June 3, 2018

Alfred F. Praus: “When in a long-term relationship between people of different nationalities something starts boiling, I believe the reason in many cases is nothing else but politics”

Interview with the President of the Ukrainian-Austrian Association


— In our conversation before the recent investment conference in Kyiv in March 2018, you were optimistic about the future economic relations between Ukraine and Austria, which have the basis for successful development. This was supposed to be confirmed by President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen's State visit to Kyiv in March of this year. And if in Austria to this visit was paid less attention than in Ukraine, does that not mean that Vienna relies more on cooperation with other partners, first of all with Russia?

— My private views in this respect are as follows: Austria — is a neutral country. I remind you that it had to consolidate its neutral status, in order in 1955 to get an independence and withdrawal of the troops of Great Britain, the United States, France and Russia, who had been in its territory after the Second World War. Since then, it has been trying to maintain good relations with all countries. It is not a NATO member, and it also tried to maintain good relations with both the USSR and its successors, mainly Russia, which is economically by far more powerful and important than Ukraine. Austrian business is trying very hard to maintain good relations with Russia. And in some cases lifting of sanctions imposed on the RF is frankly advocated. By the way, more than 20 years ago, V. Putin, when he was not yet a Russian President, visited Austria repeatedly both on vacation and to establish ties with Russia. This explains everything you asked me about, those are the reasons for the Austrian interest in Russia.

But Austria also has very good relations with Ukraine. Therefore, it is taking appropriate measures to avoid an imbalance in these relationships. Austrian President A. Van der Bellen acts as a kind of a balancer to show that our relations with Ukraine are no less important than our relations with Russia.

— Can this be considered the basis of Austrian politics? There is a saying for such cases: “To run with the hare and hunt with the hounds”.

— On the other hand, it should be noted that Austria in many respects is trying to move in line with the policies of Germany, in particular, the political views of Angela Merkel. And this is very good for Ukraine…

Answering the question of why the Austrian media are paying relatively little attention (maybe except for covering the war in the Donbas) to Ukraine today, I would remind you that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz recently visited Moscow, and that on June 5, V. Putin is going to visit Austria. Our media pay more attention to it, not least that this may produce more business for Austria. One also should not forget that now the West, as you can read in the newspapers, has questions to President Poroshenko as a politician, the answers to which are sometimes not to the point in the West’s view.

— Our President now has to answer not only the West's questions. Our society also wants explanations for the difficult situation that we are experiencing.

— I would advise you to look through the pages of foreign media, for example, the Swiss ones, and see what is being written on this today. As for the visit of the President of Austria to Ukraine… This visit was important for President Poroshenko, because it was an opportunity to highlight politically — like it was for Putin as regards the Austrian Chancellor’s visit shortly prior to elections in Russia.

— How will you perceive this option: Ukraine has become a debtor to the IMF, and cannot pay its debts due to known circumstances. And here its obligations may be passed on to some powerful players (Russia or somebody else) that then would have a legal right to dictate their conditions to our country? We will not go into details on the way of that “Dictating” — simply in the eyes of the whole world everything happened within the political legal framework, despite the annexation of the Crimea, the seizure of lands in the Ukrainian East…

— I should tell straight off that the IMF is a supranational structure, and in my view it cannot pass on the state obligations you have mentioned to someone else. If there are debts of the Ukrainian state companies, transferred to the subordination of other “players”, then this may happen. As we could see in Argentina, which was caught up by default, the regulatory authorities in such issues, such as the Paris Club, plays a leading role in how to deal with the state debts which cannot be served.

— As for the “Nord Stream 2”, which Russian Gazprom is stubbornly laying on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. How to perceive the Europeans' idea that the economy should dictate rules to politics, that is, the economic benefit comes first, even if it contradicts all political, democratic, human values?

— In Russia big business is mostly driven by politics, not so in Western world countries. There such big players as Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Facebook, arms manufacturing companies, etc., are influencing politics through their lobbies. This influence is sometimes so powerful that through it even wars are waged, one of the true reasons for that being business. Putin has invested heavily into lobbying in order to realize his plans. He has bought up important lobbyists from former top-notch politics for his plans. These are former Chancellors of Germany, Austria, the former Austrian Minister of Finance and some more. This is not difficult at all. He simply offered them salaries twice or three times higher than they got in previous public positions. Who will refuse to accept such an offer when it is supported by millions?

— That is, the consequences of politics depend on the morals and material affluence of the politicians themselves?

— In such cases I always say that business is similar to the behavior of women of easy virtue. And this explains that the “Nord Stream” is much more a political project than an economic one. Can you imagine that, to give an example, new big steel plants are being built at a time when there is a huge overcapacity of production facilities everywhere. No, this will not happen unless it is for building plants with substantially higher efficiencies and consequently considerable production cost advantages in the industry; and in any case some less cost-efficient capacities will be closed, i.e. taken from the market. But this does in no way apply to the Ukrainian gas pipeline system which is obviously able to work flawlessly! Western Europe, in the narrow sense of the word, may call this a business project, taking into account that Russia is making them an attractive offer whatever the cost. Understand: “Nord Stream” is first and foremost, a political project! Imagine for a moment that Ukraine offered me a factory practically for free. To me, this would be a business project, and to Ukraine — a political project. This is a matter of semantics and of the angle of view — what to call politics, and what — business.

