As Dmitri Medvedev’s economic advisor, Igor Yurgens is probably one of the most influential men in the Kremlin.
A liberal by disposition, he runs his own think tank giving him the intellectual firepower to influence the president. Yurgens was involved with clearing the path for Medvedev to be interviewed by Novaya Gazeta, the remarkably brave newspaper which used to employ Anna Politkovskaya.
In my conversation with Yurgens, we talked about Georgia. Last August, Russia defeated Georgian forces which had precipitated an unnecessary war by invading 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, but also created widespread destruction and civilian suffering. They seemed to be unnecessarily brutal. I put this to Yurgens.
“Yes, maybe,” he replied, “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 invasion, Yurgens rushed to Washington for back channel talks with the state department. He told me “I felt deceived by [secretary of state] Condoleezza Rice. The US 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 US had the opportunity to intervene and tell the Georgians not to go ahead with their planned attack on South Ossetia.”
Yurgens still feels that divisions in Washington contributed to the conflict. “But by then within the administration, opinion had shifted in Cheney’s direction: that includes Bush and Rice, who a month before had publicly warned the Georgian leader [Mikhail Saakashvili] not to initiate a war. 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” 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 Russian to participate in building a “European House.” This was an ambition shared by both Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the former foreign secretary, Uffe Ellema, both told me that they welcomed this Russian attitude, even if it was still at an incipient stage. In fact Elleman said Scandanavia is “the front door, not the back.”
Yurgens admitted that this ambition was probably more prevalent in the northwest 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?