Alexander Yakovenko: A diplomat is a patriot, well-educated, and interesting

Alexander Yakovenko. Source: Menu magazine

Alexander Yakovenko. Source: Menu magazine

Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko spoke with Azamat Tseboyev of Menu magazine about Russian-British relations, cultural exchange, business ties and how the two countries can work together to combat the challenges facing the world today

Menu: You came to London in early 2011. Which of the common stereotypes about Britain have you discarded since you took office?

Alexander Yakovenko: The first stereotype is that relations between the UK and Russia are not very good. This is, in fact, a simplistic, black-and-white approach. Indeed, for some historic reasons, the relations between the governments have been anything but simple over the last few years. Even so, economic relations are good. British investment in Russia has reached $21 billion and our investment here amounts to $5 billion.

Over the last 12 months, there has been a 50 percent increase in mutual trade. Six hundred British companies operate in Russia, which is quite a lot. Our companies are heavily represented in the City, London’s financial district. Of these, over 70 are listed on the LSE. Economic relations have thus acted as a counter-balance to the political difficulties caused by the Litvinenko case.

When it comes to cultural contacts, they are traditionally very close. Russian culture – from classical music to arts – has always been in demand in the UK. This was evident during Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Russia this September, when a joint statement gave a long list of cultural events scheduled for the near future.

As for people-to-people contacts, tourist traffic remains quite stable; however, we should factor in the difficulties that Russians face in obtaining British visas.

We are working with the British side to have new, milder visa requirements. The Russian visa regime for the British is very liberal: you can have an urgent visa within 24 hours and a regular one is available within 72 hours. Our visa application form is a two-page paper, whereas the British visa application form contains 101 questions. Naturally, we look to provide Russians with additional opportunities to travel to the UK, and the same holds for the countries of the Schengen area.

The political relations between our countries have, I must say, improved considerably this year. We have embarked on political dialogue, which was the main reason for Prime Minister Cameron’s visit to Moscow. The two leaders [Cameron and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev] signed a declaration on a knowledge-based partnership for modernization, envisaging active development of bilateral relations, including cooperation in hi-tech, which is a good signal to Russian and British business.

Indeed, there are stereotypes, but on closer examination they have many nuances.

They are not always properly covered in British newspapers, though. We would like to see descriptions of Russian developments painted in brighter colors. In this respect, my meeting with the leading British bloggers a few days ago proved to be very interesting. They are fascinating and quick-witted people.

Menu: You met with political bloggers?

A.Y.: Mostly political, but they do not confine themselves to just politics. I must say that bloggers tend to see more aspects of life than many columnists, who still use old templates to write about Russia. For our part, we will do our best to facilitate a better understanding of Russia.

Our relations are developing, backed by the two foreign ministries. The visit by [British] Foreign Secretary William Hague to Moscow late last year and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to London in February 2011 were to consolidate the new trends, the new moods that prevail now.

My personal opinion is that the British have a traditionally welcoming attitude to the Russian ambassador. I would say even that they are conspicuously welcoming. Despite the different viewpoints that we often exchange, we can speak about good relations between the two countries. The fact that we were allies fighting on the same side about 70 years ago has not been forgotten.

Menu: Which traditions does domestic diplomacy follow in relations with the UK – Russian or Soviet?

A.Y.: I believe we have a symbiosis of both. We have inherited very serious training from Soviet diplomacy, including linguistic training and a good knowledge of history. Both Soviet and Russian diplomacy have always taken an active position in international affairs; our delegations have traditionally been among the strongest players during most negotiations. One peculiarity of the current period is that time in international relations has become compressed and global development processes are accelerating. What used to take decades now takes years. The political environment is changing, and we are observing the commencement of processes that would hardly have been anticipated in such a short time span – take the Arab Spring or consolidation of pragmatic integration processes in the former Soviet Union, based on shared development priorities, including efforts to address the global crisis.

Life has changed very fast, and new forms of diplomatic work have been called for, including new forms of work with the media. Now it is important to not only convince your counterpart at the negotiating table, but also to inform the public why you take this position. Now that the media, especially television and the Internet, often play the key role in presenting particular processes and the way the broad public perceives them, diplomacy has no right to confine itself to its own framework. It should be active on the media frontline. This is a new component of our work, and we are managing to adapt to reality quite fast. I suppose we need to make more use of the blogosphere in order to bring our position home to thinking people.


Menu: Do you tweet?

A.Y.: I set up an account on Twitter a few months ago. I like it there. It is republished on the website of the embassy, next to the newswire. I share my impressions about my trips and meetings and announce events of importance to me. In my opinion, this blog is an active addition to the embassy’s work. Needless to say, an ambassador is a political figure, and it is natural that I provide political evaluations when appropriate. Yet the blog has its limitations, so the major information flow goes via the website, where our stance is described in much more detail. As for the blog, it serves to give alerts about interesting events. I like this format a lot, as it adds a personal touch to my relations with the country in which I now work. The comments that the blog receives prove that this work does not go unnoticed.

Menu: Many of our fellow countrymen live in London and the UK in general. What do you think attracts Russians here?

A.Y.: I believe the first motive is the chance to learn something – many come to the UK for educational purposes. Second, many Russian companies have opened offices here, because London is in a convenient location. Furthermore, London has a serious business school – an important work platform, specifically for young beginner businessmen. Lastly, London stands for the international community. Because the Russian economy is connected literally with the entire world, it is natural to work in a place where many countries are represented. This saves resources. It is a combination of these factors that makes London so attractive.

