Union Interview: Russian Minister-Counsellor to Great Britain, Alexander Kramerenko on Ukraine, Litvinenko and the LGBT+ Question.

Oliver James 19 May 2014

Alexander Kramerenko is Russian Minister-Counsellor to Great Britain.  He spoke to Oliver James about Litvinenko, Ukraine and the Eurovision.

The Russian government refused to extradite key suspect Andrei Lugovoy after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, due to his political immunity.  Has this political stalemate affected UK-Russian relations ?
It certainly affected our relationship a lot, more so in the past, but we’re on the move to a better relationship over the past 3 years under the coalition government. 

I think that, in terms of the Litvinenko case, it was a breakthrough for the coroner’s inquest to start a year and a half ago, just because of the allegations that the Russian government was possibly the most interested party in getting to the truth of the matter. The crime was committed here, if it was a crime, and we still haven’t got any, let’s say ‘death certificate’.  I think establishing the truth is quite important. That’s what we hoped for when the coroner’s inquest started and our investigative committee is an interested party in that coroner’ inquest.

I think it’s up to the British government to decide if they want to move from the coroner’s inquest to something else, but we are quite happy with the coroner’s inquest.

Concerning the crisis in Ukraine, referenda in Lugansk and Donetsk in favor of ceding from Ukraine have lead separatist leaders to seek unification with Russia. Will Russia accept their requests ?
The core of the problem in Ukraine is that the democratic revolution has been fast turned into a nationalist, radical revolution. I think the two are not compatible and whatever there was over the past 24 years, there was some very fragile politics of consensus. They’ve been destroyed. Whenever you break a cup, I think it’s difficult to glue it over again and to stabilise it. The people in the East, the Russian speakers – but not only them – I think they just wanted to be taken into account by the authorities in Kyiv, which are partly legitimate. They’ve been endorsed by the Ukrainian parliament which, in the words of The Economist is ‘up for sale to the highest bidder’.

The Constitutional Court, which played a role in 2004, when it endorsed the 3rd round of the presidential election, has been disbanded by the authorities. It had no role to play in the legitimization of the new authority, that’s why our Western partners try to solve in a fast track motion the issue of legitimacy. I think the problem is that the people in the East are not talked to by the authorities. They are dubbed terrorists, anti-terrorist operations. The use of military and paramilitary forces, which are politicized, are conducted against them. That’s why it’s up to the people who claim legitimacy to carry the burden of proof that they are a national government.

There’s much talk in the Russosphere media of the West’s influence in Ukraine. You say that Eastern Ukraine is not being listened to, but what is your opinion on the recent changes to Russian legislation that permit native Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union to apply for Russian citizenship ? Is the West pushing Ukraine apart, or Russia pulling it apart?
I indeed believe that this is a very short sighted and dangerous policy…of the West. It is deplorable that the European Union, which is not suited for the old-time geo-political games, rolls the dice. When they offered this association agreement with Ukraine, it was not an ordinary one, although they have said to us in the past that it was an ordinary one. It provides for some deep and comprehensive integration of Ukraine within the EU. But it’s just short of formal membership – that’s why there was no formal debate in the EU. Although not about membership, it touched upon our trade and economic interests in Ukraine.

It took the crisis in Europe for Brussels bureaucracy to admit that we [Russia] do have a legitimate economic interest in Ukraine. Why wouldn’t you [the EU] talk to us about that ?

With the independence of Crimea and its subsequent annexation by Russia, and the unrest in the east of Ukraine, what is the future of Transnistria ? Could Transnistira follow a similar path to Crimea?
We are part of the 5+2 talks on the future of Transnistria and we are quite willing to continue in dialogue. Our position has never changed, give people autonomy within a united Moldova.

And not unity with Russia?
No, the same is true for Ukraine. We do not want any part of Ukrainian territory…the Crimea is a special case, I could discuss it later on. We want to have a united Ukraine which is prosperous and democratic, not nationalistic and which is economically sustainable. The only way to achieve that is to neutralize it – the term is Finlandization . I think that it was early in February that Zbigniew Brzezinski first suggested it, that solution. In fact it reflects the present status of Ukraine, because it’s guaranteed by the constitution. The second thing, is like Vernon Bogdanor, in his letter to the Financial Times, that in a divided society, the best solution is federalization.

You described The Crimea as a ‘special case’, are the Eastern regions of Ukraine ‘special cases’ too?
With regards to our official position, our reaction to the referenda was that we respect the will of the people. No more than that. Of course we’ll watch carefully how things develop, we have been against this type of separation, of popular will, but we think that there is no need for anti-terrorist operations in the area. Because it cannot accompany the talks with the people, it replaces them.

In the past 24 hours Russia has announced that it will be removing its 40,000 troops from the border regions, although this is the third time that it has been announced since the crisis broke out. Will Russia conclusively remove its troops from the border, or will we hear this announcement for a fourth and fifth time?
I think that President Putin, before he flew to Beijing, ordered the troops back to the border. Some say that this is Americanization of Russia’s foreign policy. I would state things that are familiar for you – just because that’s what is said by the Americans. All options are on the table, it just depends how things evolve. If there is mass suppression, if there are massacres by troops or paramilitaries, if there is a humanitarian catastrophe of the cities that are besieged by the troops, we have to get our people out.

Who do you refer to when you say 'our people'?
There are two correspondents who have been detailed near Kramatorsk and they’ve been charged by the Ukrainian authorities with espionage and terrorism [laughs]. We hope that we’ll get them back, but if not I think we’ll have to get them back ourselves, whatever it takes.

During the recent Eurovision the Russian performers were audibly heckled by the crowd and a trans* performer was crowned the winner. Given Russia’s stance on the LGBT+ community, do you believe Russia is at odds with the rest of Europe?
I would not say that we’re at odds with the rest of Europe because there are different views on that within Europe.

But the winner was successful, by and large, in the rest of Europe. Will Russia maintain its stance [on LGBT+ issues] or could there be some liberalization?
The situation has already been liberalized, as homosexuality was decriminalized 20 years ago, or even earlier than that. I think we are perfectly entitled to our own view on the subject, and it doesn’t mean that it won’t change. But it takes time, like it did take time for views to change on the subject.

Could you foresee Russia becoming more liberal in say 10, 20 or 30 years or does Russia have a fundamentally different culture to the majority of Europe?
All our cultures, they have the same Christian roots. Before 1054 we even had the same saints. Of course the fate of Christianity in the West and in Russia was different, hence the differences. But those differences in the fate of Christianity, I think they reflect the different qualities of nations. I wouldn’t say that Russia is a separate civilization, but I would say that Russia has some attributes which make it different from the rest of Europe, although we have always been a part of Europe. Politically, economically and otherwise. We fought in two world wars, we were part of the cold war [laughs].

Would you not say that’s separating Russia from Europe, rather than integrating ?
I would say that it’s history that decides such issues. They are a product of societal evolution. Nothing is cast in stone.

And so are you suggesting that Russia may liberalize it’s laws in the future to protect the rights and civil liberties of LGBT+ people?
I just wouldn’t preclude anything. I just wouldn’t, because I do have my own opinion on the subject but there are other opinions in Russia. Sometimes it depends on the age, that’s why I just wouldn’t say anything definite on that question. Nothing out of the question.

‘Everything is on the table’?
Yes !