2016 EMF Conference Part 6: Russian Policy in the Eastern Mediterranean – Professor Irina Zvyagelskaya 5-7 December, 2016

by on January 08, 2017

EMF Conference Part 6: Russian Policy in the Eastern Mediterranean
Professor Irina Zvyagelskaya – Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
EMF Conference 5-7 December 2016
Larnaca, Cyprus

Before the eruption of the Arab Spring, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East were not of the greatest importance for Russia. This has changed over the last years. The continuing chaos, the collapse of state institutions, and the emergence of various jihadi organisations competing for power in the region have caused a serious security threat and concern about possible spillover of violence into Russia. At the same time the retreat of the United States from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East has propelled the rise of local powers which have joined the regional power struggle. These developments have led to a change of the Russian policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and its greater engagement in the region.


Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): Welcome back to the East Med Forum. My co-host is Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, and our speaker is Professor Irina Zvyagelskaya of the Oriental Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who will talk to us about Russian policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Professor Zvyagelskaya, welcome.

Irina Zvyagelskaya (I.Z.): Thank you. It’s my pleasure. I would like to start with thanking you and your institute for giving me a chance of attending the conference from Moscow and to be able to exchange ideas with the participants of the conference. So, you know that my topic is “Russian Interest in the Eastern Mediterranean”. I would like to start with a very well-known notion that for us the Middle East is the nearest, actually. So it’s very close to our frontiers. And if we start describing the interests in Eastern Mediterranean, we should start with security interest first, because it’s absolutely obvious that concentration of foreign armies, all sorts of conflicts which destabilize the situation in the region are of great concern to Russia. Because you know that the violence can easily spill over the borders – it happens all over the world. So this is the first group of interest. They are general interest but I should mention them.

The second group I would say is a geostrategic interest, since Russia wants to demonstrate that she is an important power, she has its own approach to different global issues and regional issues that her approach should be taken into consideration. And this also explains the Russian activity in the region. I will talk about it in detail a bit later.

Then there are interests which are shaped by the idea of protection of Russian business interests, mostly in military sphere, and also in oil sphere, which of course also shape Russia’s approaches to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean.

But to be absolutely frank, we should say that not long before the Arab transformations, probably, the Middle East was not a high priority for Russia, I mean a high priority for the Russian foreign policy. There were other regions which were much more important, like the relationship with the post-Soviet countries, like relationship with the West, and so on, so forth. So if we can say that the Arab transformation was a certain line which somehow shows that now there are different and new approaches of Russia to the situation in the region. Regime transformations. Well, I wouldn’t say that they were perceived negatively in Russia – I mean, first of all, the events in Tunisia, or in Egypt – because it was absolutely obvious that there were sources of rebellions against corrupted elites which actually privatized several countries in the developing world, and so it was absolutely understandable. But the problem was that in the Arab countries, especially in Libya and those which followed the events in Egypt and Tunisia, the institutions are very weak and any rebellions, any demonstrations – especially when they are supported from the outside, I mean from regional powers, global powers – they can really bring the situation to chaos and destroy the statehood. Actually, this happened in Libya, and that is why we say that Libya was a red line for us. You know that Russia abstained when there was a voting on the resolution of the Security Council 1973, which actually started the no-fly zone in Libya. And at first Russia believed that there would be real no-fly zone, because there were concerns that since Gaddafi had aviation, of course he would use it against the rebels. But actually, you know, it ended up with the death of Gaddafi who wasn’t even judged, as Mubarak was judged, or even as Saddam Hussein. And it brought forth the collapse of the Libyan state since there were absolutely no institutions and we do understand that Gaddafi had personified the main institutions in this state. Even now we don’t know what kind of institutions they have, I mean the institutions of state. There is no much opportunity to carry out field studies right now in Libya. But the fact is that foreign intervention actually resulted in the end of the statehood in Libya right now. Probably the situation will get better, but right now we have what we have. We don’t have a proper state in Libya. So as I said for Russia, it was a sort of red line and if we are talking about Syria, because Syria now is the sort of focus of the international relations in the region, we can say that without Libya there probably would never be Syrian crisis in the format which it acquired right now. So I mean that, as you know, Russia introduced its urban forces at the request of Syrian government, and Russia is still actively participating in what’s going on in Syria.

