“I’m not sure if Russia needs Europe but Europe needs Russia” – French historian

Europe is struggling to stay in the international arena and will not be able to hold on without Russia’s help, believes French historian and author Helene Carrere d'Encausse.

Doctor of history and humanities, permanent member of the French Academy of Sciences and the woman who predicted the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1978 in her book “The Collapse of an Empire” spoke to RT about Russia’s role in today’s global politics, and why the country is so often misunderstood in the West.

RT: Thank you very much, Madame d’Encausse. It’s a great pleasure to have you with us. In your latest book “La Russie entre deux mondes” you speak about Russia. Judging by the title of the book, Russia has not yet decided what its position in the world should be?

Helene Carrere d'Encausse: Not exactly. What the book says is that Russia has made this kind of decision, but over the past ten years it has been pursuing two different paths, rather than one. What I have been trying to explain is that, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia rushed to Europe. But as Europe did not offer a warm welcome, since the beginning of this century Russia’s foreign policy has been focusing on two directions rather than on one. On the one hand, it focuses on the West, while on the other hand – because of its geographical position – it has decided to position itself as an Asian country. It gives it greater prestige and influence in the world. It has been pursuing this policy for more than ten years now and it has brought great success. At the end of the 20th century Russia’s international reputation around the world was not very good. But now after the past decade it us obvious that it is being reckoned with. It’s a big change. Russia has taken a very important step forward. And in my opinion, this process is irreversible. Russia has become a world power.

RT: The introduction to this book raises the question of whether Europe should or should not be afraid of Russia. Does it mean that the stereotypical fear of the Russian Empire, and then of the Soviet Union, still exists in Europe?

HCD: Not only in Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not anticipated, it happened overnight. Many countries, primarily those who were under Soviet influence – the Eastern European countries and countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union but are now independent states – did not understand Russia and were afraid of it. As Eastern European countries have become EU members, they have shown their fears and passed them onto the EU saying that Russia used to be an empire. So, why should it cease being an empire and can we trust it now that its imperial past has been forgotten? By now people have already understood that Russia is pursuing its own path. But time has shown that Georgia for example, which has always been saying that it wants to save itself from Russia, that is why it wanted to access NATO – it feared that Russia will dominate Georgia again. I think that such fears originate from some kind of misunderstanding of the break-up of the Soviet Union, because it was so sudden. No one could adjust themselves to it immediately. All the European empires have collapsed. But they collapsed after decades of “preparation”. Even Russia itself was not ready.

RT: So, you don’t believe that Russia has imperial ambitions now?

HCD: Right, I don’t believe it. I would rather say there is some kind of nostalgia, but that’s a completely different thing. What country can forget overnight that it used to be a powerful empire? But Russia has common sense, despite the fact that some Russians say it used to be so good and that it’s a shame it’s forgotten about. But still Russian people and specifically those in power have common sense, and they understand too well that it’s over and that Russia’s future is not to be an empire, but rather to build up its reputation and influence via soft power, rather than by force.

RT: What major stereotypes does Russia face every day?

HCD: Russia has the legacy of the Soviet Union, and it will be marked by this stigma for a long time. I come from a country, in which the collapse of the empire was a difficult one with bloodshed in the 50s and 60s.

Yeltsin said: “Take as much independence as you can swallow.” And another day he said: “You are free. Get out of here.” Many things about Russia were forgotten. People forgot that the Soviet system was dominating and instilled fear, and then got scared of the country that had neither the power, nor the ability to speak as poignantly with other countries. All this was forgotten. And this new Russia was not understood, as I see it.

RT: Is your fatherland being cautious with Russia?

HCD: I don’t know what to say to that.

RT: But that’s what Sarkozy himself said during his election campaign, when he said that it’s more pleasant for him to be shaking hands with Bush, than with Putin. Who would you personally shake hands with?

HCD: First of all, I feel uncomfortable talking about my president. He has changed a great deal. He was in love with America. It was an example for him. He did not know Russia. He is of Hungarian origin, and Hungary was affected by the Soviet Union to a certain extent, and even by Russia. He has come a long way and he chose Russia. And I agree with him. It is in Europe’s interests, and in France’s interests. France has always had its interest in relations with Russia.

RT: And why has this change occurred?

HCD: It is simply because he realized what’s right; he is a very smart guy, really. I should not be calling my president “a guy”. Well, he is a very smart person. He is very active. When he thinks something over, he comes to understand things correctly. He took a look at the world and has realized a lot of things over two years. He realized first that Russia wasn’t a terrible country. It was a country to be spoken to, not lectured. He established close relations with the Russian president and prime minister. He realized that dialogue, for a European country, is the most important thing to build relations with Russia. He also realized Russia was a European country, which he didn’t understand very well at first. He also realized that Europe was no longer strong – it was falling out of the history of global relations. His current position, which I think is very smart, is not that Russia should be part of Europe: Russia is too vast for Europe, it would not adapt. What we need, he thinks, is a model for relations.

RT: Why does Europe need Russia?

HCD: Russia is needed because the entire history of international relations is moving away from Europe. It’s played out in Asia. Even the US, a Pacific country, is refocusing its foreign policy on Asia. Where are the huge countries that will play the big roles located? In Asia. And Latin America, but that’s a different question. Now what’s the current state of European-Asian relations? Europe is of no interest to Asia. If we view Europe as a landmass that reaches the Pacific Ocean – Russia and Europe are not a whole. But if we picture them as an alliance then we can say Europe reaches the Pacific. This is the reason Europe needs Russia. I am not sure if Russia needs Europe but Europe, at the moment, needs Russia.

RT: You mentioned Poland’s role in one of your interviews saying it could become a link between Europe and Russia. Could you elaborate? Also, what’s your evaluation of the current dynamics of Polish-Russian relations?

HCD: Until very recently it seemed like a crazy idea, but now rapprochement between Russia and Poland has actually happened. I think however that some politicians – smart politicians – foresaw this. Even Prime Minister Donald Tusk; he was bringing Poland closer to Russia before the plane crash. Poland has always been the final frontier of Europe. Russia began after that frontier. It is also in close contact with Ukraine. The question of Ukraine is very delicate: giving it EU accession without accepting Russia would upset Russia. Poland is a bridge of sorts, between Russia and Europe. It’s a bridge to Russia because it is at the same time a Slavic and a European country which could serve for bringing countries closer, Russia and Europe, Poland and Russia and Ukraine and Russia. So Poland could play a historical role, if it understands the situation it’s in.

RT: You predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. Can you say what will happen to modern Russia? A forecast?

HCD: No, I don’t make forecasts. When I was writing about the Soviet Union I didn’t even see it as a forecast. I looked at the country and saw so many negative elements that I couldn’t help but ask myself – “how long will it last?” I don’t make forecasts, as a rule. I’m a historian. I look at the past and try to figure out what’s happening in the present. I think Russia has come a long way over the past 20 years. It is having some difficulties, as countries do. It’s not easy to introduce democracy or capitalism. It took Western Europe centuries to do that. Doing it within 20 years isn’t so easy. I think Russia is following the path it chose in 1991. There have been ups and downs but I don’t see any discontinuity so I think we can be calm about Russia’s future. It’s starting to look more and more like a normal country.

RT: If you were asked to describe modern Russia in three words, what words would you choose?

HCD: The first one would be “mighty”, which it wasn’t ten years ago. The second important aspect is that modern Russia makes multi-nationality actually work. Multiple nationalities was what killed the Soviet Union. The third word would be “dynamic”.

RT: Thank you very much Madame d’Encausse.

HCD: Thank you.