“We would like to avoid war – that is the most important thing!”

About the difficulties of overcoming prejudices

Interview with Pyotr Olegovich Tolstoy*, Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma

cc. In Current Concerns No. 9 of 17 April, we reported on the conference “Never forget – peace and prosperity instead of wars and poverty” in Belgrade. Pyotr O. Tolstoy, Vice-President of the Russian State Duma, was one of the speakers within a large Russian delegation. On the sidelines of the conference, Current Concerns conducted the following interview with him.

Current Concerns: What is your personal relation to the NATO war of aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?

Pyotr Olegovich Tolstoy: Twenty years ago, I worked as a journalist for Russian television. When the bombings began, I was in direct contact with Belgrade every day. For example, I remember very well that from the studio in Moscow I was directly connected in a live broadcast with my friend Yevgeny Baranov, also a journalist and also present at this conference, when the bombs were dropped on the building of the Serbian television. Suddenly, the sound was gone and the line was dead.
For me this was also a serious professional challenge, because at that time Russian television worked without a substitute programme. So I had thirty minutes of broadcasting time ahead of me, I had lost the sound and the connection to Belgrade and had to fill out this half hour live as a presenter. Finally, we discussed the situation and in particular, the consequences of this NATO attack for Russia and for international politics with various Russian guests who are also present at the conference today. It was a very clear lesson for the whole country and for most Russian citizens. This attack deeply changed their view, their view of the West, both before and after the aggression against Yugoslavia. This was the first breach of trust between Russia and the West. Then there was Yevgeny Primakov, who returned in his plane1 – rightly in my opinion – which had a negative impact on relations between the West and Russia. This is a great pity, but unfortunately, it is so. And it seems impossible to change that in the short term.

You mentioned that there are lessons we can learn from this war. What are you thinking of?

Firstly, I am convinced that nothing justifies military intervention – to avoid the word aggression – in a sovereign country: neither humanitarian reasons, nor the protection of human rights, nor protection against ethnic conflicts. Our international policy is based on this principle. And I can tell you that the vast majority of the members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU, United Nations body) supported a resolution introduced by Russia. It said, that it is forbidden to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign country in this way. We do not insist on this because we ourselves would be threatened by such interventions. No, because, fortunately, thanks to the legacy of the USSR, Russia has nuclear weapons, so we are not exposed to this threat.
However, we have all seen the changes that have taken place in several European countries, but also in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where democracy has not improved. When such interventions are initiated, they are always based on good principles, which we also support: Freedom, human rights, democracy and so on. Do we have democracy in Afghanistan today? Or in Libya? Or in all the other countries that have been attacked?
I believe that this situation has motivated President Putin to comply with Bashar al-Assad’s request for engagement in Syria. The reason was not that a dictator Putin wanted to support a dictator Assad. Not at all. Rather, Russia wanted to support the state structures on Syrian territory. Their dissolution would have had much worse consequences than those in Libya today. The most important thing – regardless of Assad’s fate – was to preserve state structures in order to repel international terrorism.
I also think that people in Europe are not aware that this is the reason why today there are no YouTube videos showing people in orange clothes being beheaded. The international terrorists were driven out of Syrian territory by the Russians, Iranians and Hizbullah. This does not please the coalition of sixty Western countries, which had started with this in Iraq. However, I am quite sure that it was the right decision for Syria and for the whole world, because that is the way out of such crises.

Syria is the first country where the terrorists were able to be stopped …

… to push them back, one cannot say to stop them, because they have gone to Africa, they are almost everywhere. But at least we’ve managed to limit their activities. I would like to point out that the Russians went to Syria at the request of the Syrian Government. Regardless of what one thinks of Assad and his government, it is the government recognised by the UN and thus by the international community that has officially requested support from Russia. The Russian armed forces did not come in the same way as the NATO planes that left their base in Aviano, Italy, to drop bombs on Serbia in the name of democracy.

Do we still have to explain that today?

That’s the way it is! I stress all this because in public opinion and in the Western press unrealistic stereotypes are conveyed about the situation in Syria and Ukraine in relation to Russia, about gas, and about various other issues… This irresponsible spread of silly stereotypes distorts public opinion considerably.
As a result, it is necessary to explain realities to people from the very beginning. I myself often talk to members of other European parliaments. My Dutch colleagues, for example, did not know that Ukraine used to belong to Russia. They believed that it had always been independent and that Russia had annexed part of it. They did not know that twenty million Russians live on the territory of Ukraine. They also knew nothing about the history of the country. When I began to explain them step by step, they were very surprised and they said: “But that changes everything!”