Menu: Which of the London lifestyles would you like to see adopted in Moscow?

A.Y.: Definitely not driving on the left! Seriously speaking, I love British museums and I like the way the British absorb various cultures. I respect their almost sacred respect for traditions. Also, they take great care of the environment. Look at London – it is a city of parks! The way nearly all corners of the world are represented here makes it clear that this experience has been accumulated for centuries. This expertise enables serious work with other countries. I believe that the protocol of the British Foreign Office is one of the best elaborated and strongest in the world, and we have much to learn here. There are many things that we could adopt.

Menu: What could we introduce to the UK? What could we teach the British?

A.Y.: I believe the UK is primarily interested in our culture. Second, we have a strong science background, and the British would be very interested in commercializing our science. It seems we have a lot to share in certain elements of state governance and the economy. In fact, over the last 20 years, we have come a long and exciting way, creating more flexible systems than those underpinning the British development model – its drawbacks brought about the global crisis, especially the focus on the finance sector at the expense of the real economy and new jobs.

Menu: In your opinion, are the differences in viewpoints between our countries strategic or tactical?

You know, I assume that all normal countries live in accordance with their own interests and, where these national interests do not coincide, there will be competition, whereas where they agree, there will be shared interests. Any serious country has its own policy and it is a different thing how you pursue it during a given period of time. If you build it the right way, it will not be antagonistic to other nations, even if there are discrepancies and differences on certain issues. There is healthy competition and the one with the faster-growing economy will feel more confident.


Menu: With regard to, say, the developing nations of southeast Asia and the Arab states, are we allies or rivals?

A.Y.:  I can put it this way: we have a stronger position than that of the West. If we take a look at the countries that vote the way Russia does in the UN General Assembly, we will see that, on most issues, we share the same positions with the countries you mentioned rather than with the western nations.

Menu: How does a diplomatic career influence a person? Or is it the other way around – the character defines the career choice?

A.Y.: Of course, your career makes a strong impact on your personality. A good education is a must for a diplomat, which already influences you. Speaking foreign languages is also an essential aspect – without it you won’t be able to sense the person you speak to, because contact with a person and the degree to which you are able to convey your thoughts are absolutely different depending on whether you speak the same language or communicate via an interpreter. Furthermore, diplomats tend to think twice before making a statement and always think about the short- and long-term consequences of what they say. They have to have a thorough knowledge not only of history but also of technology, and have to see the practical problems in the society in which they happen to work, which also calls for special knowledge in many areas. It is of critical importance that a diplomat should represent his country commendably and assert its interests expertly.

In sum, a true diplomat is first of all a patriot, a well-educated, even-minded and interesting person with a mandatory sense of humor.

Menu: Have you made any special contacts with the local establishment since assuming the office of ambassador?

A.Y.: The main challenge for me during the initial phase is to get acquainted with all the ministers, MPs and lords, opinion leaders in science, arts and culture, editors-in-chief of the leading newspapers. The second phase envisages bringing a specific point of view to their notice, justifying and defending it on the basis of assignments received from Moscow. This calls for serious efforts that require much energy, but it is very rewarding work. When your interlocutors start sharing your judgments and having the right attitude to your country, then the emotional feedback is great. It is of major importance to me, because a person cannot represent a country unless he loves it and plans to continue living in it. It is a matter of principle. Otherwise, you should give up on diplomacy. So the higher Russia’s authority in the eyes of serious interlocutors, who can influence political decision-making, the more satisfaction I gain from my work. This is one of the results of my work. Also important are specific results, when the two countries manage to reach positive agreements. In this regard, I believe that the visit by Prime Minister David Cameron this September was a success, as it gave a serious boost to our relations. If the embassy ultimately manages to contribute to building the edifice of bilateral relations, then we’ll be able to say that our work here was not in vain.

Menu: What are you planning to do during the next year to promote relations?

A.Y.: We would like to organize a sort of Russian culture season. We are looking for interesting ideas how to represent modern Russia, what to bring to the UK to amaze the British. For instance, we will propose to our leading jewelery houses that they make jewelery following Karl Fabergé’s sketches that were recently discovered in the Hermitage gallery vaults. The embassy has recently presented these sketches to the British public in association with the British Friends of the Hermitage foundation. The name Fabergé sounds magical to everyone, including the British. It is a key to many doors. Our cultural policy in the UK should combine exciting subject matter with expert presentation, then this policy will be successful.

Overall, we need more projects to provide adequate and interesting information about the processes going on in Russia. The British eagerly respond to everything that is new and fresh and have a subtle understanding of the economic situation. Despite some offensive media publications, I observe a genuine interest on the part of the British business in promoting investment in Russia. British businessmen are perfectly aware that the country is on the rise and shows a growing investment potential. It seems that all viable projects in the economy, science and arts will eventually be called for. The more joint initiative we have, the better it will be for bilateral relations.

Menu: How is Russian business involved in the cultural exchange?

A.Y.: Our businesses sponsor various events, tours and exhibitions. Everything depends on the company’s capacity and its own preferences. Some projects are implemented jointly with big British companies working on the Russian market that support our art within the framework of charitable projects. For example, a British company sponsors the UK tour of the Mariinsky Theater. There are also projects in other areas. I would like to see the fabric of these bilateral contacts grow stronger. I hope that, in a while, we will reach a level of cultural relations enabling us to hold Years of the United Kingdom in Russia and vice versa. I am certain that we have what it takes. But in order to approach this important phase, we need to make some progress in the sphere of political relations.

First published in the Menu magazine  

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