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Interview with Former Russian Prime Minister

By Matthias Schepp and Bernhard Zand

YEVGENY KONDAKOV/ DER SPIEGEL

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov talks with Der Spiegel in Moscow.

In an interview with SPIEGEL, 81-year-old former Russian Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and chief of foreign intelligence Yevgeny Primakov discusses the situation in Libya and Russia’s concerns about an “explosive trend” in NATO operations.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Primakov, which Arab country currently worries you the most?

Primakov: Libya. The Western coalition’s attempt to bomb the Gadhafi regime away isn’t backed by UN Resolution 1973 — and it’s not well thought-out in strategic terms. It’s high time for us to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis.

SPIEGEL: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Libyan counterpart in Moscow last week, and even French and American diplomats have started talking with representatives of the Gadhafi regime.

Primakov: NATO is stuck in a dead-end. No one seems to be asking the truly important questions, such as: Where is this war leading? And what will happen after Gadhafi? Have we really already forgotten what happened in Iraq? Eight years of chaos! Daily bomb attacks, daily deaths. Don’t tell me that’s stability?

SPIEGEL: You’ve met with Gadhafi on several occasions. Should we go easy on him?

Primakov: I’m far from idealizing him. Over four decades ago, when Gadhafi overthrew King Idris, he contacted Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Gadhafi thought Nasser could help him obtain an atomic bomb from the Soviet Union if he gave him enough money. Gadhafi had the mentality of a Bedouin.

SPIEGEL: And today?

Primakov: He’s older and more experienced, but Libya continues to be a dictatorship — though one supported by a certain segment of the population. There are people who go to places where Gadhafi stays to serve as human shields. They do so voluntarily.

SPIEGEL: What would you propose as a solution to the Libya crisis?

Primakov: A mediation mission is, in any case, being blocked by the decision to try to bring him before the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Russia doesn’t want to see Libya sink into chaos. The only way out is through a rapprochement between the parties in conflict.

SPIEGEL: How can Russia’s mediation lead to success?

Primakov: Because we try to keep the same distance between both sides. NATO is de facto supporting one of the sides in this civil war. It is difficult to mediate under these circumstances.

SPIEGEL: Soon after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the Libya resolutions as ‘calls to a crusade,’ President Dmitry Medvedev condemned his remarks as ‘unacceptable.’ Is Moscow really even speaking with one voice?

Primakov: Putin didn’t want to veto the UN resolution. And Medvedev also stated that the resolution doesn’t back NATO attacks. The two share a position; the differences are minimal.

SPIEGEL: In the end, Russia joined Brazil, China, Germany and India in abstaining from the vote. Do you think Russia should have vetoed it instead?

Primakov: No. If Libyan troops had kept up their attacks for two or three more days, Gadhafi would have taken Benghazi. It would’ve been a bloodbath. Resolution 1973 is certainly much too vague; a no-fly zone means taking out Gadhafi’s air force and air defenses. But NATO has bombed troop formations, oil refineries, Gadhafi’s palaces and even civilians. Where does it say that that’s allowed?

SPIEGEL: What were your feelings when Germany joined the other countries abstaining in the vote on Resolution 1973?

Primakov: I was very happy about it. Germany realistically assessed the situation and the risks.

SPIEGEL: Do you interpret Berlin’s abstention as turning its back on the West?

Primakov: I’m a realist. Relations between Germany and America remain intact. Please don’t think that we Russians break into applause the second Germany disagrees with America. That would be primitive.

SPIEGEL: Still, you don’t seem to think too highly of NATO’s Middle East policies.

Primakov: I see an explosive trend: NATO wants to replace the UN. I was always a supporter of having the United Nations be allowed to delegate peace missions to regional alliances. But NATO often acts independently — and worldwide.

SPIEGEL: What makes Russian policies toward the Middle East different from those of the West?

Primakov: More than anything, we’re convinced that it’s impossible to impose decisions on sovereign states. We’re not happy about everything happening in the Middle East either. But we don’t think bombs will solve the problems. We understand the Middle East better than many Western countries. We know how important it is to take history, mentality and traditions into account. I don’t think that democracy based on a European model is possible in the Arab Spring countries.