We see that both, the Baltic States and Poland are against because it is simply a political project making them become very dependent on Russia when implemented.

— Let's deviate from the general political theme and turn to the simple, so to speak everyday one. You have probably heard that Ukraine should not break with its northern neighbor, because it is not in the interests of the Ukrainian people. There are family relations on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border, many of our citizens are earning a living in Russia. But I have never heard (at talk shows, television debates) anybody raising the following question: why a Ukrainian always tries to earn a living, while a Russian always tries to take away, capture, “commandeer” something from somebody?

— It is obvious to me personally that, not least due to ethnological reasons, in some aspects the character of an Ukrainian differs from that of a Russian. But to answer your question, one should understand that the current problems are not a consequence of misunderstandings between people, between Russians and Ukrainians. This is a problem of interstate relations, in particular political relations between Russia and Ukraine. Undoubtedly the Kremlin has been heating that up and it is still doing that also with regard to other neighbors of Ukraine like Poland and Hungary. And this is po-li-tics! Like what we see in relations between North and South Korea — at least until recently, or between Albania and Serbia.

I've been to Moscow twice, had to do with Russians, whom I consider quite simple in communication. But when in a long-term relationship between people of different nationalities something starts, so to speak, boiling, then I believe, to emphasize that again, the reason in many cases is nothing else but politics. People who were friends become enemies for political reasons. It is evident that Putin made a catastrophic mistake when thinking that people who communicate in Russian are having Russian mentality or a desire to become Russian citizens.

— As far back as to the end of the 1990s, it became clear that Russia needed the Ukrainian gas pipeline through which it sells gas to Europe. Consequently Ukraine cannot be annexed like the Crimea, as the history of its creation cannot be rewritten like the history of Kyiv Rus. Incidentally, it's necessary to remind Muscovites that not long ago gas was supplied to Moscow from Trans-Carpathian region, and only when the development started in Siberia and Yamal, it could have begun to be pumped for sale to Western Europe. This gas pipeline kept Russia from a military offensive because it could be damaged, and this, of course, would affect gas supplies and create havoc. Now that most of Western Europe agrees to laying the “Nord Stream”, there will be no such risk following the start of operation, and the Russian army could easily start a war against Ukraine. What do you think about the prospect of such a geopolitical option? Is this worth the Russian supporters in Austria liking their profits from Russian-Austrian projects?

— I fully agree that the construction of the “Nord Stream” gas pipeline will increase the danger for Ukraine. I heard from Turchynov and other high officials, for example during their speeches at the recent Kyiv Security Forum, about the deployment of a Russian military groupings in the East of Ukraine and along its border all the way from Belarus to Krasnodar. But will Putin risk to conduct an offensive? Merkel believes that such an offensive is practically excluded. Because in her view this would be another grave violation of international laws. I think that such thoughts may be too one-sided and dangerous. Because she appears to judge Putin from the point of view of her own mindset and mentality. But one should try to look at things with Putin’s eyes, to try to think in the way he thinks and acts. Few do that, and that gives him some advantage. This is an intercultural misunderstanding. For example, it would never occur to a European that it is possible with a touch of a finger to put poisonous gases on people, as it was recently done in Syria! For people like Putin, this seems not to be a problem. To put it very simple: When Mrs. Merkel says to Putin that “you should not do this”, Putin may nod firmly, but will he comply or has he done in the past what he had promised?

— It is not so much the matter of Putin himself, as of the circle he represents?

— All his entourage, so to speak, whistles his whistle. If someone refuses to “whistle”, he/she is immediately removed from this circle (or maybe from the world) forever. All this is done to preserve the authority of him and his environment. For some reason this fact is always underestimated. I did not have the occasion to have contact with Putin himself, except once: In 2002 I had the honor to be invited to the State Banquet hosted by the then Austrian President Mr. Klestil in honor of President Putin on occasion of Putin’s State visit to Austria. According to diplomatic protocol, the names of the invitees are read out at the defilée, hands are shaken with the Presidents and there is a short time window for some words to be exchanged: Putin’s German is fluent and without much accent, he was smiling and there was — shocking as it was for me — practically no reflection at all in his light-blue eyes. Once a respectable Ukrainian high-ranking official explained to me that people of this level have well-washed brains. At that moment I was asking myself: what are such people capable of?

— Yes, in Russia, those whose brains remained unwashed, always ended in accidents. Suffice it to recall the fate of such Russians as Generals Lebed, Rokhlin, journalists Politkovskaya, Kholodov, Shchekochikhin, politician Nemtsov… What do you think, Western politicians should take this into consideration when they sit down at a negotiation table with Russians, or does this not concern them, because the economy, as you said, dictates politics?

— Future will tell.

— Thank you for your answers to my questions.

Interview recorded by Oleh Makhno

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