3 Dec 2009

Special assistant to U.S. president for National Security Affairs Michael McFaul: Lecturing and wagging the finger is not our style

Moscow hosted the first informal meeting of a Russian-U.S. working groups on civil society under the chairmanship of Russian First Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov and special assistant to the U.S. president for National Security Affairs Michael McFaul. Following the meeting, McFaul gave an interview to Interfax.

Question: Mr McFaul, how did the meeting of the working group on civil society go? What issues were addressed" How often will the group meet in the future?

Answer: So, Mr. Surkov and I just met tonight in the Kremlin. I do not consider it an official meeting of the working group. As the two co-chairs of this working group, we worked out numerous issues to try to make it most effective. The first and most important issue was to try to figure out who are going to be members of this group. It is our view, and I think Mr. Surkov agreed that we‘re going to exchange papers on this, that we want the official working group to be government-to-government but that we would then interact with nongovernmental actors and meet with nongovernmental groups in the course of our interactions in this group. But it is not going to be a mixed nongovernment-and-government group. That‘s the principle that we have for all the working groups in the bilateral commission, that they are government-to-government. So even like the business dialogue and the economics ones, those are all government-to-government but then in parallel we want to encourage nongovernmental groups to meet. Not unlike what happened in July, by the way, when President Obama was here in Moscow.

And then in terms of topics and dates, I think we discussed a wide range of issues that we want to have discussed, I think, you know, we have some things we want to talk about, the Russian government have things they want to talk about. The key to making it successful will be to talk about topics that are mutual interest. So for us just to talk about things that the American side might be interested in and the Russians are not, and vice versa, that‘ll be more difficult to do. But we haven‘t agreed on the topics yet, we had a good discussion, very fruitful, very open, by the way, I don’t personally know Mr. Surkov well, I know lots of his colleagues very well, but we had a very, I would say, free-flowing dialogue about difficult things and not difficult things, and that makes me optimistic about the future. How often we‘ll meet I don‘t know. You remember I‘m in charge of the White House for all issues related to Russia. This is one of many things that I have to do, and I imagine that Mr. Surkov is in charge of many other things in Russia, and this is one of many things he has to do. But I guess it will be fairly frequent, but we didn‘t decide that today.

Q.: But why do you insist that it should be a government-to-government group? And does the Russian side share this attitude?

A.: Well, it was our suggestion. We think it‘s very important to draw the line between state functions and nongovernmental functions. We think it‘s improper for the government to decide who is a real nongovernmental leader and who is not. And that line in my country is a very important line, that we don‘t want the White House saying, You are a legitimate NGO leader and you are an illegitimate leader. That‘s too hard a decision for us to make. And that would cause me personally a lot of problems back home because not everybody can be on this commission, right, if you allowed that. Moreover, there‘s another reason. It seems like Mr. Surkov might have the same problem. I don’t want to speak for him, but he might have the same problem, right? You got to be in, and you don‘t, and maybe that‘s a political decision, it would be the same thing for me. There‘s another reason, though. I see this commission, - and, again, I‘ll let Mr. Surkov speak for himself, - but I see this mission, this commission, as facilitating contacts between American and Russian civil society leaders. So we are supposed to deal with the problems – visas, all the things that can get in the way of connections. If you remember, when President Obama was here in July, and he spoke at the civil society forum, his idea was – we need to have more [unclear] interaction between our nongovernmental leaders, not just our government giving money to your NGOs or vice versa. That‘s had a place, and some of that probably needs to happen, but here‘s a new idea, I think, in this field, is rather than us telling the Russian government how to act and giving money to NGOs, and we‘ll continue to do those things, but a new idea is: let‘s put our societies together. And let the governments get out of the way of those connections, and so I see my job with Mr. Surkov is to help facilitate that kind of activity. But not to dictate it, not to control it. That we want to get out of the way.

Q.: Is it the way in which you hope to deal with points that poisoned our relations in the previous U.S. administration‘s term of office?

A.: I‘m happy to talk about all poisonous topics, I told that to Mr. Surkov. We had a pretty open discussion but we don‘t want to be accusatory. I think you probably noticed with President Obama that he has a different style about talking about these things. He talked about democracy and human rights in his speech at the New Economic School. He then talked about it in the Grazhdansky Forum. I‘m happy to send you the speeches if you don‘t have them handy. In every major speech he‘s given, this is a central theme of his presidency. So, at the United Nations General Assembly, in Cairo, in Moscow, in Prague, - even in Prague, by the way, people forget – this was a central theme. But it is not, it is not his style to lecture people and to wag his finger – he thinks that he has a different approach to it, and I think we as a government and this working group again reflect that different strategy.

Q.: The Democrats in the U.S. have usually paid more attention to democracy and human rights issues than the Republicans. It is true that the Obama administration has a different way of talking to Russia?

