A conversation with Mikhail Ilyin, Russian political scientist and expert in political systems and foreign policy.
Interviewer: Adam Reichardt
2012 was quite an interesting year for Russia, both domestically and internationally. How would you sum it up?
First of all, it would be impossible to separate the two aspects – international and domestic – when summing up 2012 for Russia. We have both a new parliament and an “old-new” president. Of course they had to redefine both the domestic and foreign policy – with a great degree of continuity in both respects, and here is where I would like to focus on foreign policy and the new elements President Vladimir Putin has introduced.
First and foremost, greater attention has now been given to Eurasia. The Eurasian initiatives pronounced by Putin clearly demonstrate this redefinition of foreign policy. Russia now has to rely more on its neighbours than ever before. And this not only means on the western side, but also to the South and to the East. I think it is a sound approach – as it is necessary to diversify Russia’s interests and development.
However, I do believe it is also very important to maintain and build the strong, traditional relations between Russia and Europe. Russia is essentially related to Europe and we cannot deny this.
A few years back, a friend of mine, Vadim Tsymbursky, created a concept which is known as the double-system of civilisations. His interpretation is that both Russia and Europe are two separate civilisations that are closely related to each other and cannot exist without each other.
But, as you have already mentioned, it seems Putin is more interested in Eurasia…
Of course I do not represent Putin or the Kremlin, but I would interpret this Eurasian pivot as a way to redefine the role of Russia internationally, and to strengthen its position in this concept of double-system of civilisations. Russia, being a Eurasian country, has to reassert itself as a Eurasian country; but at the same time demonstrate that it is fundamentally a part of a double civilisation system with Europe.
And from this point of view, the particular region of Central and Eastern Europe is crucially important. This region can become the interface for Russia and Europe to engage. And what’s more, this is a region that makes this concept of “double civilisation” work. The potential for Eastern Europe to play a strong role between Europe and Russia is quite big.
Yet, we often see Eastern Europe as an area where Russia and Europe battle for influence over these countries…
I think we should start looking at Eastern Europe as a region where these two civilizations can come together. A few years ago, my wife, Elena Meleshkina, and I, published a book on Balto-Pontida – the region known in Poland as Międzymorze (intermarum or between-the-seas, a region which includes Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine amongst others – editor’s note). We analysed both the geopolitics and history of the Międzymorze region, or Balto-Chernomorie, as we call it in Russian.
When we wrote this book, we thought about this region’s importance for Russia. We Russians cannot understand ourselves as a separate entity and as a people and a nation related to Europe unless we understand the role of this interface region, which has a long history and significance. What is also important is that it is not something that separates Europe and Russia, but it can actually link Europe and Russia. The area we now call Eastern Europe is in a prime position to join Europe and Eurasia together, not just Russia. And being this possibility as an interface can have a crucial role for these countries to play. It can work as the core for the double civilisation system whereas Europe and Russia become its “wings”.
One of the important things that we stress in this book is that until now, neither the elites nor the people of the region really understood the potential of their separate identity. Seeking an identity is not to be done in terms of either – European periphery OR Russian periphery, but in fact as a double-periphery. And this is indeed providing it a role of its own. And the countries in the region can play this role and become, in a sense, a key element in this double-civilisation concept more than any of the centres (meaning Russia or Europe).
Do you think Russia and Europe will recognise this role for the region before the countries themselves recognise it? Looking at the actions of the elites in countries such as Ukraine or Belarus, do you think they see their own potential?
This is actually a rhetorical question in a sense. This lack of clear identity in the region was one of the provoking factors which led us to address the issue. Look at Kaliningrad, which by the way is where our book was published. Kaliningrad is a special place of its own.
In fact, early next year I am going to begin a seminar programme at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad called “Centres and Peripheries of Development”. The idea is to try to redefine what the roles of the centres and the peripheries in geopolitics today are – and this includes the region of Eastern Europe.
When does a particular country, city or region act as a centre, and when does it act as a periphery? This is the key question in today’s global world. And sometimes these roles are combined. One can be the periphery of one thing and at the same time be the centre of something else. It is possible for a state to play multiple roles as either centres or peripheries. And the more roles one has, the more effective one can be in international politics and today’s world.
