Grigory Pasko: Interview with Andrei Illarionov, Part 1

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Andrei Illarionov: “Interest in Venezuela – this is part of the big strategy”

Grigory Pasko, journalist

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President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev recently carried out visits to the countries of Africa. Before this we observed his voyage to the countries of Latin America. What is this intense interest of the Russian president in such faraway countries brought about by? Why not seek friends and partners in business closer to Russia? Medvedev himself said it this way: “…We did not devote that much attention to sufficiently faraway continents, ones such as Africa, Latin America, but now we are simply duty-bound to do this. This is our close-in-spirit neighbors, this is countries that we really have helped and which, on the one hand, are developing very tempestuously, and on the other hand, that have very many problems.”

As a philologist, I can make such a conclusion from this citation: kind and wealthy Russia wants to help those who are “close-in-spirit,” but having problems, like Egyptians, Nigerians, Namibians, Venezuelans… Perhaps it is not the mind of a philologist that are needed for an understanding of the situation. This is exactly why I turned for answers to my questions to a famous and experienced person – Senior Researcher of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity of the Cato Institute in Washington, president of the Institute for Economic Analysis Andrei Illarionov. Andrei Nikolayevich in the period from the year 2000 through 27 December of the year 2005 was an advisor to the president of Russia.

Andrei Nikolayevich! Foreign policy in the times of Putin began to shift from the customary orbits and to move at times to unexpected not so much places as even sides of the world. Thus, our friends now are not Ukraine with Byelorussia, but Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Bolivia… How and by what, in your view, is the interest of the current power of the RF in the countries of Latin America brought about and justified?

The interest of the Russian leadership is manifested not only andnot so much towards the countries of Latin America as towards thecountries of Latin America that are rich in natural resources, andespecially energy resources. It is not by chance that in first place onthis list are Venezuela and Bolivia.

It is not a secret that the basis of mutual relations with Venezuela- is the sale of arms. Will this not have an impact on the situation inthat region, on further relations with the USA?

In shipments of arms to any region of the world and to any countrythere are elements of a commercial and a political character. Now – asopposed to the Soviet time – arms are shipped to where they can pay forthem. At the same time, such shipments reflect the level of relationswith the leadership of the purchaser-country of the arms.

As concerns shipments of Russian arms to Venezuela, they – are theresult of rather trusting relations between Mr. Chavez and the Russianauthorities. On the one hand, these reflect the presence of solventdemand in Venezuela, on the other – a desire to prop up precisely thispolitical regime in Latin America, a regime that in a whole series ofquestions would like itself to be perceived in the capacity of an allyof the Russian authorities. It is obvious that mutual relations betweenthe leadership of today’s Russia and the leadership of today’sVenezuela go beyond just energy cooperation, shipments of arms andmilitary hardware.

That is, we shouldn’t be surprised that over there the opposition ispersecuted, the term of the presidency has been increased, the oilindustry has been nationalized, those who think differently are beingpersecuted…

We should not write everything that is happening in Venezuela off tothe influence of Russian advisors. Venezuela has its own originalpublic figure, and much of what he does is based on his own thinking.However, a comparison of how he was acting 10 years ago and how he isacting now gets one thinking. The methodologies of his current actionshave not merely changed, they have begun to be strongly reminiscent ofthe actions of the Russian authorities.

What do you think about the state of the opposition in Venezuela?

I am not familiar in detail with what is going on in Venezuela.However, in recent times the opposition there is gathering strength.Despite the pressure, despite the monopolization of the massinformation media half a year ago the opposition was able toeffectively win the referendum announced by Chavez.

How real, in your opinion, is the possibility of the moderatereformers in this region (the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay)turning left?

The actions of the leadership of today’s Venezuela, as it seems tome, could serve as a good inoculation for the authorities of othercountries of Latin America. Venezuela plays the role of a sufficientlystrong warning not to go along that path.

One Russian expert wrote thus: «Russia is completely in its rightsto declare about its strategic interests in the Western Hemisphereagainst the background of the declarations of the USA about itsinterests on the post-Soviet space». But why was Russia not able todeclare about its interests on the post-Soviet space?

