RD Interview: Guy Mettan, the President of the Joint Chamber of Commerce Switzerland-Russia & CIS,  shares his views on the roots of the current crisis between Russia and Europe and proposes several ways to improve the situation.

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 20, 2015. Photo: AP

Russia Direct recently sat down with Swiss journalist and politician Guy Mettan, who hosted and moderated the panel discussion “European Choice: Globalization or Re-Sovereignization,” held in Geneva on March 6, 2015.

Serving as the President of the Joint Chamber of Commerce Switzerland-Russia & CIS, Guy Mettan has extensive experience and knowledge of Russia and its history and relations with Europe. Mettan gave us his insights into the reasons for the tensions between Russia and Europe and how the situation could be improved.

He suggests that Russia has to be “rediscovered” by Europeans to break the existing stereotypes about Russia and that much of the current divide between Russia and the West is geopolitical rather than ideological.

Russia Direct: What is the Swiss stance on what is happening currently between the European Union (EU) and Russia, especially concerning financial sanctions?

Guy Mettan: The answer to this question depends on if it is official Swiss position or my personal point of view. Officially, Switzerland is neutral and does not apply the EU or the U.S. sanctions because they were not decided according to international law and were not approved by the United Nations (UN).

So, in that respect, Switzerland says it does not apply sanctions, it just tries to avoid being used as a detour from sanctions. But in reality, Switzerland has applied the sanctions because it decided to follow the EU, not exactly the U.S. but the EU, applying the same sanctions after some time. Officially, it did so in order to avoid being used as an escape route from sanctions, but technically, this decision has the same effect as implementation of the sanctions.

I know that Swiss ministers received a lot of calls from the Americans and Europeans asking gently to apply the sanctions. There was big pressure from the U.S. Ambassador in Bern and also from Brussels to follow the common U.S. and EU policy. What I regret personally is that Switzerland eventually did apply the sanctions even if officially it says it did not. As a Swiss citizen, I can understand because we are in a difficult situation surrounded by EU member states and also negotiating new bilateral economic agreements with the EU.

Therefore, it is very difficult to be at the table negotiating economic agreements while simultaneously implementing the policy of the EU. Switzerland gave that to the EU to tone down the pressure a little bit. Many think that Switzerland lost a part of its neutrality and sovereignty.

RD: What can Switzerland actually do to improve the relations between the EU and Russia? Is it possible at all?

G.M.: I think I can say that Switzerland is sustaining every initiative that could help to gather people, to organize a dialogue between Russia and the European Union. During the Swiss presidency of the OSCE, Mr. Burkhalter (Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs) was very committed to try to improve relations. He tried to do his best. In one of the interviews in the beginning of March, Burkhalter said that the EU has the responsibility for the breakup of the conflict in Ukraine. It was a way to say that Europeans are also guilty - it is not only Russia who is responsible. Not a lot of people officially say that in Europe.

RD: You already touched a bit on the issue of state sovereignty. How can you define sovereignty now and do you think that it has been changing, evolving for the last 25 years?

G.M.: The notion of sovereignty started to evolve 25 years ago with the collapse of the USSR. It completely changed the gap. It began a bit earlier in the European community in the 1950s and 1960s but the building of supranational institutions and collaboration was not as present as it was in the 1990s. Globalization means liberalization of the economy among other things. And a liberal economy does not support any borders. It is all about free trade, free circulation and free movement.

Therefore, any border is an obstacle to globalization. And the kind of sovereignty that was before globalization must disappear. So, for me it is a big trend with regard to sovereignty. It began after World War II but the big push happened 25 years ago. I think it is not really possible to stop it. But we could try a new way of thinking to build regional or local agreements to develop a new kind of sovereignty, a new kind of freedom.

RD: What do you think became the main reason for the current tensions between the EU and Russia? Is it just simply a geopolitical conflict or does it go deeper to the level of values?

G.M.: It is both for me. I have written a book about a thousand years of war between the West and Russia. The subtitle is “Russophobes from Charlemagne until to the Ukrainian crisis.” I explain that it existed before with the values between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic when the Holy Roman Empire was against the Byzantine Empire, so it was already a struggle. There were both political competition and ideological competition between them. Political was on the level of the Empires, ideological was on the level of religion. Since then, it is ongoing in different forms with different actors.

The new clash began in 1945 after World War II. Everybody thought that with the collapse of the USSR and Communism, ideological rivalry would disappear, however it was not the case. In this case it is not a problem of values or ideology, it is a problem of geopolitics. If Communism was not the cause of the struggle, then it must be something else. What else can it be but geopolitics?

The geopolitics just began after 1991 when NATO did not dissolve itself. There was no Communist threat anymore; the raison d'être disappeared, so normally NATO had to be dissolved. But the alliance was kept and developed and expanded. The same is true with the EU. This is geopolitical. Like in the 19th century, the Big Game between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in Asia.

