holding direct dialogue with the Chechen people and have permitted the holding of a general public referendum on the constitution in Chechnya.
I am saying once again that the absolute majority [of Chechens] have backed this constitution that states, as one of its major foundations, that Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian Federation. We've also helped with the holding of presidential elections in Chechnya. We're ready to sign an agreement on the distribution of power between Chechnya and the central authority in Russia. And we're willing to offer large and extensive powers for Chechen self-rule.
I believe also that it is possible to hold parliamentary elections in Chechnya this year and give all forces an equal opportunity to participate freely in those elections. I believe our efforts are met with understanding in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
I would like to mention that during the presidential elections and the public referendum in Chechnya, we invited representatives from the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to act as observers. The representatives of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and other observers, testified to the freedom and probity of both events without hesitation. They pointed out that the referendum and the elections were conducted satisfactorily and in observation of the rights of Chechen citizens.
What are Russia's views on the US-Iranian standoff over Iran's nuclear capabilities?
Confrontation is not really a constructive method. We believe that it is necessary to engage in dialogue and look for means of cooperation.
And yet I'd like to note that our positions agree with those of the US concerning the ban on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. This position applies to our cooperation with Iranian partners, whom we always remind that it is unacceptable to have programmes for making nuclear weapons. We are against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
At the same time, we believe that this issue should be resolved through dialogue and with the help of such international organisations as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Therefore we remain committed to Iran's peaceful programme for nuclear energy, on the condition that Iran allows representatives of such international organisations to inspect its nuclear installations and also that it forswears its military nuclear programmes. To achieve this goal, all agreements [Russia] signed with Iran recently have been channelled in this direction, particularly the agreement on sending the nuclear waste generated at the Bushehr reactor back to Russia.
Mr President, let's now move on to a crucial issue that will come up during your visit to our region, namely, the situation in the Middle East. Russia has traditionally supported the right of the Palestinian people for self- determination and for the establishment of an independent state. Do you conceive of a more active Russian role on the Palestinian-Israeli track in the near future?
The [Russian] role and level of activity will be calibrated as needed. We cannot and mustn't supplant the negotiating parties. We participate and cooperate through our presence in international organisations and mechanisms, particularly the Quartet (Russia, the US, the EU and the UN).
I believe that this intermediary role will be required in the future. We've maintained a high level and sincere dialogue with Israel in the past few years. You know that a large number of former Soviet Union citizens live in Israel and we're not indifferent about their future. We want them to live in peace and safety.
At the same time, we have long-standing and solid bonds of friendship, based on trust and amity, with the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians. Therefore, we have a constant position on the Palestinian issue and we do not swerve from this position, as some may claim. Ours is a stable and constant stand.
We have said in the past, and still do, that the Palestinian people have a fundamental right to their own independent state. Of course, for such an idea to be realised or declared the state should be viable. For this to happen, the parties involved should know how to make compromises. I believe that there is room for compromise-based solutions.
And I am fully confident that Mahmoud Abbas seeks real peace. We all have to make real efforts to help him and persuade all political factions and forces in the Palestinian Authority-controlled territories to cooperate with him for the sake of the Palestinian people.
Egypt has tried recently to bring together all Palestinian factions with Abbas in order to create a state of calm. There is, however, some procrastination in Israel's implementation of the agreements or understandings of Sharm El- Sheikh. How could the Quartet activate the roadmap in order to reach a final settlement in line with the projected timeframe of 2006?
I believe that Egyptian efforts have not been confined to the instance you just mentioned. Egypt, we all know, has made repeated efforts and spoken with political wisdom on matters pertaining to the future settlement of conflicts in the Middle East.
It is our wish that Egypt, the largest and most influential Arab country, continue to carry out this positive and pivotal role in the Middle East settlement, for it has the necessary reputation and stature.
The Quartet should do the same, helping the concerned parties to reach points of agreement and find acceptable compromise solutions for existing problems. The Quartet should act as a guarantor for the agreements reached and the commitments made.
This is a difficult and intricate task that calls for endurance and perseverance, for the conflict is a complex one. Without endurance and perseverance, success may evade us. The international community must not, meanwhile, ignore the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, for a comprehensive solution to conflicts in the Middle East is unimaginable otherwise.
The problem calls for specific and binding dates, but we must not forget that we're seeking comprehensive solutions.
Egypt and Russia have maintained close ties over the past few decades, despite dramatic changes in their internal and external situations. What can the two do to consolidate their ties, not only on the political and diplomatic levels, but also in economic and commercial domains?
I believe that this should be a top priority of our cooperation. Last year, the volume of trade between Russia and Egypt doubled compared to the year before, and yet I believe that this volume is still too modest.
At present, we gradually witness the return of Russian products in the field of machinery and energy to the Egyptian market, but as I said this is just the beginning. We should encourage direct contacts between businessmen and economic and trade institutions in both countries. The Joint Committee for Economic and Trade Cooperation needs to become more active.
Once this is done, it would be possible to exploit the potential of Russia and its long experience in cooperating with Egypt in achieving the desired outcome on the economic level and in hi-tech, energy and space industries particularly. There are already important deals made between major Russian energy companies and Egyptian counterparts for action in the Egyptian market.
What matters most is that there is will and interest in increased joint work. We have a great interest in Egypt and its culture. Egypt is truly the cradle of civilisations and the Egyptian people made undeniable contributions to the development of human history. We are motivated to increase cooperation in all areas, including on economic levels.
The horizons, I am sure, are broad. Naturally, all this would benefit the Egyptian people, for whom I wish prosperity and progress.
My next question is one you may wish to answer or ignore. What is your reaction to calls for more democracy in Russia?
Since you asked the question, I have no option but to answer. First of all, I would like to thank you for the question, for it is an admirable one.
For starters, let me tell you that without democracy Russia has no future. This is something of which I am totally certain. But democracy is a natural outcome of the internal and normal evolution of society.
The problem of democracy exists in every country in the world, including those that talk louder than others about democracy. We will continue to work on the promotion of democratic institutions in Russia, while reacting in goodwill to all the analysis and the criticism made by others. We will also strongly confront and oppose all attempts to use such slogans as a tool or mechanism to interfere in Russia's internal affairs.
Our decisions, under all circumstances, emanate from our history, identity and special situation.
I thank you for you patience and for answering in detail the questions I had for you.
You're welcome. I am glad I had the chance to speak with you and I look forward to visiting Cairo and meeting President Hosni Mubarak. Thank you.