Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#15 - JRL 7211
May 30, 2003
A Conversation With Vladimir Bukovsky
By Jamie Glazov

Vladimir Bukovsky is a former leading Soviet dissident who spent twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his fight for freedom. His works include To Build a Castle and Judgement in Moscow.

I recently spoke with Mr. Bukovsky about the unfinished Cold War, how Russia aided Saddam, what we should expect in the War on Terror -- and how we can win it..

Q: Welcome Vladimir, it is a great honour to speak with you. Thank you for your time. Lets begin with the issue of how Putin's Russia aided Saddam before as well as during the recent war. There were even reports that Saddam had been taken to Syria in the convoy of the Russian embassy staff. This remains unconfirmed, of course, but due to Putin's disposition, it is still quite believable. What is the significance of all of this? Would it be too much to say that America's alliance with Russia might be a blunder for American foreign policy?

Bukovsky: It is worse than a blunder. For several years I tried to alert everyone I know in the US and here that their perception of present day Russia is wrong (see for instance our open letter to President Bush signed with Elena Bonner).

But the political establishment in the West simply does not want to know the truth. It is much more convenient for them to close their eyes on what is going on in Russia and to pretend they don't know. Once again, like during the detente of the 1970s, Western political establishment behaves evasively and dishonestly, and once again it will end up in a disaster.

Q: Vladimir, and what is it exactly that is, as you say, "going on in Russia"?

Bukovsky: Contrary to popular belief in the West, it is not on the way to democracy and a market economy. The last presidential elections show you what kind of democracy this country has established for itself, when the voters had a choice between a Communist leader and a KGB colonel. That is elections Russian-style.

Indeed, the KGB has won. After ten years of some hesitant, half-hearted attempts at reform, the power was handed back to them, once again, and they were very quick to re-establish their authority throughout the country, as well as to reinstate the old symbols of the Soviet Union - the national anthem and the Red flag in the Army. The last outlets of independent media were closed down one by one. We did not have political prisoners for ten years; we have them now. Several people are already imprisoned for speaking out against the war in Chechnya, or some abuses of the military powers over there, or about the pollution by the military nuclear waste. Chechnya today is one of the festering wounds of the country, where, in view of many international observers, actually a genocide is perpetrated against the small defenceless nation.

Q: Vladimir, could you kindly just expand a bit on what kind of regime you think is developing in Russia? What are the real agendas of the new leaders? How do you think they truly regarded Saddam and the war on Iraq? What is their primary strategy now?

Bukovsky: Since the Soviet system was not eradicated, nor even conclusively defeated, lots of old features (and structures) remained practically intact. Above all, most people's attitude to the world remains the same, as most of them did not perceive the demise of the old regime as natural or inevitable. These feelings are running strongest among the military, the FSB (former KGB), the state bureaucracy in general. As a result, Russia today is a schizophrenic state, with one foot in the past, another is in the air, meant to be planted in the future (but never is). Add up to that a "new feature" - criminalization of the society in general, and of power structures in particular (of which the FSB is practically in control of organized crime).

The "leaders" are no different, since most of them are former KGB officers of a provincial level, with all the complexes one can expect to find in such people. They spent time assuring each other that Russia is still a Great Power, and like all gangsters, they crave to be treated with "respect". At the same time, they are well aware of the country's economic plight and are preoccupied with the problem of external debts. Accordingly, their foreign policy is schizophrenic, too. On the one hand, they need Western financial favors, on the other they don't like to be perceived as depending on them. Look at what has happened in the run up to war with Iraq.

Due to the overall political situation (split in the NATO, split in the EU), Putin was dealt the best hand at the table. He could have got lots of favors from the US. Yet, at the last moment he choose to bluff, trying to play one part of NATO against the other while continuing to supply Iraq with weapons, intelligence, military advice, etc. For a moment he thought he could prolong the crisis indefinitely, blocking the war and retaining position of advantage. But the bluff was called, and he was left with less than nothing. Instead of getting $10 billion offered to him by Bush, plus 7 billion pounds offered by Blair as an investment into Russian oil industry, he has got France as an ally. These people in Kremlin look truly pathetic when they think they play world politics.