So why Syria? Sometimes I can say that there are very primitive explanations: that Assad is our best friend and ally, and that is why for us to save Assad is to save our positions in the region. I would strongly disagree with this point of view. First of all, Assad – I mean Bashar Assad – has never been our ally. His father, it’s true, was an ally of the Soviet Union, but then the situation was completely different. And young Assad used to go to Europe rather than visit Russia. He didn’t visit Russia until 2005 or 2006 because at the time there was discussed the debt of Syria to Russia. And actually, he used to go to Europe and where he was warmly greeted, as you very well know.

But it’s not only the issue where he was greeted or not. The issue is that we do not share his goals in Syria. You know that we do not believe in a military victory. We believe that there should be negotiations, there should be transitional period, there should be a sort of unity government and then elections. But, you know, actually since Russia supported all resolutions, and especially the resolution 2254, we have a lot in common with those countries who also signed this resolution, who also supported it. So it’s about unified Syria and it’s about the transitional period, which is very important. So we still believe that without political solution there will be no exit strategy for anyone. From this point of view, we do not share the aims of Bashar Assad.

The second consideration, or probably the main consideration which actually shaped Russian reaction to what was going on in Syria, was the fact that Russia was searching for a platform, for a ground, where we could still cooperate with the West and with other countries against a common enemy, against international terrorism. You remember pretty well that in 2015 the international situation was really very bad, and Russian relations with other countries of the West and with some regional countries were really spoiled because of the Ukrainian issue. So it was not an effort to marginalize the Ukrainian issue, it was not possible. But as I said, it was a search for other ground where we really can cooperate, since we have common a enemy. And there was even idea of a wider coalition in Syria fighting against Daesh and against Jabhat al-Nusra – these two organizations, as you know, are on the list of the United Nations, they are labeled terrorist organizations, so no one denies it. And although, again, we didn’t believe that there would be just one coalition, but there could have been parallel efforts to fight Daesh. Because as you remember, in 2015 there was a real danger of Daesh becoming a dominant force, military force and political force in Syria. It is true that at the time there was a sort of dichotomy: either Daesh or Assad. And the fate of Damascus was put under the question at the time. So Russia helped to change the balance of forces and actually it at the time opened the doors for negotiations, which was very important. And you remember they were supported by the United States, there were a lot of negotiations between Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry. I’m not going into detail right now, just to say that there was a certain common ground, where we could support the idea of negotiations, and the idea of political solution of the Syrian crisis. But unfortunately, though a lot has been done…

You know that despite all disagreements we still have cooperation with the United States – military – aimed at deconflicting and preventing any military clashes. And also there is cooperation on humanitarian sphere, and Mr. Kerry proposed once again that we cooperate on it. But still, I wouldn’t say that our relationship right now is really very good, as you know, and unfortunately the agreement of the 9th September failed. It failed, since the United States could not really divide the so-called moderate opposition from Jabhat al-Nusra. I am not sure it was really possible, though they promised to do that. Because you know, there are about seven organizations affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo. Well, they are doing things which probably make them no better than terrorists, but still they are not on the list, official list, of the United Nations. Some of them can be called moderate, like the Syrian Free Army, of course, some of them can hardly be called moderate. But still from the formal point of view, of course, they should not be fighting with al-Nusra. Because the main aim in Aleppo is al-Nusra, of course, no matter how it is called right now. And since the agreement of the 9th September was not realized, there were suspicions that after all many countries are not interested in the Russian operation against al-Nusra and Syrian operation against al-Nusra, because al-Nusra is sometimes perceived rather as a people’s organization, local organization, which is in opposition to the Assad regime, and which is fighting just this regime with the support of the local forces.