That’s why, when somebody is trying to define the role of his nation, city, or region in only one dimension – a typical example is “return to Europe” – then you are reducing your potential. Yes, this dimension is important, but there are other dimensions. If you manage to combine and choose, and put stress on one dimension at one moment and play down the other and then change when the context has changed – you can be very effective.
As already mentioned, Kaliningrad is playing a central role in a new dialogue between Russia, Germany and Poland. Is this the first steps towards re-engaging the region from a new perspective?
That’s the whole idea of my seminar. And it’s not limited to Kaliningrad. We are looking at having these seminars in other places in the region, including Minsk, St. Petersburg, and other cities.
We started this new debate a few years ago and now the interest is really growing. Together with a colleague of mine from Budapest, Pal Tamás, a well-known sociologist, we had a seminar in Moscow in November 2012, where we debated the role of the region vis-à-vis Europe, and we are going to continue this debate in Kaliningrad and other places.
So I would like to use this opportunity and address your readers. If there are those among your readers who are interested in the topic, I would be more than happy to get in touch with them and find ways, not only in academic terms, to address and continue the debate on this topic.
How do you view Russian-US relations this year, with respect to Barack Obama being re-elected president?
The potential is there, no doubt. As two global powers, they can do tremendous things if they cooperate. But it is clear that there is some inertia of confrontation dating back to the superpowers’ rivalry; so clearly there is going to be some conflict.
There are stereotypes in the minds of both peoples, Americans and Russians. So moving forward will not be easy. The “reset” period brought great and sincere expectations on both sides, but definitely there remains several obstacles. There are structural obstacles because both countries are involved in different international contexts and sometimes this provokes conflict; Syria and Libya for example. I do believe that in order to improve the relations, it is necessary to change the stereotypes among the average citizens of both the US and Russia. And these can be changed; it’s not easy, but the best way is by doing something together in the international arena, constructively. Even if the reset was considered unsuccessful, it doesn’t mean that they should give up. Russia and the US need to continue to try to work together, and even by trying to work together, this is already an achievement.
Will we see a focus towards more stability in the international arena in 2013?
I wish there would be more stability. But honestly, I doubt that will happen. I think the next year will be a year of greater international turmoil. Some areas are still in the process of crisis and rapid change, including the Middle East. I think what is happening now in Egypt, Syria and other places is going to continue; and not only in that region.
I say this because I am doing my own research on what I call “chronopolitics”. We often discuss geopolitics and how the properties and qualities of space and geography influence politics in a given region. Chronopolitics, on the other hand, looks at the properties of time and how it influences politics.
Of course, there are ups and downs in politics that follow each other. The last two decades was a great period, which started in the early 1990s and has finished, or is about to finish. It was a period of American hegemony, which reached its highest peak early last decade. I think that September 11th 2001 was actually the climax of this period. It was the utmost hegemony of the US, and the US was challenged at exactly this critical point. And what we see further on has been a declining American hegemony.
The whole international system is now coming to a new phase and new period of development. What will it be? This is difficult to say. Personally, I would wish it be a period of democratic development, greater participation and greater accountability in international, as well as domestic relations. Some patterns of regularity in the developments would indicate it slightly to be so, but ironically this new period of participation, involvement, etc., resulted in the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is an indication of a new trend in the international arena. There was a promise of democracy. There was a promise of popular participation and emancipation. But unfortunately it has been accompanied and coupled with unpleasant and tragic developments – violence and revolution.
So, I don’t think the coming year will be an exception. Of course there may be some major breakthroughs, but it will most likely be coupled with violence and tragedy.
Mikhail Ilyin is a professor of comparative politics at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (HSE), as well as at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) and Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University. He is also head of the Center for Advanced Methods in Social Sciences and Humanities of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is a vice-president of the International Political Science Association.
Adam Reichardt is Editor-in-Chief of New Eastern Europe. You can follow him on Twitter @areichardt.