Ahead of the annual Munich security conference, Russia Direct discussed the meeting's agenda with Igor Yurgens, chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Development, taking into consideration current geopolitical challenges such as the crisis in Ukraine and the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle during a meeting at the 49th Munich Security Conference. Photo: RIA Novosti / Eduard Pesov

With the Munich conference to be held from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, Russia Direct interviewed Igor Yurgens, a participant in the event and a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. He is also chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Development (ICD).

Yurgens discussed the conference’s agenda, its impact on geopolitics and international challenges. In addition, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the World War I, he explained why the history won’t repeat itself. 

Russia Direct: This year the Munich conference marks its 50th anniversary. Do you expect any turning points at the conference?

Igor Yurgens: This event is definitely a milestone event for the German diplomacy, which shoulders the conference’s major informational and intellectual burden, as well as for Russia because we have become influential participants even though the conference was initially launched against us during the cold war years. Our presence at the conference is welcomed and attracts a lot of interest. Transformation of such forums into one of the tools of global governance is a very interesting question.

RD: What key topics will the Munich conference address this year?

I.Y.: All spectrums of the problems will be discussed, but the key and most relevant issue will be the multifaceted security of European Union, which includes military security, economic security, political security and cybersecurity. At the same time, Ukraine and Syria will be discussed as well. 

RD: To what extent will the session on Ukraine matter?

I. Y.: Analyzing what is going in the country and understanding the situation is important. So, the session on Ukraine is bound to take place at the conference to figure out what are the positions and opportunities for maneuvers for the countries, including for Russia.    

RD: Last year Russia didn’t play a significant role in the conference, according to estimates from experts and Russia’s media. What role will Russia play in 2014?

I.Y.: This year Russia’s role may increase to a certain extent because of our initiatives in Syria and Iran. Ukraine may also contribute to it. Whether it will be perceived negatively or positively depends on the results of Russia-EU negotiations, and on [EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine] Ashton’s visit on Ukraine and its consequences.

If our rhetoric is still tough on this issue, it is highly likely to be met with criticism. If Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who also participates in the Munich conference, is approachable, Russia’s setback at previous conferences will be evened out and we will see positive feedback. At least, those who participate in the conference are enthusiastic about increasing interest toward Russia at the Munich conference.    

RD: Who else will participate in the conference this year?

I. Y.: As far as I know, the conference will be attended by Igor Ivanov, Head of Russian International Affair Council (RIAC); Mikhail Margelov, Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia’s Federation Council; Dmitri Trenin, Director of Moscow Carnegie Center; and by me.  

RD: What about the effectiveness of the conference? What tangible results has it brought about for 50 years?

I.Y.: From the point of view of economic productivity in dollars, there are no any results. Yet from the point of view of analysis and Russian leadership in the world, the results are enormous. For example, Vladimir Putin’s 2007 address has been included in textbooks. And the significance of the conference will remain important. Russia’s elites, including Putin and Lavrov, have always used this conference as a platform when necessary.

When there was no urgency, it was used as a good news peg. Anyway, I believe that this conference is indispensable for analysts because you have a chance to talk to high-profile speakers who possess first hand information. [Former U.S. Secretary of the State Hillary] Clinton always attended this event. This year John Kerry and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are likely to attend. Where else can you get such information and communicate with such people?               

RD: Whose address at the conference do you look forward to most?

I.Y.: I will find it interesting to listen to EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, German Foreign Minister Steinmaier, and to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Which is very important, especially, after Russia-EU summit and the events in Ukraine. If Kerry attends the conference, it will be very interesting to listen to him.   

RD: What about China?

I. Y.: I am not interested in China because Beijing, as it admits, is rather an apprentice than a teacher in such forums. It is analyzing the situation thoroughly, presenting its position to the audience, but it admits that it doesn’t have enough expertise in order to make serious contribution at such forums.     

RD: Many Russian experts see 2013 as a triumph of Russia’s diplomacy. Do you agree?

I.Y.:  We had a very serious victory in resolving Syria’s conflict. But I am hesitant to call it a triumph because whether it is a triumph or not will depend on our capability to reset relations with the major actors of the Euro-Atlantic security system.

RD: To what extent is Russia satisfied with the current situation of the European security? What can Russia offer in exchange it?

I. Y.: We need a pause to assess our real relations with NATO, the European Union and the United States. That’s why I wouldn’t say right now that we have clear vision in Europe’s geopolitical theater. This process is in the transition stage, in the stage of understanding, let’s say. Definitely, we have increased our stakes and odds, and we persuaded others to take our position into account, which is very important and necessary. But the process of finding the golden middle – going far enough, but not too far – is not over.       

RD: With the 100th anniversary of the World War I, some Western experts warn against repeating history. Are their misgivings really grounded?   

I.Y.: From my point of view, it is ruled out, because we passed the stage when geopolitical actors may involve us in such a conflict. First, we and other countries have nuclear weapons. Second, the world has become smarter. Third, there is no such acute conflict now. After all, today nobody has the messianic idea of global superiority.     

RD: Okay, in that case, what are the most “explosive” regions in the world now?

I.Y.: The Middle East, because of Israel-Palestine conflict, Syria’s war and the situation in Iran.