“Any American president is a hostage of his own political system”
Ahead of the historic meeting between the US and Russian presidents, Russia’s former ambassador to the US, Russian Human Rights Commissioner and Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, reviewed key issues of Russo-American relations in an exclusive interview with RT.
Resetting ties has become almost a model for relations between Russia and the US. With the newly elected US leader Barack Obama arriving in Moscow for talks on July 6, the mass media is latching on to every word that is said, some already dubbing this summit as historic. But what are the issues that are going to be discussed, what will the 2 leaders actually bring to the table?
RT: After his election, Barack Obama called for a restart to relations between Russia and the US. What do you think the US leader meant by that term and how was this proposal received on the Russian side?
Vladimir Lukin: Well, “reset” is just a pretty illustration; a nice formula. But what it actually means is that both countries, the United States and Russia, have developed some preconditions for an end to the poor relations when President Bush Jr. was in power in the States. The relationship between the countries deteriorated. The United States tried to tell Russia how to conduct its domestic affairs and its relations with its neighbors. The U.S and Russia developed a mutual mistrust and misunderstanding. Perhaps, under those conditions, Russia’s reaction to some matters, which were not really matters of principle as such, was a bit too irritable. The relations were aggravated on both sides. At the same time, in the opinion of many qualified experts, our countries have just as many reasons to have constructive relations as they do disagreements. So, in light of that, a new term was introduced – “reset”. We need to move away from past irritants, which were at times subjective and at other times more serious and objective, and make a point to build on other, more positive moments. I think there are certain preconditions for that already, although the road to “reset” will not be easy.
RT: It's no secret that the president of the US, while being the leader of one of the most influential countries in the world, is in some ways bound by, or as some even say, a hostage of, the American political system. You're the former ambassador to the US: now, in your opinion, do you think that the US leader can actually have some freedom in coming up with new approaches to existing problems?
V.L: The question about the extent to which the American president is a hostage of the American political system is not an easy one. A leader of any state is, to a certain extent, a hostage of his own political system. If it’s not so, then it means that he gets too detached from reality and puts himself in the way of serious harm. In that sense, any American president is, in a way, a hostage of that system. His task is staying in touch with reality and the country’s roots, to sail the ship of American politics in the direction that is right for the USA, and is right from the point of view of this president. Now, there is a consensus that the previous president, President Bush, and his team sailed the ship in the wrong direction. We still have to see what the current American president, Obama, is going to do now, because he has just started. I think that Obama, just like any other American president, will seek to implement what lies in American interests and will step away from the roots. At the same time, his personal views, the views of that restricted group he represents, will be outlined in American foreign policy as well. We are yet to see the extent to which those views coincide with Russian views, since we are just at the very beginning of the process. And of course, we need to discuss issues on which we can reach a mutual agreement, and discuss how we can improve our relationship and what disagreements will remain unsolved. But this is definitely something to ask about after the first round of talks, not before.
RT: The US often criticizes Russia for the situation with human rights. Human rights are a favorite topic for almost every American politician. You're the former ambassador to the US, you know the country and its workings intimately. What do you see, or do you see in fact, a problem with human rights in America itself, and what you could you put to Barack Obama if you had the chance, what questions would you put to him?
V.L: I am the Ombudsman for Human Rights in the Russian Federation. If I were an Ombudsman for Human Rights in America, I would find many cases of human rights violation there. Since I am an Americanologist by education and occupation, and since I also used to be the Russian Ambassador in America, I know the country pretty well. And we all know that human rights in the United States are violated in many ways. Although, I must say that citizens of the United States pay a great deal of attention to making sure the authorities don’t violate their rights. If there is something that has to do with non-American citizens, even if they are on American territory and especially so if they are outside American borders, then intolerance to human rights violation significantly decreases, and it leads to problems that we are aware of: Guantanamo, other prisons outside the US, using illegal methods in the course of inquiries, etc. They are well-known. But I’ll say it again – I consider it my duty to do my best to improve human rights in Russia. And this is the only context in which I would be willing and ready to study, consider, and, at times, put forward questions regarding possible human rights violations in other countries, including such a well-developed and democratic state as America.