Of course, as guests from Switzerland, which is not a member of NATO, we are also very interested in how your relations with Switzerland develop.

We have very good relations with Switzerland. During a breakfast I met Mr Yves Rossier, the Swiss Ambassador to Moscow. Switzerland is still trying to act as a mediator between the West and Russia.

Also with the sanctions?

Yes, but politically I can tell you that, despite the mutual visits in which I have participated – the Presidium of the Swiss Parliament in Moscow and the Presidium of the Russian Parliament in Switzerland – currently we have no interparliamentary work between the two parliaments. The reasons for this are the sanctions against Russia and the political restraint of our Swiss colleagues. But we understand them well. Switzerland’s attempts to maintain the status of neutrality are interesting. Switzerland is a country that in the past has often been the scene of difficult negotiations in which fundamental agreements on international security were signed.

Of course, we in Switzerland are also concerned about the termination of the INF contract.

Since the withdrawal of the United States from the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), safety in Europe has deteriorated significantly. And unfortunately the NATO military bases are today located near the Russian border in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and soon also in the Baltic States. The flight time of a rocket sent from Romania to Moscow is ten minutes … With this eastward expansion of NATO we already feel a little deceived …

In your opinion, what can be done to improve this situation?

That is very difficult. We need to be able to correct the stereotypes in public opinion, overcome them, bring everything back to zero and return to the negotiating table. Sometimes it is proposed to renew the Yalta Agreement. However, before Yalta there was war. We would like to avoid war, avoid any military conflict. That is the most important thing.

Returning to the negotiating table is by far the best solution.

We are ready! We are open to that. Russia emphasises this, Putin says it at every opportunity, the Foreign Minister and I as a member of the Presidium of Parliament emphasise it at all our international meetings. At the parliamentary level, for example, we are debating it with the Americans, who like to meet the Russian delegations at the OSCE in Vienna. We are discussing many things, but the difficulty is to overcome the wave of stereotypes that we are confronted with today in most media, in international politics and among many politicians.
So we hope that sooner or later this will change, otherwise a military conflict is inevitable. And we don’t want that to happen.

Germany plays a major role in the conflict between NATO and Russia. How do you perceive German-Russian relations?

We have very good relations with Germany. It is our most important economic partner in Europe. Together we are implementing a very important project for the whole of Europe, the North Stream 2 gas pipeline, which incidentally is being treated by some as a political weapon. They tell us it is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the gas sector and other such nonsense. In my opinion, this pipeline will make the German economy more competitive, because our gas is 40% cheaper than American liquid gas. I therefore hope that Russian gas will have a positive long-term effect on the economy of the whole of Europe.

What role do direct contacts play between the citizens of our countries, for example in the form of town twinning, in view of the above-mentioned communication difficulties?

We follow the principle the more contacts, the better. Hundreds of thousands of people came to Russia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They realised it is not a country where you can only find bears playing the balalaika, which is one of the stereotypes. That was very effective. We are therefore open for all possible and conceivable exchange possibilities and of course also for every exchange between cities.
We are currently developing a project for electronic visas that can be ordered via the home computer. I hope that this plan will be implemented next year. Russia is open to any exchange. The problems arise because there are some differences between reality and stereotypes circulating in public. People think our country is very far away, and if you tell them that Moscow is three hours flight from Geneva, they find it hard to believe.
Well, we will see. We always invite everyone. Come and see how we live. We have many problems within the country, we are aware of that. It is a huge country. However, let us not add international tensions at the level of international politics. I hope that sooner or later the situation will improve – in favour of exchange.

Mr Tolstoy, thank you for this interview. •

*    Pyotr Olegovich Tolstoy is a journalist, media producer, presenter and politician. In September 2016, he was elected to the Russian State Duma by the ruling United Russia party, where he holds the office of vice-president. He is a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, the task of which is, among other things, to bring the interests of citizens and social groups into state organs. In 1999, during the Nato bombardments of Serbia, he daily broadcasted on Russian state television about the war. Pyotr Tolstoy is the great-great grandson of the writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy.

1    Yevgeny Primakov, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, was on his way to the United States on 24 March 1999 to make an official visit to Washington. When he was informed about the first NATO bombs in Belgrade, he ordered the captain of his plane to return to Moscow immediately as a sign of protest.

(Translation Current Concerns)