We are united by the threats we face

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

Alexander Yakovenko, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, sets out his vision for co-operation.

“What is most lacking in the human body in the 21st century?”, an illustrious Russian surgeon was asked during the celebration of his 100th birthday.

“Optimism”, answered the doctor, ever young at heart. “Optimism cures.”

It looks as if Russian-British relations need a good dose of optimism in order to fully recover. Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, calls this dose “guarded optimism.” A career diplomat, academic, international lawyer and writer, Dr Yakovenko handed in his credentials to the Queen in March. Prior to his appointment to London, Dr Yakovenko was deputy foreign minister of Russia for five years.

In the mid-Nineties, as deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry International Technical Cooperation Department, Dr Yakovenko headed up the Russian delegation at the negotiations on the International Space Station. He recalled later that an unprecedented level of openness had been achieved during this work. As it went along, certain regulations that impeded the “link-up” of space co-operation had to be amended, but “as a result, we 
had the most vivid example of how countries can co-operate for common good.”

Probably the only serious obstacle to a full link-up between Russia and Britain on the way to mutually beneficial co-operation is the impasse caused by the well-documented extradition disputes. Perhaps the two countries’ diplomats will be able to set a new precedent of openness that will take us down a straight path to mutual prosperity.

Here, Dr Yakovenko outlines his strategy for progress.

Globalisation in general and the current crisis in particular show with great clarity that in the 21st-century, Russia and the UK have no reason to stand apart but, of course, a healthy competition remains.

The complex character and unprecedented nature of the problems every government faces are dictating the overall agenda of the day, which has to be implemented despite the current misunderstandings and disagreements on some issues. But it is also important to remember the special role of our countries in international affairs, as Russia and the UK are permanent members of the UN Security Council, Group of Eight, and the G20.

It is time we openly admitted that the cooling of Russian-British relations has not only impaired bilateral contacts; it is in stark contrast with the active co-operation between Moscow and London on a broad spectrum of international problems in the various multilateral forms . The mistrust needs to be overcome by the combined efforts of the governments with the wider involvement of civil society.

Interestingly, the mindsets of the political classes of our countries run parallel on a number of issues. In Russia, people are starting to think about ways of mobilising civil initiatives and consolidating the country’s legal framework to overcome the corruption that is obstructing economic development and hampering social progress. In the UK, people are debating the ideas behind David Cameron’s “Big Society”, which are intended to lighten the load on government structures by decentralising the way the country 
is run and creating the 
necessary conditions for citizens’ bold ideas to come to fruition and to alleviate 
social tension.

United by challenges

Speaking as a diplomat, whose job it is to observe the inner workings of the UK, I have concluded that many of the threats and challenges we both face actually unite us. Recognition of this common ground is what forms the basis of the political connections that have recently been resumed between our countries.

And are we not united by the problems of international terrorism and the proliferation of WMD, the drug trade, organised crime and illegal immigration? Do we not need to have an open and honest talk, albeit from different historical perspectives, about the future of democracy and sustainable models of socio-
economic development in the 21st century? How can we collaborate in our response to criminals’ use of digital technology?

These are just the first in a catalogue of intergovernmental issues requiring immediate and daily responses. And all this is happening when, with every technological breakthrough, with every new tourist visiting our cities, and with every new cross-cultural marriage, our societies are becoming closer.

The estrangement at an official level has become ever more out of touch with this reality. This has started to be recognised in the British capital . Hence also the conclusion drawn by President Dmitry Medvedev following his conversation with Prime Minister David Cameron in June 2010 in Huntsville, when he said: “UK-Russia relations require adjustment and top-level attention.”

Over the past year or so, some foundations have been laid in the area of Russian-British relations that allow us to look to the future of our partnership with guarded optimism. Authorised Russian and British government bodies are now collaborating in the fields of sport, culture, space, justice, the fight with the illegal drug trade, and many other areas.

Mutual respect

Our most immediate task is to build on the level of co-operation that has been achieved through a dialogue of mutual respect, and to expand significantly the scope of our collaboration. The co-ordinated response of Moscow and London to the challenges of our time and the ability of the countries’ leaders to understand and identify with one another will have a major impact on the harmonisation of our own relations and modern international relations as a whole.

Russian-British collaboration in the sphere of trade and investment is an exceptionally important element in the whole set-up of our relationship . Its momentum has hardly been affected by the political situation, and the negative effects of the global financial crisis are being successfully overcome.

I would especially like to note that today, probably as never before, Russia and the UK are at a stage where their paths are converging. This is a particular instance of the global tendency towards synthesis and fusion. The common strategic aim is to encourage economic growth through modernisation and innovation, to expand foreign trade and attract capital from abroad. Both countries, like many of our other partners in the northern hemisphere, need to find sources of growth and new ways of increasing their 

Fiscal consolidation

The UK is currently going through a phase of rapid fiscal consolidation, which is a key component of the Coalition Government’s strategy for promoting sustainable independent development of the country in conditions of crisis. The wheels of state are trying to cut expenses and increase income to eliminate the budget deficit. Budgetary injections to support the momentum of developments in the markets and various sectors, as used in the first years of the crisis, are now virtually non-existent, as they would lead to further rapid growth of government debt. And I do not need to remind you how much consideration economists and experts are currently giving the problem of sovereign debt.