On the other hand, look at the Western reaction to this obvious foul play. All the media revelations of Russian mischief in Iraq were promptly hushed by the White House. We were told that France will be punished, but Russia will be forgiven. Why? Oh, we need Russia for dealing with North Korea! Jesus Christ! Do you guys ever learn? Are you going, (as we used to say in Russia), to step three times on the same rakes in the same movie? This is not funny, really. I can tell you in advance that Russia will be playing the same trick in Korea as it did in Iraq. They will offer mediation, but in secret they will build up Korean stakes, hoping to prolong the crisis and to milk you without delivering. And at the end, when they are caught red-handed again, you will "forgive" them because you need their help in yet another hot spot. Do you not look pathetic, too?

Q: This is all quite disturbing if your analysis is correct. Let me ask this: don't the Russians have their own problem with militant Islam? Why wouldn't this push them to ally themselves with the West?

Bukovsky: No, they don't. Contrary to Russian propaganda, (and contrary to the Western public perception generated by it), Chechens are not militant islamists. They are just a small nation fighting off blatant aggression. Most of other regions, where Muslims used to live in the former Soviet Union, are not part of Russia anymore. Two more Muslim areas, Tartarstan and Bashkorstan, are remarkably peaceful even now, in spite of the Chechen conflict. And, both being enclaves in the Russian territory, they are unlikely to be as potentially dangerous as any borderland might have been. So, we can only consider the North Caucasus, where Russians themselves have caused all the trouble, and where those troubles could be terminated any time with a modicum of good will.

Q: Vladimir, let me switch over to Iraq for a moment and the Western anti-war demonstrations we saw while the U.S. was liberating Iraq. What did you think of the protests? How could the Left have discredited itself with such shamelessness in allying itself with a barbaric fascist regime, as well as with Islamo-fascists and anti-Semites? What do you think this tells us about the contemporary Left? Has it completely degenerated?

Bukovsky: But this is nothing new. Twenty years ago the Left aided and abetted the equally barbaric Soviet regime. Even the current "peace campaign" is just a copy of the 1980s campaign for nuclear disarmament of the West and against placement of "American" missiles in Europe, against SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) and Western re-armament program. Even some participants are the same. This fact simply confirms what I am saying since 1993: we did not win the Cold War. We did not finish off our enemies either in the East (where old communist nomenklatura and the KGB are still in power), or in the West (where their old collaborators are still a major political force).

Q: So wait a second. Can we still win the Cold War in this context? What would have to happen for us to acknowledge a real victory?

Bukovsky: Precisely what I said: we have to finish off our enemies both in the East and in the West. I think it is self-evident that the war is neither finished nor won if your enemies are still in power. For the sake of illustration, just imagine that in 1955 (ten years after the WW 2 was officially finished), a former Gestapo officer was elected as a Chancellor of Germany and publicly announced that he was proud of his past. Or that former Nazi collaborators organized mass demonstrations across Europe in defense of war criminals. Would we consider the outcome of the WW 2 as a victory for Western democracy? Of course not.

Why did it not happen? Because the Nazi were defeated, removed from power, put on trial in Nuremberg, while German society was subjected to a de-nazification process. Nothing of the sort took place after the Cold War.

Can it still happen? Well, it can happen if there are radical changes of attitude among Western political establishment. And it better be changing, otherwise we will not be able to deal with the problems we discuss.

Q: Vladimir, in terms of the recent war in Iraq, are you confident that the American victory might precipitate a domino effect in the sense that a force of democratization and liberalization will spread throughout the authoritarian Middle East?

Bukovsky: No, I am not confident in this at all. For this to happen, we need a success of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries liberated by the Western allies recently. However, the outcome in both of them is questionable. I fear a protracted period of instability, infighting, poverty, corruption and even a gradual return to power of those just ousted by the military action. In short, something like we observe now in the former communist countries of the Eastern Europe.

Q: So how exactly does Russia view Syria, Iran and North Korea?

