RD Interview: Russia’s Ambassador to France Alexander Orlov talks about the crisis in Europe, national sovereignty and the nature of Russia-EU relations.


German chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and French president Francois Hollande after a meeting with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine in Berlin on Oct. 20. Photo: AP

Russia-Europe relations are going through a difficult period, brought on by both external and internal factors. Europe itself is in crisis, which is seen by many as the most serious one in its modern history. In order to understand these processes and what is behind them, Russia Direct talked to Russia’s Ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov. He discusses how the principle of sovereignty impacts Europe’s view of the world, and why he is hopeful for a restoration of good relations between Western Europe and Russia.

Russia Direct: How is the notion of sovereignty understood today? How has it changed over the last 100 years?

Alexander Orlov: The Russian Diplomatic Dictionary defines sovereignty as the following: it is the full authority of legislative, executive and judicial powers of a state on its own territory, which excludes any foreign power. And the second part of the definition is: insubordination to the authorities of a foreign state in the area of international affairs, apart from the cases where a state clearly and voluntarily gives consent to limit its sovereignty.

In my view, this definition, which was given several decades ago, is quite acceptable for today’s reality. Ten years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago and now — a state’s sovereignty means independence.

If we look at today’s Europe, we can clearly note that not that many states possess full legislative and executive authority over their territory. Of course, there are certain historical reasons behind that, including voluntary abandonment of a part of their sovereignty.

On the eve of Russia's presidential elections in 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin published several deep theoretical articles on different questions of a state’s life. One of the articles was devoted to foreign policy and started with the words that only a handful of states can conduct independent foreign policy today, as it is a luxury and often requires that a state pay a very high price for it.

RD: What has changed since then?

A.O.: I think that little has changed over the last four years. Russia is asked to pay a higher and higher price for its independent foreign policy. At the same time, an absolute majority of Russian citizens support such a course of action and understand that our country has to develop according to its own laws, not foreign ones. At the end of the day, the question is about a nation’s dignity and honor.

RD: Do you see Russia's approach to the understanding of sovereignty as being different to the European one?

A.O.: Of course. The history of every nation and civilization leaves an imprint on the peculiarities of the understanding of sovereignty. This is very vividly demonstrated in the reaction to challenges and threats. Let’s take as an example World War II. Many countries in Western Europe surrendered to Nazi Germany quite quickly and basically accepted their defeat and passed their power on to the conquerors.

Also read: "Detachment rather than estrangement will save Russia-European relations"

At the same time, people in the Soviet Union were ready to give up their lives, to sacrifice everything to avoid being enslaved, to save their honor, dignity, freedom and independence. This happened, if you will, because our countrymen have a deep mental understanding of such things. Just recall the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, Napoleon’s aggression, and other numerous attempts to conquer Russia. All that led to the understanding: If one wants to be independent and free, a high price is to be paid. At the end of the day, history proved such an approach to be right.

RD: And what path did Europe choose?

A.O.: I think there is no need to explain the situation in which Europe finds itself now. A different question should be asked - whether Europe had another choice. In such context, it is suitable to recall that the initial project that had been promoted by French General Charles de Gaulle was “a Europe of nations,” which means a Europe of sovereign free states.

However, this project eventually changed and the vector of its development shifted into an entirely different dimension that paved the way for a Europe of federal states. In other words, the idea had been transformed into the creation of a sort of United States of Europe. This naturally meant certain limitations of the states’ sovereignty in the foreign policy area. Yet initially, the quite successful and ambitious project of the European Union started to experience certain problems.

RD: In which direction, in your view, will the current state of affairs evolve?

A.O.: It is hard to make any forecasts. However, some factors demonstrate that the process of European integration, especially giving up part of foreign policy sovereignty to Brussels, has almost reached its limits. European nations started to demonstrate more against the fact that their “fates” are being decided in Brussels but not at home. This is why elections in many countries, including France, are becoming more of a protest vote.

Alexander OrlovI think that it appeared after the Lisbon Treaty had been signed when part of the sovereignty in foreign policy making was delegated to Brussels. Europeans have to decide their path of development on their own. I guess that one of the possible options is the preparation of a new European Treaty, which could fix all the mistakes made in Lisbon.

RD: Do you mean a reassessment, a re-evaluation of the integration process?

A.O.: I would say reassessment through the legal stipulation of the relations between the members, which takes into account new realities. Evolution of the European Treaty is ongoing. Many in France consider this path to be very complicated because changing treaties is quite challenging. Moreover, the search for a consensus has been complicated with the increased number of member states. This is why there is another path that is being discussed in Europe. This option is about filling the existing model with a new substance. But this requires European leaders to demonstrate their political will, which is quite problematic for them.

RD: What are the obstacles?