If Daesh is a sort of foreign organization which came from Iraq and there are a lot of foreign fighters, but al-Nusra is just a local organization, and that is why the attitude to it should be different. We do not share, as you know, this point of view. We believe that they are terrorists as well. But such an attitude to al-Nusra which we come across very often is of great concern to us, because if we are going to save al-Nusra it means that we will never proceed with a political solution, because these people they will never talk to the representatives of the regime, and they say it absolutely openly. But everybody understands, though, that the regime should participate in these negotiations no matter how people perceive the role of Bashar Assad – negatively or very negatively. But still, we do understand that negotiations should be conducted between the two sides. Otherwise, it’s just impossible to bring peace and stabilization to Syria in the foreseeable future. So Jabhat al-Nusra and those affiliated with it, they are against any negotiations. and this is the problem, this is a real problem. And they are ready to continue the fighting.

When I’m talking about foreign fighters, when I’m talking about a foreign support for the opposition, including, unfortunately al-Nusra sometimes, I would like to say that here we see the rise of the regional powers. Regional powers nowadays are very often overplaying global powers. They have their own goals, they have their own interests, and they are pursuing these interest very often paying no attention to their global allies. And actually the word “ally” and the notion of ally is getting more and more relative our days, more and more arbitrary. Take, for example, Turkey which is the member of NATO, and at the same time we know pretty well that it has a lot of contradictions now with the EU, with the United States even. Or take Israel which is an ally of the United States and still we can find a lot of contradictions. And the very fact that Mr. Netanyahu went to Congress, as you remember, couple of years ago, to speak not to the president, but to the Congress, was something very unusual in such a sort of bilateral relationship.

Then we can also have an example of Saudi Arabia. Though I do understand it doesn’t belong to the Mediterranean, but if we are talking of the whole situation, of course it should be mentioned. And Saudi Arabia also has very good relations with the United States, but at the same time there are also very vivid and open controversies.

Now, coming back to Russia. I would like to say that at first the operation in Syria and our attitude to Syria from the very beginning, especially to the Assad regime, that was the cornerstone of contradictions, it gave birth to quite a number of contradictions between us and the regional powers. And if before the Arab transformation and before the Syrian crisis we can say that Russia managed to make friends with everyone – we have very good relations with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, with Hizballah, with Israel, and just you name it. After the beginning of the Syrian crisis the situation of course got much more strained for Russia, because you remember the crisis with Turkey, you remember that our relationship with Persian Gulf countries, was also good, and so forth. But right now I would like to say that though we are not coming back to the situation of being friends with everyone, still our relationships with regional powers have strongly improved.

First, take Turkey. As you remember, and I have already mentioned that there was a very serious crisis in the bilateral relationship. And I wouldn’t say that our perceptions of the situation there coincided. No, not very much. But at the same time, probably due to the aborted coup in Turkey, the crisis was overcome right now, and the relations between Turkey and Russia are good, though of course certain contradictions as far as Syrian case is concerned, they still remain. But at the same time, I believe we can find the common ground, because for us it’s very important to close the border between Turkey and Syria which was used, as you know, by foreign fighters who used to go through this border to join ISIS. At the same time it’s also very important for us that Turkey is fighting ISIS. But, as far as the Kurdish issue is concerned, of course here we still have a lot of controversies. And also Turkish military operation in Syria can also cause certain questions as you know.

Then, if you take Israel, as I said we have been having a very good relationship with Israel and the Syrian operation even made it more, I would say, open. We do know that Israel has interests of its own. For example, Israel is very much against Iranian activity in Syria, very much against Hezbollah activities there. And Israel told us many times that they would not let Hizballah ever to get new weapons in Syria and get them to Lebanon, and that it would never tolerate any effort of Hezbollah to come to the Golan Heights. But though we do not share these concerns, at the same time, as you know, we have very good relationship, we have coordination in certain parts of our efforts also to de-conflict the situation between us too, and to ensure that there are no clashes. And there is an understanding that though we have different interests, the relationship, again, I would like to stress it, is better than probably it has ever been with Israel.