In Russia, the situation is different. Here, the budget deficit and government debt is substantially lower than that of many Western countries. But our foreign trade, and in fact the economy as a whole, continues to be dependent on the export of raw materials and energy resources. Trade figures between our two countries are indeed a very clear illustration of this – in 2010 around 75 pc of Russian exports to the UK were mineral fuels, amounting to around $8.5bn (£5.1bn). In Russia, it is widely understood that there cannot be a modern trade structure unless the economy is diversified; that we must not be content with inorganic methods, and that we need a systematic technological breakthrough. Hence our determination to develop the innovation sector, including biomedicine and nanotechnology. The projects for the Skolkovo innovation centre and the international financial centre in Moscow – these are all component elements in the modernisation agenda for Russia.

Modernising together

I do not consider Russia and the UK to be competitors in the sphere of innovation. The idea that “the early bird catches the worm” does not work in this context. We are very capable of moving on along the path of modernisation together. For example, what could stop companies from working in Skolkovo and the equivalent hi-tech centre in London’s Shoreditch at the same time? Both these centres have their advantages. For example, we have a large educated and well-qualified workforce and low income tax. And modern communications allow companies to work together effectively – 
regardless of borders and 
time zones.

There are good prospects for collaboration in the field 
of energy efficiency, which would not only help tackle the challenges of climate change, but also help us to be more competitive.

There are also other areas where our interests coincide, and where we can achieve substantial results by combining our efforts. In 2009, the governments of the two countries resumed a bilateral economic dialogue on a high level in the form of the Intergovernmental Steering Committee on Trade and Investment. In particular, six key areas were identified as the most promising for the future development of our co-operation , requiring special attention from both parties: the financial services sector; the sphere of high technology; the energy and energy-efficiency sector; strategies for improving the business climate, including access to markets; the promotion of small and medium-sized businesses and the expansion of regional co-
operation, and finally, the 
Olympic legacy and the 
successful development of a sports infrastructure.

It seems obvious that all of these areas, without exception, are important not only for developing bilateral co-operation, but also for 
multifaceted modernisation in our countries.

A good example of co-operation in the most modern fields is the links established between Roscosmos and the UK Space Agency. A collaboration programme has been approved, and this was given particular symbolism by UK-Russia Year of Space, which took place on a large scale, culminating in the unveiling of the statue of Yuri Gagarin in the centre of London on the 50th anniversary of his trip to England. It was a real celebration which allowed us to relive the mutual feelings of joy at his success, which became an achievement for all mankind.

Nations united: the monument to Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, is unveiled in the 
Mall, London, on July 14. Guests included Alexander Yakovenko, left; Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, centre; Nataliya Koroleva, daughter of Sergei Korolev, Soviet lead rocket 
engineer, second right, and Elena Gagarina, daughter of Yuri Gagarin, right

I especially want to focus on the importance of cultural ties and contacts between people overall in modern diplomacy and in Russian-British relations. On the one hand, promotion of these is one of the ultimate aims of foreign policy, as access to culture and freedom of international connections is a vital condition for the successful development of any society. On the other, it is human links which, to a very great degree, enable the growth of mutual understanding between nations and create a positive background for relations at an intergovernmental level, as they strengthen mutual trust.

Beatles to Hamlet

The way Russian people think of the UK is largely shaped by the images formed at a young age – ranging from the Beatles to Hamlet to Sherlock Holmes. Russian culture has also become part of the fabric of everyday life for ordinary Britons, and is just as much loved by them. A recent survey of British actors showed that they rate Anton Chekhov as the best playwright after William Shakespeare. I am sure that in Russia no one would argue with the fairness of this judgement.

Tours by Russian theatre companies in the UK are met with invariable success, and the names of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky are dear to every educated person. Russian contemporary art also attracts an audience here, and we, along with our British partners, are working hard to encourage this.

Every year more than 200,000 Britons visit Russia and about the same number of Russian citizens make trips to the UK. These are quite impressive figures, but we would like them to be higher. Personal impressions are much stronger than crude stereotypes, and every direct contact will help to dispel mutual prejudices which were inherited from the 
previous era.

Removal of visas

It is in the interests of Britain and Russia to make joint steps towards the alleviation, and, eventually, the removal of visa restrictions between our countries. This is the direction in which we are moving in our relations with the European Union. Significant progress has already been made with a whole range of other countries, including the United States. I think it is important that Russian-British relations should not fall behind this general trend in modern international relations which, in this way, are taking on a human face in the full sense of the word.

Finally, we should not forget that there is a new and very different competitive environment forming in the world. The fight for a “place in the sun” in the international community is not being fought with dreadnoughts and warplanes; instead, nations are strengthening their own development potential and network diplomacy to build relationships of co-operation with the maximum number of partners.

This is, most probably, the foremost priority of modern foreign policy today.

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