A.O.: There are many of them. One of the key issues is the Western model of education, which is aimed at forming reliable executors of the decisions that are taken by the leadership. It requires certain courage to step outside the instructions, which have been perceived over the last years as the absolute truth. Not every leader is ready to take such responsibility. It is worth remembering that a “big brother” is a powerful limitation for expressing one’s political will.

RD: So, is there a clear demand for new leaders, for a new agenda?

A.O.: It seems that such demand exists in Europe. Brexit is an example of that. The UK's decision to leave the EU in its nature reflected the protest of a certain part of British society against the fact that the decisions that affect them are made in Brussels instead of at home. In my view, it is an alarm for the entire European project. New voices about the necessity to draw conclusions from that and to return part of the sovereignty back to the states appeared in other countries of the EU.

RD: What prevents the EU from a full re-evaluation and a transformation?

A.O.: As I said previously, the increased number of EU members not only complicates this process, but also makes a bigger difference in the positions, views and approaches of different states. Leading EU states, such as Germany for example, have no issues with the current state of affairs. Others want changes. This eventually leads to the redistribution of the roles within the EU. If this doesn’t happen, the entire project might face a deadly threat and ultimately fragment into several parts.

By the way, experts have been discussing such a possibility for quite a while. They say some sort of core might appear, which will consist of the states that were with the European integration from its initial days, and they will be surrounded by the rest of the states that will be linked to them to a different degree. Of course, the decision is up to the Europeans. But, undoubtedly, Russia is interested in a strong and independent Europe, a Europe that is self-confident and is driven by its own interests, not those of others.

So, I see that the option with the redistribution of power within the existing EU system could be the least painful.

RD: After Brexit many experts now talk about two main ways how the EU could develop: either it will reassess the integration process and reintegrate, or it will fragment further. Do you agree with the hypothesis that Brexit benefited Russia, as it increased the tension within the EU ranks and made it more possible for Russia to build relations on a bilateral basis?

A.O.: Firstly, I believe that we should not overestimate Brexit and its significance. The United Kingdom has never been the same EU member as all the other members. It always had one foot in Europe, and one outside. It is not a coincidence that General de Gaulle was against the UK's accession to the EU.

Also read: "Сan Vienna help heal the deep wounds in the Russia-EU relationship?"

On the other hand, after the UK leaves the EU, France will become the only permanent member of the UN Security Council and the only nuclear power in the Union. Moreover, France, unlike many other EU members, has a foreign policy culture and traditions. For many decades, France has been deeply involved in resolving major international issues. All these factors give France a chance to become a real political force in Western Europe. This is exactly the question the future French president is going to resolve after the elections in 2017.

RD: Recently Europe faced new challenges and threats: the crisis of European integration, the terrorist threat and the refugee crisis. What do you see as the most dangerous for Europe today?

A.O.: The most serious challenge for Europe today is the possible loss of national identity. Due to the European integration processes, giving up part of their sovereignty, European countries are losing their national identity. This situation is largely complicated by the massive influx of refugees, people of a different religion with a very explicit identity who do not want to integrate into the European society. It seems to me that the task of preserving common values, common identity is the foundation for long-term Russia-Europe relations.

It is not a coincidence that today many French view Russia as a defender of their national and cultural identity, the last guardian of common values. We also should not forget our common spiritual roots, and culture. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov are equally close and clear to the French as Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo to the Russians.

Understanding that the preservation of European identity is tightly connected with a rapprochement with Russia is gradually coming. Often it is more clear to the ordinary citizens, not to the politicians. An individual who is free from the ideological frameworks feels the situation much better and understands that Russia is a friend, not an enemy. Moreover, history demonstrated it – Russia liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the 19th century and saved Europe from the Nazis in the 20th.

RD: On the other hand, many argue that the past you just mentioned is being distorted. The liberation that Russia brought is now perceived as an aggression, expansion, pushing its own development model, which limited the freedom of Europe. How do you view such an approach?

A.O.: You are absolutely right. Falsification of history for the sake of short-term political interests is becoming more and more common. But I believe it is not going to last forever. Russia needs to actively withstand such Russophobe historical myths that are being consistently seeded in the European mind.

It is a paradox, but the world used to know the USSR much better than today’s Russia. There were more people who visited our country. When people do not know the reality they believe everything that they are told. When they come and see a different country and people who are living a normal, free life. My quite lengthy professional experience in diplomacy confirms that there is nothing stronger and more effective than people-to-people contacts.

Also read: "Will the misunderstanding between the EU and Russia continue?"

RD: What do you think about the prospects for the lifting of Western sanctions imposed on Russia and the normalization of political relations with the West in general?

A.O.: The sanctions will be lifted when those who introduced them will understand that they make no sense and harm Europe more than Russia. Europeans should understand what  the real threats to Europe are. The current global processes work in favor of the cancelation of the sanctions. Sooner or later, people always understand who is their friend and who is their ally.