Then, again, I do understand that Saudi Arabia is not an issue here, but I should mention it just because we have very much improved relations now with the Persian Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that we are cooperating with Iran in Syria. And when I’m searching for the explanation why it happened, I believe that actually in Arab countries it’s a sort of tradition to have respect for the military force. And they’re very much interested also in Russian weapons, and they are very much interested also in developing cooperation with Russia. And strange as it is, but a Syrian crisis has not become a stumble block to the development of our relationship. So in the beginning, as I said, it was, but now I cannot say that it spoiled the relationship. Probably the contrary now they’re better than they were at the beginning.

So I would like also to say some words about the relationship with Iran. You know, for Russia it is natural to support this relationship because for us Iran is not only a Middle East power, but for us it’s also a close neighbor. Iran has very active policies in Central Asia, in the Caucasus, and this is important for us. And we should say that Iranian policies in the post-Soviet territory has always been very balanced. And though we would compete there of course – since Iran also is an oil power, gas power – but still we were doomed to cooperate, since, as I said, Iran is very important for us. But there were a lot of accusations actually that since Russia had the boots on the ground in Syria, which were actually composed of Iranians, of Hezbollah, and of the Syrian army, the truth that Russia actually supports Shiites in the Middle East. It’s not true. It’s not true, since we have at the same time very good relations with Egypt, with Jordan, with other Sunni countries. But there were such accusations, especially if you take into consideration that the Russian Muslim population, which makes some 14% of the total, is all Sunni, practically. There are very few Shiites on the territory of Russia. So for us it’s also this factor. But again, I want to say that it was, it didn’t become a stumbling block in the development of our relationship with Sunni countries in the region, though probably some of them were not very happy about it. What’s more, there was even an idea of Russia being a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia because we do understand that not so much Shiite-Sunni contradictions, but geopolitical consideration, they actually shape the relations between the two countries. And unfortunately, they also shape the situation in the region, since these two countries are very active right now. And what we have in the Yemen is a kind of proxy war. It should also be taken into consideration. But actually though everyone understands that to stabilize a situation in the region something should be done about a Saudi-Iranian rivalry, nobody really knows what can be done about it. So it’s also very important issue which all of us are facing.

So to proceed with an analysis of the situation in Syria. And if we are thinking about the future, I would say that actually the situation doesn’t look very optimistic. Several years ago my colleagues and I were in the United States and we had a meeting with Mrs. Nuland. At the time, as you know the Democrats were particularly 100% sure that they will remain in power, and there were a Democratic president. But she really said the very right thing when she said that there should not be “Aleppization” of the conflict. We should understand that yes, Aleppo will be taken, like Mosul will be taken, because there are two mirror situations actually right now in Iraq and in Syria. But what shall we do after that? This is important. Whether Aleppo will open the new window of opportunities for resuming of negotiations which should have international support, of course, or whether we will continue fighting for no end, which will prevent all forces who are participating in this conflict from getting a clear-cut exit strategy? So the conflict then will go on and on, and actually I believe this is really very pessimistic scenario. Unfortunately it does exist, we cannot ignore it. But probably with a new administration the situation will become a little bit better. Though you know that there were recommendations of the Congress to sell missiles to the opposition. And it will be really very bad, because as you know they don’t have an aviation, but Syrian army does, and Russian aircraft is also flying in Syria. So this will be a real danger, and this might really improve the position of the radicals – not of the modern opposition, but real radicals. Because you know that the modern weapons – they always end up in the hands of the radicals. And this should also be taken into consideration.

There are certain hopes that probably Trump will try to carry out more isolationist policy – he wasn’t very much interested in having American troops all over the world. But still the Syrian crisis will remain, and very much will depend not only on coordination between Russia and the United States, but I believe on Russian-European relationship, and on Russian relationship with the regional powers. Because nowadays, as I said, we should recognize that traditional powers are getting more and more influential, and their stance, their interests should be more taken into consideration if we want to reach stability in the region.

Thank you very much and i am looking forward to your questions.

Andrew Lambert (A.L.): Professor, I wonder if I could just ask you first what your position is on the Iranian nuclear issue. I know that in theory at least it is resolved for the next ten-fifteen years, but do you think that it is, or can be optimistic about the future thereafter?

