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SPEECHES, INTERVIEWS, ARTICLES

21.11.2011

Interview by Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko to Menu Magazine

The residence of the Russian ambassador in Great Britain is located in the prestigious Kensington Palace Gardens, the street of embassies and billionaires. Private vehicles are prohibited to enter for security reasons. Although the armed security guards let London taxis past the barriers – evidently it is believed that real terrorists don’t drive in taxis to commit acts of terrorism. They say that this is virtually the only address in the United Kingdom that does not hide its true face – usually buildings with the number “13” are called “12A” by the superstitious English. I first went to the residence in spring this year, when I was working on organizing literary readings with Konstantin Raikin. His brilliant performance gathered many prominent Russians – people who are in London on business and service, those who live there permanently, and those who have not yet sorted out with they live. The guests were met by the recently appointed Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador for Russia in Great Britain, Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovlenko, and his charming wife Nana. The evening was a success – Raikin read Pushkin, Samoilov and Rubtsov, and outside the windows that look on to Kensington Palace, a real British nightingale sang in good English, echoing the actor. After his performance, during the evening reception, Mr Yakovenko and I agreed to continue the series of Russian literary evenings at the residence, and I finally became convinced of the idea that our magazine should at last appear in the British capital. We also agreed on an interview. I think it is correct that the debut London issue of MENU opens with an interview with a person who not only officially represents the Russian state in London, but also the majority of people who are reading this text.

Mr Yakovenko, you’ve been in London since the beginning of 2011. What popular ideas about Britain have been dispelled for you since you came into office?

The first one was the idea that Great Britain and Russia are on bad terms with each other. This is, indeed, a very simplified, black-and-white approach. It’s true that for certain historical reasons the state-to-state relations have been very difficult in recent years. But at the same time, relations in the economic sphere have been good. Great Britain’s investments in the Russian economy have amounted to $21 billion. Our investments here come to $5 billion. The goods turnover has gone up by 50% over the last year. Six hundred British companies are working in Russia, and this is quite a lot. Our companies hold an active position in the City, the financial center of London. Over 70 of them are quoted on the London exchange. So for a long time, in a way the economic relations have outbalanced the political difficulties which arose in connection with the “Litvinenko case”.

If one considers our contacts in the cultural sphere, traditionally they are very close. Russian culture in Great Britain has always been in demand – from classical music to art. This was confirmed by the visit of Prime Minister David Cameron to Russia in September, when a joint statement was issued which contains an extensive list of cultural events planned for the near future.

As for private contacts, the flow of tourists is sufficiently stable at the moment, although it is limited by the difficulties that exist for Russian citizens in obtaining a British visa. We’re currently working with the British on developing new, milder terms for receiving visas which would better meet the requirements of the present time. The Russian visa regime is very liberal for British citizens: an urgent visa is issued in one day, an ordinary visa in three days. Our visa application form is printed on two pages, as opposed to the British form which contains 101 questions. And, of course, we are working on creating more opportunities for Russian citizens to visit Great Britain and the countries of the Schengen zone.

It must be said that this year political relations between our countries have seriously evened out. Political dialogue has begun, which was in fact the main result of David Cameron’s visit to Moscow. The two leaders signed a Declaration of partnership on the basis of knowledge for modernization. This is a very good program, which involves the active development of bilateral relations, including relations in the hi-tech sphere – a good sign for Russian and British business. Yes, there are stereotypes, but on closer inspection they have many nuances. This is not always reflected in articles in British newspapers. It would of course be good to see what goes on in Russia portrayed in a more positive light. In this sense, I found it very interesting to talk with the leading bloggers of Great Britain several days ago. They are very interesting people with keen minds.

You met political bloggers?

Mainly political, but they don’t restrict themselves exclusively to politics. I must say that bloggers have a much broader view of life that certain newspaper writers, who are accustomed to write about Russia according to the old cliché.. In our turn, we will actively work to ensure that we are better understood.

So relations are developing, both of our foreign ministries are working on this. And the visit by the foreign secretary of Great Britain William Hague to Moscow at the end of last year, and the visit to London by the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in February, were intended to strengthen the new tendencies and new moods that exist at present.
On a personal level, I can say that the British traditionally receive the Russian ambassador very well. I would say extremely well. Despite the difference in our viewpoints, which we frequently exchange, we may say that there are good relations between our two countries. The British, as we know, remember history well: the events of around 70 years ago, when we formed a united front as allies, remain in their memory.