Bukovsky: Again, like anything else in Russia, its attitude to old allies is schizophrenic. On the one hand, there are strong feelings of sympathy toward them among the military, the KGB and nomenklatura, who have actually created those monsters and brought them up (and those forces constitute the power-base of the current leadership). On the other, they are good bargaining chips in the geopolitical games, but only if they are capable of stirring up troubles. So, first of all, they must be encouraged, strengthened, emboldened, thus raising the stakes, and raising Russia's importance with it.

Iran is slightly different in the sense it was never a Soviet creature. But the game is the same.

Q: Vladimir, in this post-Saddam era, what is the main threat to Western security? And what is the most prudent course for the West to take in the War on Terror?

Bukovsky: I am not a great believer in the "Global War on Terrorism". First, I don't believe in global wars. Second, I don't believe in a war with abstraction which no one can define precisely. You are bound to make colossal blunders if you engage in either. If we are talking about a war with Islamic fanatics, employing only military means is clearly not enough. We would need to develop the instruments of ideological warfare which the West has never bothered to create even during the Cold War. This is not going to be easy, but it seems inevitable. I suspect our immediate priority after Iraq will be nuclear proliferation (e.g. North Korea). Here again we need to employ techniques of the Cold War rather than pure military power. In short, whichever way you look, you cannot escape a conclusion that, excellent as it may be, your military hardware is not enough. You must develop the appropriate software.

Q: Overall, in your view, how is the world lining up in the War on Terror? Is Europe even ready to fight for freedom anymore? What do you think is going to happen in Europe? Will France and Russia form an axis? Will Germany join them?

Bukovsky: After living half of my life in the USSR, and the other half in the West (of which quite a few years in the US), I know all three fairly well, and I am always amazed how little these three worlds understand each other. It became almost a platitude to say that Americans are naive and idealistic, while Europeans are cynical and sophisticated. Americans tend to re-invent the world every five years, while Europeans are still fighting wars started centuries ago. You may proclaim your Global War on Terrorism, (and you may even believe in it), but Europeans are just trying to solve their own problems using the context you have thus created. And why shouldn't they?

As far as the international terrorism is concerned, Americans remind me someone I know in Israel who used to be a dove, almost a pacifist and Palestinian apologist until his car's front window was smashed by the Palestinian stone-throwers. Then, he immediately became an arch-hawk, ready to kill every Palestinian in sight. Europe lives with terrorism for at least half a century, and somehow managed to cope with it feeling no need to declare a Global War. When I was just kicked out of the USSR in the mid-70s, every country in Europe had its local terrorist organization, and the Palestinian terrorism on the top of it all. Italy had "Red Brigades", Germany had Baader-Meinhoff group, Spain had ETA, Britain had IRA, France had "Action Direct", etc. Mind you, those groups were far more dangerous than Al Quaeda because most of them were trained, supplied and supported by the Soviet Union. And they were far more active, too. Not a month would pass by without one terrorist action or another in Europe. In Italy, for example, they have managed to kidnap, torture and execute former Prime Minister. But somehow Americans did not perceive it as a world drama, nor did they call for a Global War until ... the front window of their car was smashed. So, what do you expect from the Europeans? Enthusiasm? Hurrraaay! At last, at last our American cousins have noticed international terrorism!

The key to understanding present European manoeuvres, squabbles and splits is emergence of the European Union, something most Americans are yet to notice and to stop treating with benign indifference. This is far more sinister development for us, poor Europeans, than any Al Qaeda (which we tend to treat as yet another police problem). Here is not the place to explain in detail what is the EU. Suffice it to say that I call it EUSSR, and many European politicians who oppose the EU have picked up my quip. Essentially, this is yet another attempt by the Left to build yet another socialist Tower of Babel - an over-regulated, over-bureaucratized federal state with the "deficit of democracy" (as the pro-EU politicians call the utterly undemocratic nature of the monster).