SPIEGEL: Do you think a ‘guided democracy’ after the Russian model would work better in the Middle East?

Primakov: I’m generally against any recommendations. Arab countries should decide for themselves how they want to be governed.

SPIEGEL: Did you foresee the wave of popular uprisings in the Arab world?

Primakov: No. Like the West, we thought that only Islamist movements could bring about the collapse of authoritarian post-colonial regimes. Now we see that there are also other forces at work. We underestimated the influence of globalization and modernization, particularly the power of television and the Internet. Incidentally, the crisis in the Middle East is generally presented in an overly simplistic way.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

Primakov: In the coverage I’ve been observing exaggeration and one-sidedness at the same time. For example, have you seen images on CNN or Al Jazeera substantiating that Gadhafi is actually committing genocide? Likewise, there have been atrocities on both sides, but unbalanced judgments have been made on multiple occasions.

SPIEGEL: What gives Russia the right to criticize America’s allegedly hegemonic policies? Sure, America has a naval base in Bahrain, but the Kremlin has one in Syria, too.

Primakov: There is a subtle difference. When 2,000 Saudis and police from the United Arab Emirates marched into Bahrain to help put down the unrest, it wasn’t possible without America’s blessing. Under no circumstances would Russia back an intervention in Syria.

SPIEGEL: But it also wants to preserve the status quo there.

Primakov: After our experiences with the Libya resolution, I hope we’ve all gotten a bit wiser. No one in the West seems to have seriously looked into who Assad’s opponents really are. There are undoubtedly some genuine democrats among them, but there are also Islamists and al-Qaida supporters. It’s hard to say who is in the majority. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is different than the one in Egypt. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers will now even admit Christians into their party.

SPIEGEL: In 2007, you said that Assad was still a ‘man of profound strategic vision.’ Do you still see things that way today?

Primakov: He is predictable. Let’s be honest: The West is not primarily concerned with democracy. What troubles the West is Syria’s closeness to Iran. I often met with Assad’s father, Hafez. He once told me that something he wanted to avoid under all circumstances was confronting the Israelis alone. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what makes Syria cling to Iran.

SPIEGEL: America and the West as a whole view the stability of the Gulf region and Saudi Arabia, in particular, as vital. Do you agree?

Primakov: No one wants to see an unstable Saudi Arabia. We don’t, and neither does King Abdullah, who quickly distributed $36 billion (€25 billion) after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt got started. If he now allows women to drive, we’ll soon have the most beautiful democracy there. (Laughs.)

SPIEGEL: Militant Islam, or jihadism, expanded under autocrats like Nasser, Assad and Saddam Hussein — all of whom enjoyed the Soviet Union’s backing. How much does Moscow share in the blame for the current situation in the Arab world?

Primakov: For its part, the West backed autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt. So how much is the West to blame?

SPIEGEL: Are you saying both sides are to blame?

Primakov: I wouldn’t say that, either. I was one of the first people to counter the voices in Russia claiming the West was secretly behind the upheavals. The Americans were shocked. After all, Mubarak was their partner in the fight against terrorism.

SPIEGEL: Is the era of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East over for good?

Primakov: No. I expect to see governments that are more democratic than before but still bear authoritarian traits.

SPIEGEL: Hillary Clinton claims that leaders in Beijing are afraid the Arab revolutions might spill over into China. Are Kremlin officials also nervous about the rage of Russia’s youth?

Primakov: We have our own contradictions. But Arab events have no influence on internal developments in Russia. Though I respect Hillary, I disagree with her appraisal of the situation in China.

SPIEGEL: For decades, the Middle East served as a stage for the Cold War. Will China now take over Russia’s role of America’s adversary there?

Primakov: History does not repeat itself, and that kind of zero-sum game belongs to the past. There are no longer any superpowers.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean China will not become a superpower?

Primakov:Certainly not. China will grow, and it has a lot of ambition. It’s already the world’s second-largest economy. But, these days, we are dealing with a multi-polar world, with difficult relations between the individual poles .

SPIEGEL: What role will Russia play?

Primakov: We will be one pole among many. And our strength will depend on whether we can succeed in modernizing our economy.

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