I.Z.: Well, you know that Russia was among those who were negotiating with Iran on nuclear issue. And actually you know that we’re very much against nuclear proliferation – here we have absolutely common ground. Well, the question is whether the situation will get better or worse taken into consideration the situation on the ground. But you know, I believe that very much also will depend on the position of those powers who negotiated this agreement. Because Iran is looking forward to the easing of the sanctions. Some of them have been eased, but not enough. And I believe we should really proceed with this lifting of sanctions because Iran is very much interested now in cooperation. And the lifting of sanctions should show to Iran that actually the signing of agreement was worth for Iran. Because that was the general idea. We signed the agreement, we stopped the project and then the sanctions will be lifted. So some of them should be lifted as soon as possible, I believe, because we need to cooperate with Iran.

A.L.: Can I widen the discussion slightly from the Middle East to bring in the threat that Russia sees against its diaspora, not only in the Ukraine, but also of course in the Baltic States? Can we be optimistic about the outcome of both of those situations?

I.Z.: Well, as far as the Baltic states are concerned, I believe this is not an issue at all, to be absolutely frank. There is a lot of propaganda right now that sooner or later Russia after Crimea will enter Baltic states and will do same. No, it has nothing to do with reality. I’m not going to discuss Crimea in detail. Though, you know, there were reasons. There were reasons, because Russia was very much really scared of the opportunity of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO, there was a lot of talk about it. And if so, what would have happened to us, to Sevastopol, and to Russian positions in the Black Sea? So it was a very difficult issue. Unfortunately, due to the situation in Ukraine and due to the international situation at the time it could not be solved politically. That’s bad. But it was solved how it was solved. There were motives, there were reasons. I am not going just deep into them. But these are very special reasons. And as far as the Baltic states are concerned, I believe this is a pure propaganda. We shouldn’t pay attention to that, really.

A.L.: That’s encouraging. But can I also ask you about international institutions that cause concern? And I’m thinking here not only of what is happening in the South China Sea with the tribunal over UNCLOS, but also Russian derogation from the ICC together with many African countries. Are we not in danger of undermining our international institutions?

I.Z.: No, I don’t think so. You know, sometimes the danger today is so much over-exaggerated, really. On the contrary, we believe in international institutions. We believe that the United Nations, for example, should be strengthened because it’s still the most important institution which was set up after the World War II. But at the same time as, you know, Russia does not believe in a unipolar world. Of course we do understand that the international relationship is very symmetric right now. Of course the United States is playing a very important role and we do recognize why it’s playing such a role. But at the same time, we do believe that there are other centers of power which should be taken into consideration: it’s China, it’s India, it’s European Union as a subject of international relations. So I believe that the idea of Russia behind the new world order which is often mentioned, is just to let other international players have their impact on decision making. And Russia also wants to be a player, and also wants to have this impact. Because it’s not fair when the decision-making on very important issues and international relations is actually carried out by very few players. By very few players disregarding interests of others.

A.L.: But it is important though, is it not, to strengthen these international institutions, and abide fully with one’s treaties? And I tested you just now on ICC, but also one thinks about things like INF – Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. It seems a problem in the West that Russia is almost derogating from the INF Treaty, or certainly ignoring it.

I.Z.: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch you.

A.L.: I’m concerned about things like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which seems to be that Russia has decided not to abide by it anymore.

I.Z.: Yes, I understand now, excuse me. So you know, yes, it’s true that Russia didn’t do it. But the fact is that unfortunately our partners didn’t care about this agreement for a long time. They actually in practice, they actually didn’t support it. So there was a way to show that we really are not satisfied with a state of affairs in this field. But actually, if the relationship is improved, I believe the talks will be resumed. It’s very important to open the channels of mutual communications. Very important. A lot of them are closed right now, including Russian-NATO Commission, including commission on terrorism, unfortunately. I do believe the work of this commission should be resumed and they should be very active.

It seems to me that if we want to improve the credibility of these institutions, it is important to have dialogue and to emphasize to the world when we have a treaty we abide by it in full. And things like the conventional forces in Europe treaty which has been disregarded, INF Treaty, and of course, we’re looking now at the new START treaty, which will come into operation very soon. It’s important to show to the world that if we have a treaty, and we have institutions, that we give them the due recognition.