What traditions do Russian diplomats follow in relations with Great Britain – Russian or Soviet?

I think that there is a symbiosis. We inherited serious training from Soviet diplomacy, including a knowledge of the language, and a good knowledge of history. Both Soviet and Russian diplomacy, and there are many elements of continuity between them, always held an active position in international affairs, and traditionally our delegations were among the strongest players at important negotiations. The present period is characterized that time in international relations has become compressed, and processes of world development are accelerating. Things that used to take decades now take just a few years. The political situation changes, and processes begin which were difficult to expect in such a short period. Examples of this could be the “Arab spring”, or the strengthening of integration processes in the former Soviet Union on the pragmatic basis of shared basic interests of development, including overcoming the consequences of the global crisis.

Life is changing swiftly, and new forms of diplomatic work are required, including new forms of working with the media. It is very important today not only to persuade the other party in the course of negotiations, but to inform the public why you hold this position. In a situation when the mass media, especially television and the Internet, frequently play a decisive role in the understanding of certain processes and their perception by wider public opinion, diplomacy does not have the right to close itself off, it must actively go to the media front line. This is a new element in our work. And we adapt to the realities quite quickly. I think that we need to make more active use of such new phenomena as the blogosphere, for example, to convey our position to thinking people.

Do you keep a blog on Twitter?

I started one literally a few months ago. I like it. It is displayed on our embassy’s site, www.rusemb.org.uk, which also has a newsfeed. I share my impressions about trips and meetings, and announce events that are important for me. This blog, in my opinion, is an active addition to what the embassy does. Naturally, the ambassador is a political person, and naturally, in the cases when I consider it appropriate, I give political assessments. True, the blog has its limitations, because the main volume of information appears on the site, where our position is outlined in some detail. I like this form very much, it gives a certain personal touch to my relations with the country where I am currently working. And the comments that we receive show that this work does not go unnoticed.

There are many Russians living in London at present, and in Great Britain generally. What do you think attracts Russians to come here?

I think that above all it is the opportunity to learn something – many people come here for education. Secondly, many Russian companies have opened offices here, as London has a very convenient geographical location. Furthermore, there is a serious business school, which provides an important platform for work, including for young businessmen. And also, London is an international community. As the Russian economy is connected literally with the entire world, it is natural to work in a place where a large number of nations are represented. This economizes on resources. It is the combination of all these factors that makes London so attractive. Recently, the “KVN” improvisational games were held in London, with 11 teams from various countries: the UK, Russia, the USA, Israel, Ukraine… There were around 5,000 people in the audience. It was a wonderful festival of humor. In Russian, of course. The embassy supported the event, and we even held a competition for tickets on our site. There were a lot of young people, aged 18-20. It was interesting to see how our Russian traditions fit in so well in Britain.

What things that you see in daily life in London would you like to bring to Moscow?

Certainly not driving on the left-hand side of the road! As someone said at the KVN games: the steering wheels on the right, and the pedals are on the left! But seriously, I like the museums in Britain very much, and I like the way that the British absorb different cultures. I respect there almost sacred attitude to traditions. Additionally, they have a caring attitude towards nature. Just look at London – it’s a real park city! As almost every part of the world is represented here, you realize that this is experience that has been accumulated over centuries. And this is why it is possible to work seriously with other countries. I think that the protocol of the British foreign ministry is one of the best thought-out, one of the strongest in the world, and we have something to learn here. So there are many interesting things that we could draw on.

And what could we bring to Great Britain, to teach the British?

I think that firstly, the British are interesting in our culture. Secondly, we have a strong scientific school, and the British would be very interested in the possibilities of commercializing it. I think that in certain elements of state management and in the economy, there are also many things that they could draw on. After all, over the last 20 years, we have taken a very interesting and rich journey, and created systems that are more flexible than the ones on which the British model of development is based – the drawbacks of this system are what led to the global crisis, including the stake on the financial sector to the detriment of the real economy and job creation.

Are the differences in the points of view of our countries strategic or tactical, in your opinion?

You know, I think that all normal countries live in accordance with their national interests. And when these national interests differ, competition naturally arises, and where they coincide, we find points of contact. Any serious power has its own policies, although it’s another story as to how they are conducted at a particular period of time. If they are conducted in the proper way they won’t be antagonistic towards other countries, even granting certain differences and contradictions on separate problems. There is healthy competition, and the country whose economy is growing faster will feel more confident. As for the strategic/tactical side, everything is changing very quickly at the moment, and the ideological accretions of the cold war period are being discarded, among other things. When this process is complete, I’m sure there won’t be many differences between us on either of these levels. The international experience of the last years will also lead to a convergence.