RT: What is the situation like with human rights in the post-Soviet space – specifically in countries that enjoy quite close ties with America – and did Georgia's aggression in South Ossetia last August in any way affect that?
V.L: Well, naturally, the fact that Georgia attacked South Ossetia in August last year was a gross violation of human rights. I was there a couple of days later and saw the result: refugees, destroyed houses, ruined lives, environmental damage, much destruction. In this sense, war is always a violation of human rights. You may disagree, but it is better to avoid war. As for the situation with human rights in neighboring countries, I think it varies from country to country. But generally, there are very serious violations. As for our country, we are mostly concerned with the welfare of people close to our culture, with that of our compatriots. We face serious problems in the Baltic States and in Central Asia and in the Trans-Caucasus, of course. By saying this I don’t mean that the situation in our country is ideal. The Soviet legacy has had an impact on human rights as well, so I think that countries which belong to the post-Soviet space should work jointly on human rights protection. And we do, to a certain extent. We co-operate actively on a non-political level. We ask each other questions. If citizens of one country, for example, have some problems and they used to live in another country, we contact that country and try to help out. In a word, we are working on human rights. But the overall situation leaves much to be desired. We have a lot of work to do.
RT: The US and Russia both claim that they want their nuclear arsenals reduced, but for both sides there's a catch. America wants Russia to call off cooperation with Iran, while Moscow wants Washington to drop its anti-missile defense plans for Eastern Europe, specifically Poland and the Czech Republic. Do you think that the meeting of the two leaders here, in Russia, will be able to put forward some solutions and actually find, allow the sides to find, common ground?
V.L: You are asking a difficult question. First of all, I have warm feelings for Iran, and I would like to have positive relations with this country. We have been maintaining such relations for a long time, and that’s still the case. We cooperate in various fields, including the nuclear sphere, by the way, and peaceful use of nuclear energy as well. I am convinced that we need to root out nuclear weapons everywhere, including Russia, the United States and the countries that are suspected of intending to create nuclear weapons. This concerns not only Iran, but many other countries as well, including nations that secretly possess nuclear weapons. I am for stopping the production of nuclear weapons and for the destruction of them. As you know, the relationship with the United States [on this issue] dates back to the Soviet era, and on our part we started cutting our armaments, but certainly, we still have much more than other countries. We must continue this process.
As far as I know, negotiations are being held ahead of the meeting between Obama and Medvedev, and I hope that these negotiations will bring positive results and further arms cuts. I am convinced that cutting our nuclear resources is a prerequisite for arms cuts in the countries that possess or have an opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons. These processes are linked. That is why I think it would be great to reach an agreement with the Americans on cutting our arsenals, to make Iran actively cooperate with us, so that the suspicions are dispelled with the help of Iran, and to encourage other countries to participate in this process, including Israel as well. That’s my position, and I would be happy to see that these steps are taken.
RT: Russia and the US have recently increased co-operation and consultations on the question of the Middle Eastern peace settlement. Do you think that this summit could put forward some sort of solution and bring about a peace conference that would concentrate solely on the Middle East peace settlement?
V.L: I am sure that the problems in the Middle East will be discussed at the meeting between the Russian and American presidents. But I don’t think that there’s going to be a breakthrough at this meeting, as there is a certain negotiation style between these two countries, as well as the European and the UN style. The Middle East countries play an important role in this process. It is only joint action that can change the situation. I think that now Washington really wants to do something regarding the Middle East. It seems to me that the speech Obama made in Cairo opens up new opportunities. So, I think our negotiations will be successful. That’s only one step on the way to the settlement of the Middle East conflict, which is perhaps one of the most complicated conflicts. There’s going to be several stages, and I would like the negotiations in Moscow to be one of them.