You know, you are right absolutely, and I share your point of view 100%. But at the same time, I believe that there should be mutual efforts to strengthen these institutions, to strengthen the agreements, to resume negotiations and so forth. But to be absolutely frank, when we are talking about Russian actions in Ukraine and in Crimea, we should take into consideration the fact that there was a proliferation of NATO to our borders. And it’s going on. And when we say that we are very much concerned about it, we’re answered, “No, it’s not your business, its NATO, don’t worry.” You know, so that is why I say we should negotiate, we should understand what the intentions are.

And for example, in the United States we have been partners with the Americans in the so-called Dartmouth Conference, I’m sure you heard about it. So it was of course a second track diplomacy. But it was very useful during the Cold War, when our governments could not find common language very often on very important issues. And you know that we revived the Dartmouth Conference – so-called “Big Dartmouth” – just for the same reasons, because we are looking for the improvement in our relationship, and we are searching for a common language. And we want the other side to understand that we are not trying to be a threat to anyone, and we are looking forward for the same assertive response from our partners.

A.L.: Do you see the Valdai conference in the same category?

I.Z.: Yes, Valdai is also very close to the Dartmouth conference. The only difference is that the Dartmouth is a kind of sustained dialogue which started in 1960s, so it has really very, very long history, and a lot of very well-known people they contributed, and policy makers they contributed to this conference. And I do believe that it was alive, but it will be just an additional tool, you know, because we need face-to-face negotiations between the main powers.

A.L.: Exactly. I’m intrigued by a report that came out on the BBC a couple of days ago. And it said in the aftermath of the Trump election everybody in Moscow was hugely optimistic. But all the Americans in Moscow were hugely pessimistic. Which seems to be a very interesting attitude to take. I wonder, I’m slightly surprised about your pessimism about what is happening in Syria. Because it seems to me that on the face of it you and Bashar Assad are on the offensive and at the momentum, and you are likely to be able to impose the solutions. But you don’t seem to be as optimistic as I’d expected.

I.Z.: Well, let’s start then with Mr. Trump, then about optimism and pessimism. If you want to ask me what was my attitude to the election of Mr. Trump, I would say it was very cautious. Because on the one hand I can say that I was no admirer of Mrs. Clinton, and I personally was very much afraid that if she were elected as the first lady president, first woman president of the United States, she would be a much more hard-boiled than any man in her place. Just to show that she could be even better, you know. It’s psychologically… It’s quite… it can be explained, but I didn’t want it. So as far as Mr. Trump is concerned, probably it was not also the best choice. But it was not our choice. It was the choice of American people, all of those people who were neglected for a long time and we do understand why it happened.

I believe that he’s a new man in the American political elite. And probably from this point of view there can be certain breakthroughs, because new people, they bring new ideas very often for them. I wouldn’t say that what he said during his pre-election election campaign would be implemented. Of course there are frameworks for him. American institutions are very strong and he cannot do whatever he pleases. But at the same time I do believe there might be changes. They might be changes which should be used by those who want to improve Russian-American relations. So I wouldn’t drink champagne for his elections, let Americans do it. But let’s have a cautious optimism, let’s see what can be done.

And now as far as pessimistic and optimistic scenarios. You know, as I said, the fact that the regime of Mr. Assad will improve its military positions doesn’t mean that it is a solution to the Syrian crisis. As I said, I do believe that the only solution is political negotiations with the participation not only of global, but of regional powers, the participation of them is important. And so it’s a long process, and it is very important process. Because if Assad even prevails, you do understand that the main causes of the conflict will remain unresolved. So the conflict will remain, and the idea is to bring those people in opposition who are ready to talk, who are ready to be constructive, and certain people of the regime who can find the common ground there. Later on let there be elections and let the Syrian people decide whom they want to see in power in Syria.

And what’s more, if we’re talking about unified Syria, and this is the idea – I’m not speaking now about Kurdish issue, it’s a special issue – but as far as the future of Syria is concerned, even the Kurds believe that there can be a sort of special status, but at the same time they are talking about unified Syria as well.