A.: I would put it this way: first of all, I‘m a professor first and foremost, I‘m an academic, I‘m not a professional diplomat, I‘m new to this stuff, but I would say as a historian, somebody who‘s written about U.S.-Russia relations and U.S.-Soviet relations, in fact sometimes the Democrats are more critical and sometimes not. Ronald Reagan spoke a lot about democracy and human rights, and he was a Republican. Richard Nixon hardly spoke about it at all, he was also a Republican. So it‘s a little more complicated, and I would say, frankly, that Obama‘s approach is more like Ronald Reagan than anybody else. Let me explain why I think that. His approach is: we have business to do with the Russian government. And we‘re going to do that, we‘re going to – perezagruzit [reset], right? – we‘re going to reset our relations with the Russian government. And we have mutual interests, and he is pursuing them very vigorously, with the new START agreement, with Afghanistan, with Iran, and we‘re achieving results, we‘re doing real things, in the world, on those three fronts. North Korea I would add to that, and that‘s a very positive thing. And at the same time, and in parallel, we are also going to reset our relations with Russian society. That‘s exactly what he said when he was here in July. So it‘s a parallel track – engagement with the government and engagement with civil society. And we‘re not going to allow the engagement of the government because we want it so bad to stop our engagement of society. That‘s his basic concept. That‘s definitely different than some Republicans. And again in my mind, it reminds me of Ronald Reagan, who always had his doubts about the regime here, and it‘s not exactly right because obviously this is not Cold War, and this is not the Soviet Union. But even during the difficult times of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan spoke to the Soviet leaders about things of mutual interest, and at the same time talked about democracy and human rights. And I see what President Obama is trying to do is to say we can do these things both at the same time. And I would add one more hypothesis, and it‘s an idea so far, it hasn‘t been realized – that if we have a more constructive and substantive relationship with the Russian government and not just a confrontational relationship, an accusatory relationship, that will create permissive conditions for more interaction between our societies. It‘ll create a better atmosphere, and will make it easier for our societies. It‘s just a hypothesis, we don‘t know it it‘ll ever work, but that‘s the idea that we‘re pursuing.

Q.: But will the U.S. keep supporting Russian civil society, including financially?

A.: Absolutely. The budgets for democracy assistance to Russia between this year and last year remain the same. We have not cut those budgets at all. And moreover, when there are violations of democracy and human rights, we are going to speak openly about that. When Miss Estemirova was murdered, President Obama issued a statement about it, I would encourage you to look at it. When Secretary Clinton is here tomorrow, she will meet with Mr. Lavrov, she will meet with Mr. Medvedev, and she will also meet with leaders of civil society at Spaso House. In that regard I don’t see any change in what we‘re trying to do. And I encourage it on the other side, by the way. The Russian government is also now encouraging development of civil society in the United States. I just met with Mr. Migranyan last week, I think it‘s fantastic that he is there in New York doing what he‘s doing. Maybe I don‘t know he‘s agreed with [everything], I‘ve known Mr. Migranyan for a long time, but that principle that he should be working freely in the United States of America is fantastic.

Q.: When will you finalize the work?

A.: I think soon. In the next week or so.

Q.: And the working group will start working before the end of the year?

A.: Yes. Exactly.

Q.: Do you share civil society activists‘ concerns about Surkov‘s being a co-chair of the working group?

A.: As I said, for the government as a whole, and I believe it with Mr. Surkov personally, this is not the only channel through which we are going to try to support civil society developments in Russia. Later tonight I will meet with civil society activists. Tomorrow I‘ll spend a good chunk of my day personally meeting with opposition figures, civil society leaders, some of whom have been my friends for over 30 years, just so you understand these are not people I‘ve met for the first time because I‘m in government. I met them in 1990, 1998. Mr. Podrabinek I met 25 years ago.

Q.: Do share human rights activists‘ concerns about Russian journalist Alexander Podrabinek?

A.: Of course. Personally, yes. But I want to make clear – in engaging with Mr. Surkov, I don‘t think – in no way is it antithetical to meeting with other people and doing other things. I think of it [the working group] as one of many channels to try to advance civil society development in Russia. Not the only channel, one of many. And for us to exchange ideas about civil society development in America, civil society development in Russia, including delicate issues like anti-corruption. It‘s an important issue that he as president wants to pursue. We‘ve a long history with corruption in the United States, we‘ve developed new mechanisms for dealing with corruption, and if we can have a useful exchange about that, I think that‘s useful.

Q.: Do you know something about consultations about ABM which were going on today? Do they have any results?

A.: Well I would just say this, because I haven’t heard the full briefing, these would be good questions for Secretary Clinton tomorrow. But I would say a couple of things I know for sure. One is, President Medvedev and President Obama, in each of their meetings, in April in London, in Moscow in July and again in New York in September, have affirmed that they both want to see cooperative missile defense. And especially in September, when President Medvedev and President Obama met. I was there, of course, as I am for all these meetings. It could not have been clear to me, that President Medvedev sees cooperative missiles defense with the United Stets as something in Russia’s strategic interests. So we had come on this trip with some very concrete ideas for how we can begin that process. Obviously, it’s going to take some time, as people have old ways of thinking about these things. But I think there is just no doubt that Russia has assets that could be useful for our security and the security of our allies and we have assets that could be of use to Russia’s security and Russia‘ allies. So, I hope, this is the beginning of what I hope will be very fruitful negotiations

Q.: And what about Ukraine? Controversial Vershbow’s statement on including Ukraine in cooperation between Russia and the United States on missile defense?

