A strong central government does not preclude a strong democracy

31 août 2010
Arnaud Dubien - Ria Novosti

Arnaud Dubien, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and editor-in-chief of the Eurasia Intelligence Report, spoke with RIA Novosti correspondent Alexandra Kamesnkaya about his participation in the upcoming meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club

This is the first time that you’re participating in a meeting of the Valdai Club. How well known is the club in France, and what is its image among experts and in the media?

Among experts on Russia, the Valdai Club has come to be regarded as an indispensable forum for discussion. The fact that senior Russian officials take time to meet with people who, to a large extent, determine the perception of Russia abroad is an important sign. I do not think that this is standard practice among presidents and prime ministers of other countries. However, in France the club remains little known outside the circle of specialists.

The theme of the meetings this year is "Russia: History and future development." Does looking back at Russia’s past help in understanding the best ways for Russia to develop in the future?

Clearly, studying certain periods in Russian history helps us understand the meaning of what is happening today. I have in mind the Soviet period, of course, but also the second half of the 19th century, in which the state attempted to modernize the country. “Comparison is not proof,” however, and one can sense some hesitance in Russia’s leadership now precisely because past attempts at modernization have created political problems.

Every country has its own history and political culture. They all follow their own path. When dealing with Russia, I think we need to beware of two illusions. On the one hand, there is the illusion that the country can exactly reproduce the “western model,” and on the other hand, there is the illusion that Russia’s path is exceptional and that it can or should avoid outside influences. I am convinced that Russia is essentially European country, and that its political system will develop, more or less rapidly, into something that will align it with the West more than China, for example. As a Frenchman, I would like to emphasize that a strong central government is not completely incompatible with a strong democracy. Regions in France have important prerogatives, but the appointment of prefects is the responsibility of the state, which ensures that the law is applied throughout the country.

How do you rate Russia’s progress of the modernization course its government has chosen to pursue? 

President Medvedev made a sound diagnosis of the state Russia finds itself it, and he outlined the challenges that it faces. Today, everyone is in favor of modernization, but it appears that interpretations of that word vary. Let’s be clear – this is a historic undertaking to prevent Russia’s marginalization on the world stage in the medium term, and it cannot be limited to buying up western technology. In order for this enterprise to succeed, the state, the elites and the political system also must be modernized. As I see it, what Russia lacks most of all is a class of people who are truly loyal to the state, in other words high-level government officials driven solely by the interests of the State. In France after the Second World War, General de Gaulle created the Higher School of Administration (ENA) to completely replace France’s senior officials. Perhaps it would benefit Russia during this period of reconstruction to have a school of this type, with civil status, to instill the values of civil service.

Is it possible to distance and separate Ukraine from Russia?

Projects developed in some Anglo-Saxon circles, whose goal is the strategic separation of Russia and Ukraine, have failed. They were unrealistic and dangerous, both for the two countries and the rest of Europe. It is obvious that for historical reasons, Ukraine will always occupy a special place in Russia’s political vision. However, I would advise Moscow against creating the impression among Ukrainians that Russia does not treat their country with the respect due to an independent state. Otherwise, the current normalization of bilateral relations, a cause for celebration among Europeans, may be short-lived.

Does the Union State of Russia and Belarus have a future? How does Europe perceive the integration processes underway in the former Soviet Union?

Relations between Moscow and Minsk are clearly very problematic, which makes any multilateral construction fragile. Perhaps regime change in Belarus would help move the relationship forward, but it’s hard to imagine Alexander Lukashenko ceding power through democratic elections, as in Ukraine. Relations between Moscow and Astana are much better now. Clearly, Russia is right to deepen its cooperation with Kazakhstan, a country with significant potential, which is undergoing profound modernization and which may contribute to stability in Central Asia.

What are the problem areas in Russia-EU relations? What format of relations would be in the interests of both Russia and the EU?

I would say that the main problem is that there are not enough people in Brussels or Moscow who can imagine what a truly strategic relationship between the EU and Russia would look like. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the face of China, India, the United States (which was not crushed by the crisis, despite what many think or hope), or other developing regions, these “different Europes” can no longer afford to ignore each other or continue to settle historical scores, unless they want to remain on the sidelines of history.

What is the trend in the perception of Russia in Europe? Have there been any changes in recent years?

As part of the Year of Russia in France, outstanding events both in terms of quality and quantity – cultural events in particular – are being held in Paris and other regions. Nevertheless, we should admit that the French still do not know much about Russia. Cliches inherited from the Soviet era are still strong. Some of the tragic events that occurred in your country in recent years have not helped to improve its image in France. The average Frenchman does not know what life is like in Russia. So it will take a lot of work to promote a rediscovery of Russia

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