The whole concept of the project was invented by the Socialist International (in consultation and in cooperation with Moscow) at the end of 1980s, and was viewed by them as a "convergence" mechanism (remember Gorbachev's slogan about "common European home"?). So, 15 years later half of this project has come to fruition (the other half - the Soviet bloc - has collapsed). The real engine of the project today is Franco-German alliance (this is what President Bush should have called "the Axis of Evil"!). Although both partners know theirs is a very uneasy partnership (French, being French, believe they will be ruling Europe while the Germans will be paying for everything; Germans, being Germans, believe they will establish new social-democratic ordnung in the unified Europe and thus achieve the dream of all German dreamers from Bismarck to Hitler), they also know they have to stick together through thick and thin lest the whole edifice collapses. So, partly because of the elections problem in Germany (Schroeder knew he could win elections only on the anti-war ticket), partly because the time has come to stamp their authority in formulating "common European foreign policy", both France and Germany came up strongly against the war in Iraq.

Accordingly, all those countries where leaders are conservative and/or anti-EU, (Italy, Spain, Denmark) came up in favor of the war. Eastern Europe, imprisoned in its own illusion that "the West" will come to them and sort out their problems, would rather join the US than EU and, given the choice, will always side with the US as a better alternative than the EU. Chirac, being an idiot, did not understand it and tried to shout them down, thus fuelling the anti-EU sentiments in those countries and further splitting Europe. Britain is a slightly different case. Some of my American friends wrote to me during the crisis praising Blair as "a true statesman of Churchillean stature". Like hell he is. But, ever since the 1956 Suez crisis, Britain always follows in the wake of the US foreign policy, and is keen on being identified as America's closest ally in Europe. Again, like France without Germany, Britain without the US is no more important than Denmark..

Now, Blair's personal ambition is to become first President of united Europe, but he has a huge problem: 70% of British people does not want any further integration with the EU, and he has foolishly promised a referendum on the subject before his first elections in 1997. This promise came to haunt him now: clearly European partners would not even consider his candidacy unless Britain is fully integrated into EU. The crisis over Iraq gave Tony Blair first glimpse of hope: unless France and Germany want a direct and prolonged confrontation with the US (which they don't), first all-European President must be capable of mending the Trans-Atlantic bridges. And who is better suited for this job than our golden boy Tony, the best buddy of America?

So, we all are fighting the EU, not Al Qaeda. Even I. Let me be a bit cynical: why do you think I am so pleased with the Iraq war? Because it split and weakened all my enemies. It split British Labor Party. Good. It split the EU. Good. It split NATO and forced it to re-consider its identity. Good. It made the UN irrelevant. Very good. It exposed Russia as a rogue state. Excellent. And if in the process it destroyed one of the worst tyrants of our time, so much the better. I wish the Iraqi people all the best.But only Americans still believe that old Europe is lining up to fight for freedom in the deserts of the Middle East...

Q: Well then that leads me to this question: what about the UN and NATO? Should we try to create a new organization?

Bukovsky: Certainly, the old ones are obsolete and are more harmful than useless. UN always was, right from the moment of its creation by Stalin and FDR. It was meant to serve the "progressive causes", such as advancement of socialism, "national liberation", unilateral disarmament of the West, redistribution of wealth from the "rich North" to the "poor South" or just plain anti-Western propaganda. It should have been closed long ago, probably right after the war in Korea, the only known episode where it happened to play a positive role. This alone would have saved us lots of trouble, and hundreds of billions to boot.

In essence, it is non-functioning and wasteful international body which reflects post-war aspirations, ambitions and delusions, as well as the political situation of the 1940s. Why should we keep this anachronism and pretend we respect it? Why should the Security Council be dominated by the powers which won a war almost half a century ago? Why France is still its "permanent member" while Japan is not? It makes no sense. If we are to update it, its structures should reflect the results of the Cold War, and should be dominated by those who won it. But I personally prefer to see it closed down because I do not believe in successful reforms of bad institutions.

Instead, if there is a need for a replacement, some of its specialized institutions (such as the High Commission for Refugees, etc), thoroughly reformed and streamlined, can continue their function on the ad hoc basis supervised and financed by the G7.

NATO is a different case altogether. It did play extremely useful role during the post-war decades, but it has lost its identity in the aftermath of the Cold War. A military alliance can not exist without a clearly identifiable albeit potential adversary. If Russia becomes a consultative member, let alone a full one, NATO will cease to exist as a military alliance. It might become a political forum, if there is a need for such institution, but there is clearly no role for the US to play there. Particularly as the EU is planning to create its own Rapid Deployment Force outside of NATO. So, my advice is: give NATO luxurious funerals, bury it with honors and leave. Few billion bucks more for your Treasury.