RD: You already mentioned that it is both ideological and geopolitical, but after the collapse of the USSR and Communist ideology, Russia joined the European family. However we can see that Russia is treated differently. Aren’t there differences in values or perception of the world between the EU and Russia?

G.M.: Personally I do not see any big differences or big gap in values. But it was recreated by a soft power struggle. In my view, after Yeltsin’s first mandate when Mr. Primakov came, when Russia began its recovery from the chaos, the problems with the West started again. They linked to that because of the geopolitical reasons. The U.S. wants a weak Russia in order to control resources not only in Russia but also in Central Asia and in the Middle East. That is the reason why a new ideological war started in the late 1990s and it is going through Putin’s time in power.

For me it was a “recycling” of the old concept of the anti-Communist struggle: Freedoms and human rights started to be used as a pretext to blame Putin, and the narrative that Putin is a dictator was constructed – so, we can see the same concepts that were used against the USSR now are being used against Russia. The old concept was “recycled” and adjusted to the modern world: Totalitarianism was replaced by autocracy, the General Secretary by the President – just an adaptation of old concepts.

In my book I observed a very interesting fact.When you read a British newspaper of the 1850s just before the Crimean War you can find exactly the same phrases that are used now to describe Russia – the same language but modernized. But the idea is the same: it was the autocrat Nicholas I, the despotic, barbarian, non-civilized ruler; at that time, instead of the Chechens, the West talked about the Circassians and supported them because Russia cruelly oppressed them.

RD: So history is repeating itself?

G.M.: Yes. You change the Circassians to the Chechens, Nicholas I to Putin and you get the same story. Also the first Crimean War was also geopolitical. Just 40 years before Russia helped the British Empire to defeat Napoleon, so why would they now fight against Russia? The same when Russia helped to defeat Hitler. Several months later, a new war started – the Cold War.

For me it is interesting that the problem of Russia is that it has a bad narrative. Russia has no corresponding narrative that is as efficient as the one in the West – the narrative about freedom and human rights.

I think the advantage of the Western countries over Russia is the fact that the Western narrative is more efficient. When you speak about freedom and human rights everybody agrees with you. If one asks – do you wish for freedom? The answer will be always positive.

RD: However the difference is in how people perceive it. People may interpret freedom in different ways.

G.M.: If you are able to convince the public opinion that you are a “good guy” delivering a good type of freedom.

RD: Well, this is more about PR.

G.M.: Yes, but good PR must be supported by good words and discourse. Otherwise you spend billions of dollars with no effect. If a product is bad – you buy once, not twice. But the West was successful – it was able to sell and to market the idea of freedom with more success.That is why it is important to be successful for ideological reasons.

RD: Did Russia try to sell any of its ideas?

G.M.: No. That is why I mentioned that. It is a very huge task to produce such a discourse, such an alternative because it takes time. You have to mobilize academic forces, analysts, professors and journalists. It must be supported by society too. That is why Russia is now only at the beginning of this path and it has to take further serious steps, also because the number of critiques of the United States is growing.

RD: Is it growing here in Europe or worldwide?

G.M.: Worldwide, not yet in Europe. In my point of view, in Europe it just has started to grow recently. But if you go to the Middle East, Africa, Latin America or Asia they share the criticism of the U.S. They do not necessarily share the U.S. values and perspectives – they have their own point of view. But the Western countries are still dominant in the media, which makes their narrative very strong.

RD: What has to be done to increase the understanding of Russia in the European consciousness?

G.M.: I think there are two sides of it. First, we have to bring people like Mr. Yakunin to Europe who are fluent in English, with good thinking skills, who can explain, defend and propose their vision. [Vladimir Yakunin is the President of Russian Railways – Editor’s note]

RD: People like Mr. Yakunin have money, and they have the resources to do so.

G.M.: Yes, but it is a policy. In the U.S. they spend billions of dollars to support such things. It is a question of means. This is one thing that has to be done. For example, the satellite channel RT (formerly Russia Today) is bringing another vision of the world like Al-Jazeera, and I think RT is very successful. This is a way. Also we have to use more actively academic forums, university exchanges and books.

Another thing which is important is to prove that in Russia there is a good life, because here in Europe people are convinced (not me, I go often to Russia), that Russia is a dictatorship, there is no freedom, people are poor, it is dangerous and you can be killed on the streets like Mr. Nemtsov.

It is important to show that there is a democratic exchange of ideas, good standards of life, culture. And it is also a way to show to the public opinion here that the official discourse is wrong. But of course, it is a long, slow and hard job.

What also can be helpful is the international situation, because every attempt of the U.S. or the EU to solve a problem finishes with chaos and a big mess like in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. So, people are becoming a little bit more reluctant when someone offers them freedom, freedom with bombings, with drones, with tanks. That is why people now started to question more.