But in relation to other countries, the developing countries of South-East Asia and the Arab states, say, are we allies or rivals?

I can say that we hold a stronger position than the West. If you see, for example, what countries vote together with Russia at the session of the General Assembly of the UN you’ll notice that on the majority of questions our positions coincide more often with those countries you just mentioned than with those of western countries.

To what extent does the profession of diplomat make an impact on one’s character? Or does one’s character determine the choice of profession?

The profession does have a big influence on the person, of course. For a diplomat, for example, to have a good education is a compulsory condition, and this already makes an impact. A knowledge of languages is also a very important aspect, without this it is impossible to get a feeling for the people you talk to. For contact with a person, and the degree to which you can convey your ideas, differs completely depending on whether you speak the same language or through an interpreter. Furthermore, diplomats think very seriously before they say something. And they think about the consequences of what they say in both the short-term and the long-term perspective. They are people who should be well-versed not only in history, but also in high technology, they should be able to see practical problems faced by the society in which they live, and this also requires certain knowledge in a large number of spheres of activity. And of course, it is very important for diplomats to represent their country properly, and defend its interests competently. In summary, a true diplomat is above all a patriot, an educated, balanced and interesting person, and with a sense of humor. Because no matter how difficult the situations are that take place in working with your colleagues, without a sense of humor your position will always be weaker.

How did your promotion to the position of ambassador of Russia go? Did you establish any special relations with the local establishment?

The main tasks for me at the first stage was to meet all the ministers and parliamentarians in the house of lords, and important people from the spheres of science, art and culture, and the editors of the leading newspapers… The second stage was when, on the basis of the tasks that I received from Moscow, I had to convey a certain viewpoint to them, to justify and defend it. In this process, your relations with people become more intense. This is a lot of work, and requires a great deal of energy, but it is very thankful work. When your partners begin to share your ideas, and start to take the correct attitude to your country, the emotional payback is very high. This is very important for me. A person cannot be a representative of a country if he does not love it, and does not plan to live in it in the future. This is a fundamental aspect. If this is not the case, then you should not be a diplomat. Especially as the higher Russia’s authority is in the eyes of serious partners who can influence political opinion, the more satisfaction I get from my job. This is one of the results of my work. Furthermore, specific results are also important, when positive agreements are achieved between the two countries. In this sense, in my view, the visit in September by the British Prime Minister David Cameron was successful, because it made it possible to advance our relations to a considerable degree. Ultimately, if the embassy is able to make a contribution in forming bilateral relations, then you can say that our work here has not been in vain.

What are you planning to do for the development of Russian-British relations next year?

We want to organize something like Russian Culture Seasons. Now we are looking for interesting ideas on how to present modern Russia, and what to bring to Great Britain in order to impress the British, who are generally quite hard to impress. We need more projects that would show the processes going on in Russia in an adequate and interesting way. The British actively react to everything new and fresh and have a keen sense of the economical situation. Despite some odious publications in newspapers, I can see great interest in the active development of investments in Russia on the part of British business. British businessmen understand very well that the country is on the rise, and that we have great opportunities for investments. I think that all viable projects in the economy, in science and in art will be in demand. The more joint initiatives there are, the better this will be for bilateral relations.

For example, the leading jewelry houses will be given the offer to create jewelry based on designs by Carl Faberge that were recently found in the Hermitage archives. Recently, with the support of the British foundation “Friends of the Hermitage”, we presented these designs to the British public at the embassy. It will be interesting to see the result. The name of Faberge has a magic effect on everyone, and the British are no exception. This is a key that opens many doors. Our cultural policy in Great Britain should combine interesting contents with correct presentation, and then this policy will undoubtedly be successful.

How does Russian business take part in the cultural exchange?

Our business circles sponsor various events involving visiting performers and exhibitions. It all depends on the capabilities of the companies, on their own predilections. Some programs are being carried out with major British companies working on the Russian market, which support Russian art as part of charitable activity. For example, one British companies sponsors tours by the Mariinsky Theater in Great Britain. There are also other areas of activity. I would like these bilateral contacts to be more intensive. I hope that soon we will be able to reach a level of cultural relations which will make it possible to hold years of Great Britain in Russia, and vice versa. I am sure that the potential for this exists. But to reach this important stage, we must also make certain progress in the sphere of political relations.




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