Q: Everything you are saying, Vladimir, suggests that U.S. diplomats simply have to rethink everything about how they see the world, their "allies" and their enemies. So lets go back to the drawing board. Do you think the standard definition of the War on Terror is correct? How would you redefine it? And how would you advise to specifically fight it if, hypothetically, you became Bush's main advisor?

Bukovsky: What is the "standard definition"? I have not seen any, let alone a "standard" one. This is the whole point: your President has solemnly declared A Global War on abstraction which no one can define. Terrorism as a phenomenon has many different causes. People driven to desperation by a foreign occupation and conducting a guerrilla-type war against it - are they terrorists? Would you say that wartime Resistance in Europe against the Nazi occupation was terrorism? Would you say that dropping atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - two peaceful cities with no military objects in them - was an act of terror? If so, all governments commit such acts in time of war.

It was said long ago that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. For you and me, Yasser Arafat is a terrorist, for many others he is Nobel Peace Prize winner. So, what will it be, and who is going to decide? President Bush?His speech was a disappointment in many respects. Expressions like "global war" were used in the past mostly by the Left, and it usually meant yet another propaganda campaign (Global War on Poverty, Global War on Illiteracy, etc). A real war cannot be global, no country has enough resources for global war. The Soviets have tried to conduct a global war of "liberation from the chains of capitalism", and we know how they have ended.

War is a blunt instrument. It must have a limited and well-defined goal, well-calculated cost (both material and political). In this sense, global war is absurdity, an open-end proposition with no clear, achievable goals. And it is dangerous to proclaim such a war, even if you do it as a figure of speech. You gear up people's expectations, and then you got caught in it like in a trap. It is easy to start, but very difficult to stop. Think of the Soviets.

Then, tell me, what is in common between North Korea and Iran? Nothing, except both hate the West. Yet, your President has managed to lump them together in his Axis of Evil speech. Why? What for? If you have two unconnected enemies, the last thing you need is to push them together and encourage them to get united. Besides, strategy you would have to apply against them will be vastly different. So, what is the purpose of uniting them in your speech?

Learn a bit from the Soviets. They had never called their invasions a war. When they occupied Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, they called it "internationalist assistance". When they invaded Afghanistan in 1979, they called it "temporary stationing of a limited military contingent". Why use such inflammatory words as "war", let alone "global war"? It does inflame anti-war sentiments. And it does mislead your followers.

In short, I would have advised President Bush to act a lot, but to say as little as possible. Take on your enemies one by one, each time calculating your steps calmly and precisely. Work out your strategy, develop instruments, improve your intelligence (September 11 was, after all, a monumental failure of your intelligence). Don't get entangled in alliances and coalitions with dubious regimes. And, for Christ sake, don't declare global wars.

But, I am not likely to be his advisor: the White House is proclaimed to be a non-smoking area.

Q: Well, perhaps they would make an exception for you to smoke if you made a scene about it. . . .so, in any case, Vladimir, the last question and lets crystallize the main theme: what is the main lesson we must implement from the past in order for us to win the War on Terror?

Bukovsky: I guess old Nicolo Macchiavelli was right: once you have started a war, you have to defeat your enemy conclusively. You cannot leave him wounded and bleeding, this is too dangerous. I don't mean only Saddam Hussein, but also the larger war we were engaged in for nearly 50 years. Saddam and North Korea, the Western Left and rouge regime of Putin in Russia are all just remnants of the war with Communism which we never won conclusively but stopped it one day too soon. Metaphorically speaking, this was as stupid and reckless as leaving minefields and gangs of marauders scattered in the hills after a war. I am afraid, we will be destined now in the new century to stumble into those old minefields until and unless we set ourselves a task to systematically clear those remnants of the past century's war.

Interlocutor: Thank you Vladimir, it was a privilege and a pleasure to speak with you.

Bukovsky: You are most welcome, and it was a privilege and pleasure for me as well.

Top   Next