To be honest, I don’t recall that anybody of the official persons ofthe USA would have declared about the interests of the USA on thepost-Soviet space. Likewise I don’t recall that anybody of therepresentatives of European or some kind of other civilized countrieswould have declared about the presence for these countries of zones orspheres of interests on the post-Soviet space. Unlike the Russianleadership, which not only regularly declares about the presence ofsuch zones, but also implements coercive-force actions in relation tocountries that have turned out to be, in its opinion, inside theconfines of such zones.

The ideologists of the current policy of the Kremlin in LatinAmerica are saying that «the principal direction of cooperation willlie in the sphere of the production and refining of oil and theassistance that Russia can render in the construction of the so-called«South-American gas ring». You have likewise spoken about the presenceof gas and oil, as mandatory attributes of the conducting of Russianpolicy in that region. But it is known that reserves of oil and gas arenot inexhaustible…

The forecast that oil on earth will end is something we have beenhearing from the times of the reports of the Rome Club in the beginningof the 1970s. In those nearly 40 years that have passed from the timeof its first report, proven reserves of oil on the planet haveincreased many-fold. This does not signify that resources of oil areinexhaustible. But this does signify that, at the very least, in thecourse of the next few decades oil will remain one of the mostimportant energy inputs for humanity.

Taking advantage of your question, I would point out that the Russianleadership is showing interest not only in the resource-rich countriesof Latin America, but also in the resource-rich countries of Africa[our conversation took place several days before the official andpompous visits of Medvedev to Africa – Egypt, Nigeria, Nabibia–G.P.].In other words, the interest in the countries of Latin America is but apart of a large-scale strategy of the Russian leadership to establishand intensify its influence on shipments of resources to the worldmarket. This strategy touches upon not only the territory of Russia andthe countries neighboring it – Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, not onlytransit countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the countries of theBaltic, but also, it would seem, other regions of the world.

A childish question: what is your attitude towards the leader-for-life rule of people like Castro, Kim Jong-Il, Putin, Chavez..

The answer to your question is obvious. At the same time, it does notseem to me that the persons mentioned by you are fated to lifetime rule.

Chavez has declared that “if he receives the corresponding signals fromObama, then he will be “not only ready, but even obligated to treatthem with all seriousness and responsibility”. At the summit of thecountries of America they were patting each other on the shoulders andsmiling broadly. Does this mean anything?

I would not overestimate diplomatic smiles, handshakes, and pats onthe shoulder.  International relations – are a slightly more complexphenomenon than diplomatic protocol and personal relations. Although,of course, symbolic gestures are also important. However, for now it isnot noticeable that the American administration has radically changedits attitude toward Venezuela.

Could one speak about at least some kind of real economic advantage forRussia from cooperation with the countries of Latin America?

Without any doubt whatsoever. The more intensive they appear, thebetter, as a rule, this is both for us and, I hope, for them. Ifcommercial, trading, investment, cultural, scientific, sports relationsare developing, then such cooperation can only be welcomed. But if whatwe’re talking about is shipments of arms to non-democratic regimes,then a serious question arises: for the sake of what and against whomare we «friends»?

Indeed, it seems to be some sort of selective friendship…

For example, the current Russian leadership does not have a particularfriendship with Chile. Although this Latin American country – is notpoor in the natural regard. And in the economic and institutionalregards it is more developed and offers quite a few opportunities forbusiness. But relations between Russia and Chili are very distant intheir character from relations between Russia and Venezuela. And yetthe current president of Chile adheres to sufficiently leftist views.

But Ms. Bachelet was raised in Germany, and has been through jail, and the persecution of her parents…

Perhaps one of the reasons for the differences in the approaches to thetwo countries comes down to the fact that Chile remains a stabledemocracy.

Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that it is not interesting to the current leadership of Russia?

Perhaps.

Thank you for the conversation!

Image: Andrei Illarionov (photo by Grigory Pasko)

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