A.: I think Assistant Secretary of Defense Vershbow was misquoted. I have been involved in the entire process of the decision-making around missile defense. We see cooperation with all countries in all ways. Never has Ukraine come up yet as a possibility. We are focused right now on building our European missile defense system and are getting our allies in line with that. And second, in terms of this part of the world, we are working with Russia. And that is our highest priority.

Q.: Where exactly can it be deployed in Caucasus? The Pentagon mentioned that it can be deployed in the Caucasus. Can you name these countries?

A.: We can’t name countries, because there is no decision on that. The definition of the Caucasus in our understanding is much wider than the common definition here in Russia.

Q.: Georgia?

A.: We have not pursued any of those ideas. I’ll remind you that you have radars in that part of the world, too. So if we want to work on this, we have some assets that we can use together.

Q.: Do you agree that the question of Iran if the main issue of “perezagruzka”?

A.: I would say yes. We have a very important thing that we tried to do fr om the very beginning was to say that we have a multi-faceted relationship with Russia and that we don‘t want just to do arms control or just be in confrontation over Georgia. We think, and the president said that in his speeches and in his meetings with President Medvedev, we want to have a multi-faceted relationship because there‘s a lot of underdeveloped pieces of the relationship that we need to cultivate. I could go through the list there are many and we want to do them all together, and I think that‘ll be the thrust of what Secretary Clinton in her conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov tomorrow. Having said that, right now we are faced with a very concrete situation that is a threat to American national interests and a threat to our allies, and we don‘t see that we have any disagreement with Russia in the assessment of that threat. What we are seeking to do in cooperation with Russia, and I would say that we are very pleased with our cooperation with Russia right now on the issue of Iran, is to find a way through negotiation that we can resolve peacefully the situation, and we have a very concrete idea that you all know of already, Russia‘s instrumental of making that happen, and you let‘s hope that diplomacy works here.

Q.: But until recently there was a dominant move in Moscow that the Iranian threat is largely exaggerated by the American side and we should not just fall in line with the Americans putting pressure on Iraq. This was the position until recently. There is a powerful pro-Iranian lobby here. So how are you going to solve this question?

A.: That sounds like a question for one of your experts on Russia. You should ask them, that‘s not a question to me. I also know who is the commander-in-chief and the chief foreign policy maker in your country, and I don‘t see any disagreement between what he says and what the prime minister says. I think those that try to overstate those differences – that‘s definitely not our position, we are very pleased with what the president has said publicly and privately on this issue.

Q.: But you have a feeling that Russia’s position is changing on Iran?

A.: I think so, yes. I think we are in a much more cooperative relationship with Russia today than we were more certainly to go back a year ago and think about where the relationship was in October 2008 in the wake of Georgia, when threats of going back to the Cold War and lots of animosity. I read your press, and I‘m sure you read our press, those were pretty difficult times, I think we are in a much better place in terms of U.S.-Russia relations.

Q.: What is the most difficult topic for the moment in negotiations with Russia? Is it Iran or a START follow-on treaty, Russia’s relations with its neighbors?

A.: I would say one of the most fundamental disagreement we have with the Russian government today is over the borders of the country of Georgia. We just have a fundamental disagreement there. I don‘t see any time we are going to resolve that anytime soon. The challenge therefore is to not allow that disagreement to escalate into tensions in the Caucasus again, and that I think is a very difficult challenge. It is our view as a government that it would be confidence-building to have more international monitors on the other sides of the border in the region of Abkhazia and in the region of South Ossetia, which I consider an we consider to be part of Georgia. We have not succeeded in that, so I would say that is a central challenge. But I would emphasize it‘s a challenge we are managing, the incident prevention mechanism I think is working rather well. I think the European monitors that are there are also doing a very good job, and I think the communication between the American government and the Russian government is allowing us to diffuse these kinds of things. In a similar way, what happened in Switzerland with the opening of relations between Armenia and Turkey, your foreign minister played a crucial role in making that happen and worked very closely with Secretary Clinton to make that happen. That‘s an instance where a better, you know, the reset wh ere we have substantive conversations about our interests and your interests as Russia and the U.S. We can then work together to solve this third-area problem. So I wouldn‘t define that as difficult, worse than others, and I would also just emphasize that we have long ways to go, we have many big problems ahead of us, this is just the first year of this new relationship.

Q.: Will the U.S. continue to raise the issue of presence of international monitors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

A.: Absolutely. Every time we had a senior level meeting, these issues come up.