Interview with Erhard Busek

4 minute read

Mr Busek, the Maidan revolution took place four years ago, but the tensions between Russia and Ukraine are not receding. Is Putin trying to create a frozen conflict in Ukraine?

I think it is typical of Putin’s strategy – having a frozen conflict, which can be switched on and off at his behest, whenever there is a need to impress or to create pressure in another direction. It is a clear, comparatively very simple, but very effective strategy. Speaking about the sensitive time before elections, his main concern is to keep everything in balance. We could see the withdrawal of troops from Syria, which is a real sign he is preparing for a strong re-election campaign. I think Putin was quite clear in his press conference that he tries to depict himself as the guarantor of stability. Therefore, there will be no conflicts before the votes are cast in March.

What should be the EU’s strategy for Ukraine? Can we talk about any prospect of EU membership?

Membership for Ukraine would be a step too far at his moment. What is necessary is to offer a clear strategy concerning Ukraine’s arrangements to go forward. However, Ukraine’s current status is not even the one before the membership. The problem is that any strategy for Ukraine is a strategy on Putin. I think we have some members of the EU, for instance the Dutch, saying ‘do not touch Putin and do not create difficulties with him’. Thus, in my opinion any strategy toward Ukraine needs to primarily answer what the strategy toward Putin is. Many things will depend on the developments in Germany, especially if no government is formed for a longer period; the main player is for the moment not existing.

And where does it leave Ukraine?

Ukraine needs to move further with reforms. Nothing is improving right now, which is a real pity. The usual European language to Ukraine is to solve its grave corruption issues, but this is not enough. The country needs to move forward.

Can Ukraine overcome its Soviet shadow?

I think it is extremely difficult. Looking for examples in countries like Poland or Hungary, they thought they could overcome the past from one day to another, but it is a long lasting process. The other issue is that the rest of Europe does not really understand these processes. There is a very primitive judgement happening ‘you are now a democracy and these are the criteria you need to fulfil, this is how you should behave’, but history is a burden. And I think to cope with the history in the right way needs sufficient amount of time.

Is it then rather a question of changing generations rather than willingness to reform the country?

This would be a subject for education. One of the main mistakes of the EU, drawing the point from my personal experience in the Balkans, is that the EU is not in charge of education. We have had some initiatives, such as Erasmus, but the EU needs to create even more exchange. Student exchanges are in themselves not enough, we need an added input in the training of lecturers and a more substantive contribution in teaching. I can offer one example of an effective high-level academic research and exchange – the Centre for Advanced Studies – South East Europe in Rijeka. But a further exchange, both on the educational and cultural level, is necessary and it is not happening on the EU level nor through the UN. The EU should also encourage greater cooperation on curricula, through on comparative studies and their evaluation. On the level, education often works on a day-to-day basis, and lacks the international perspective.

What is the role of international organisations in finding solutions for today’s challenges?

You can raise the question of how effective indeed international organisations, where members have extensive veto powers, are. The power of many is in the decline. But this is not solely the responsibility of Putin. It is that of Trump and others. No one is looking to the international organisations for solutions any longer.

What is the future of EU-Russia relations? Can they improve even before the issue of Ukraine is solved?

EU-Russia relations depend on many different partners, but in my opinion, they mostly depend on Russia.

What is Putin’s vision of Russia concerning the international community?

The vision of Russia is to be a dominating power deciding what others should do. Russia needs to develop the notion of partnership, which is not the case in the current situation. Not only Russia, but global players in general have developed national egotisms – they want to dominate. Without mutual understanding however, you will never get peace or cooperation.

The sanctions against Russia have been extended. What is your opinion on using sanctions as a leverage in international relations?

We witnessed how the sanctions against Yugoslavia in the past turned out to be a mistake. The result of the present sanctions against Russia have been the development of tensions, the expansion of oligarchical powers, as well as the extension of kleptocracy and corruption. Sanctions are nonsense. They only serve for the internal consumption, to tell the public that we are doing something against the intruders, we are penalising them. But it does not work in practice. Products just find another way to Russia through Belarus and Serbia. The Ukraine conflict is having serious consequences not only for Russia and Ukraine, but also threatens to damage the still fragile economic recovery in Europe.

How should the EU proceed?

A decision needs to be made. Do we want to talk or not? Having sanctions in place means that we do not want to talk. If you want to talk, it does not mean you want to surrender, but you are trying to develop mutual understanding and to find solutions. This is not happening at this moment.

If we want to talk with Russia, what are the topics of mutual interest?

We can start talks on energy as Russians very much depended on it. Energy is not only weapon of Russians toward Europe, but also weapon of European against Russians. European consumption is a very important leverage. Another important topic can be the exchange of technology.

Can we find common ground on fighting terrorism?

The importance of fighting terrorism is overrated. We are talking so much about fighting terrorism, everybody is fighting terrorism nowadays, and we need more police, more protections, and the result of which will be more weapons, more conflicts and more war. You have to look into the reasons for terrorism. Terrorism is created by economic deficits, poverty, and regional discrepancies. To fight terrorism successfully means to fight the causes, to overcome misunderstandings between religions. Religion is now used by politicians as a weapon.

Russia is preparing for presidential elections in March. What can we expect from Putin if he wins the elections as predicted?

Any predictions, especially on the international scene, depend on many factors and are extremely difficult to make. Putin will seek balance, and he is not interested in creating more conflicts, they cost too much money and he is not sufficiently powerful.