A conversation with the man closest
to Dmitri Medvedev
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
May 6, 2009
LONDON - Igor Yurgens is probably as close to Dmitri Medvedev as one can get without interviewing the president himself. His influence is regarded by those who follow the inner workings of the Kremlin as immense.
By disposition a liberal academic, committed to the rule of law, he runs his own think tank which gives him the research and intellectual firepower to influence his close friend. Yurgens had something to do with clearing the path for the president to give his first on the record interview to the remarkably brave and independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, whose star reporters, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been gunned down.
I recently interviewed Yurgens and we talked about Georgia, where the Russian army last August defeated the Georgian forces which had precipitated an unnecessary war by invading its neighbour, the pro-Russian mini state of South Ossetia.
I've long maintained that although Russia was acting within its rights in repulsing the unprovoked Georgian attack, it used a sledge hammer to kill a wasp. The Russian military used tactics that not only overwhelmed the Georgian army it created extensive destruction and civilian suffering. They seemed to be unnecessarily brutal.
"Yes, maybe", replied Yurgens, "The Russian reaction was too heavy. And there was no attempt at public relations before the event to explain what and why the Russians were doing. But then we always make the mistake of being too heavy handed. But if Medvedev hadn't given the order to intervene - and remember the military had worked themselves up - Medvedev would have been a lame duck president for the rest of his term."
Within a couple of days of the invasions Yurgens rushed to Washington for back channel talks at the State Department. He told me "I felt deceived by [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. did know a week before the invasion, because the Russians made sure that the 800 American soldiers stationed in Georgia were not in the way in case we had to intervene. Also both American and Russian intelligence could see and follow the movement of the Georgian army. So the U.S. had the opportunity to intervene and tell the Georgians not to go ahead with their planned attack on South Ossetia."
"But by then within the Administration, opinion, including that of [President George W.] Bush and Rice, who a month before had publicly warned the Georgian leader [Mikheil ]Saakashvili not to initiate a war, had shifted in Cheney's direction. I got this impression from Bill Burns, who I've known for a long time, the number two in the State Department and a very informed ex-Ambassador to Moscow."
"Cheney in effect undermined Bush and Rice. He knew that right-wing academics, ex-American diplomats and others, who journeyed to Georgia in the preceding weeks, had dropped hints to Saakashvili that if it came to a showdown Bush and Rice would be compelled to support the Georgians, despite their earlier warnings. Saakashvili was emboldened to do what he had long planned. He thought he could get away with it. And he thought by poking us in the eye he would strengthen his weakening position at home, where he was becoming less democratic and more ruthless by the day."
Back home in Moscow, Yurgens says that Medvedev wants to heal the breach with both the European Union and America. Medvedev 'likes' the new president, Barack Obama, who has assumed power 'with new ideas'. "Let's change our institutions and then we won't depend on the subjective, is Medvedev's opinion", concludes Yurgens.
I met Yurgens in Copenhagen whilst he was attending the Baltic Development Forum and he had some interesting thoughts about the role of Scandinavia in being a "back door" for the Russian desire to participate in building a "European House", an ambition of the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev and former Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
The recent Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the former foreign minister, Uffe Elleman-Jensen, both told me that they welcomed this Russian attitude, even if it was still at an incipient stage. In fact Elleman said Scandinavia is "the front door, not the back."
Yurgens admitted that this ambition was probably more prevalent in the north west of Russia than it the Asian part. "We had no gulag experience and our culture is totally different. Less monasteries and churches were closed here in the Soviet period than elsewhere, and we had democracy before Ivan the Terrible".
Yurgens argues that Russia is mainly benign, although with a propensity to overreact, as it did with Georgia. As Elleman observes, "Russians have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot."
Nevertheless, with Medvedev making Yurgens one of his closest advisors, this should give the West hope. The question is, will we respond to Medvedev's olive branches. Or will we just compound the problems?
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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