So I believe this idea can only be implemented if main political forces in Syria find common ground and find certain compromise. Otherwise, they will go on and on.

A.L.: Of course Syria, and indeed Iraq, were all a product of the Sykes-Picot agreement at the end of World War I. So they’re not necessarily natural frontiers. But you don’t support the idea of partition in Syria, then.

I.Z.: No, nobody supports the idea. I mean, formally, since there is resolution 2254 – it’s the resolution of the Security Council – nobody supports the partition of Syria. It might happen, it’s another question. But formally nobody supports it. And as far as Sykes-Picot is concerned, you know, I wonder why we now accuse both Sykes and Picot for drawing borders in 1916. It’s so funny, because otherwise there would be some (inaudible) and when we are talking about so-called natural borders, only island states can say that they have really natural borders. As for the other countries they all have borders which are not very natural, which divide different ethnic groups and different confessional groups. But well, what can you do about it. You know, after all there are modern states in the Middle East right now. Unfortunately, we are watching the crisis of the nation states – it’s true – in the Middle East. But the question is whether there’ve ever been nation states in Western understanding of this formula, of this format. I believe they have never been. Because the identity, ethnic identity, tribal identity, confessional identity is much more important than the identity with the state – this is first. Second, there are no institutions or very weak institutions. And the third, there is no notion of common interests, values and also common deeds, which unite the nation, you know. And in some countries there is. We can speak about Egypt to a certain extent, we can say that in Tunisia the situation is a bit different. But still, unfortunately this nation state in Western understanding of the notion has never been set up in the region. Probably in the future, but right now we can say there is none.

A.L.: If I may, as a final question, before I let you go. You’ll know there seems to be a new wave of populism taking place across Europe, and indeed America as well. And we saw it in Britain, first of all with a Scottish referendum, then of course we had Brexit, now we’ve had Donald Trump elected. And just recently, yesterday, of course the Italians had a referendum which all went wrong. So is this populism regarded with some interest in Moscow, or do you feel that it might overtake Moscow itself?

I.Z.: Well, you are right that populism right now is a sort of general trend which we’re watching. But just to say it’s populism and that’s all, I wouldn’t agree with. Because if we take the election of Trump, for example. There are certain social groups which were neglected. It’s a sort of protest, you know. I believe there are a lot of groups, unfortunately, in Europe whose opinion has never been taken into consideration, who also were neglected. It’s not just to please these people, but it’s their desire to get certain voice. They’re probably not the best and the brightest, but they are there and there are many of them. So now they want their voice be heard. Is this populism? I’m not sure. I’m not sure, because they exist and in certain states they are forming a majority right now. Of course, as I said, probably their demands are not always very balanced and pragmatic, and it should be corrected by those who are elected by their support. But this is what we have now. We should decide how we deal with the situation. We should study nowadays a new sociology because I believe that there is a crisis of the old sociology, really. We should study the society. I have just come from Uzbekistan, I was an observer at the elections of the president of Uzbekistan. And when I discussed the situation with my local colleagues, with Uzbek colleagues, they all say that what we need now is the study of the society, what kind of societies we have. And it pertains not only to Central Asia, but to Europe, and to the United States, and to Russia.

A.L.: It seems to be manifested as a form of petty nationalism.

I.Z.: Well yes, I agree this is the rise of nationalism. But you know, it is not the first tracks of nationalism, really. There were different waves in the history when the nationalism would come to the forefront. And sometimes it is even positive, because it helps to strengthen the state structure. Sometimes it is absolutely negative because it’s ruining the state and ruining the society. But again, it’s up to us to decide how to deal with it, and to know who represents really what kind of nationalism. It can be absolutely neutral and it can be at the same time very, very negative as well.

A.L.: Professor, thank you very much, that’s it from me. I’m very grateful to your fascinating tour.

C.P.: Professor, thank you, thank you for your time. We hope we can pick up the discussion at a later time also, so we’ll come back to you at some point. Thank you very, very much for your time.

I.Z.: Thank you, it was my pleasure. All the best to you both.


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