Spanish diplomat Fernando Valenzuela is the head of the European Union's delegation to Russia. He sat down with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Danila Galperovich for a wide-ranging discussion of relations between Brussels and Moscow.
RFE/RL: The European Parliament recently held hearings about the upcoming elections in Russia and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also expressed her concern. How has Russia reacted to this criticism and to requests to conduct long-term election monitoring?
Fernando Valenzuela: Well, let me just start by saying that election observation -- let's talk about Europe -- is a normal element of any electoral process in that the OSCE and ODIHR [Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights], which is the office that takes care directly of these tasks, does it for practically everybody in Europe that holds elections. So, it is nothing exceptional; it is something normal. Nevertheless, in 2007 there was a, let's say, bad experience in the sense that it was not possible to agree on terms and so on. And so I think that it why there is a certain concern now to see that this does not happen again and that there can be a smooth and normal agreement on this issue between Russia and ODIHR. This is not with us, but with ODIHR. And this was also expressed at the last summit between Russia and the EU in Nizhny Novgorod, so we hope that actually now conversations will go on and will be successful. Because, yes, it is very important that observation is long-term observation. To observe elections the day of the elections has no interest practically. I mean, it has to be done, but does not lead to anything. It is the long-term preparation of the elections… because it is there where the whole process has to prove and show that it is fair and open.
RFE/RL: The process of democratization has many aspects, including development of the rule of law. In her speech, Ashton mentioned the case of former Yukos lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died while in pretrial detention, and the second trial of Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner, Platon Lebedev. But many observers think that Russia merely listens to such criticism and immediately disregards it.
Valenzuela: I hope not, I hope not. It is true that sometimes, I mean, certain things, of course, take time and the evolution of certain issues cannot be improvised or accelerated too much. It is true that for us it is very important because the partnership with Russia is extremely important for the European Union. It is very important to us and it is a partnership that has to be based on shared principles and values. So, it is very important -- and I hope that it is also equally important for the Russian authorities -- to see that these principles and values are perfectly developed and perfectly in place. That is why we consider that it is very important that in those aspects in which it is clear that Russia still has to make an effort that this is done.
And this is why also in our perspective this is a challenge of the partnership form of organization and this challenge of modernization in Russia has to evolve as a very important part of it aspects of rule of law. Because in the end modernization is not only about advanced technologies. It is also about that. It is more than an economic model. It is also about the whole system in which a country is based, the whole model, including the aspects related to freedom, related to political life, related to the rule of law, et cetera.
On the question of the court case, second judgment, yes, it was followed very closely by -- not only by us as the EU delegation, but by the EU member states. And we were following very closely the development of the case and so on. The final decision by the court raised a lot of concern and surprise, I would say, in the EU. Brussels issued a very clear statement and I'm not going to comment on it -- it is the statement of the EU authorities, which clearly expressed regret to see this coming in this way. So this, I think, is clear on this case. In the case of Magnitsky, it is a different situation. Unfortunately here we are talking about somebody who passed away, died, while he was in detention. So, it is also a question that has been extremely sensitive and raises a lot of concern. We see it in the European Parliament, in European public opinion. And it has been an issue that has been raised also on several occasions in the formal, official context between the EU and Russia. I think that we see now that there is this report, which brings a lot of light into the case, from what we know at this point, so this seems to point in the right direction.
RFE/RL: Is it possible that the European Union might introduce sanctions against Russian officials who were involved in the death of Magnitsky if the Russian government's investigation proves unsatisfactory?
Valenzuela: That has to be sorted out first, so let's not speculate on what is coming. But I think what we can see through the debates in the European Parliament, the debates in, for instance, the Dutch parliament, is that there is a concern about this. There is a concern about this case because it has become very emblematic, because it is important in nature, but also very emblematic. So, there is a clear attitude somehow of interest and expectation. So I think it is very important that the outcome of the case is an outcome that is impeccable in terms of the application of the law -- fair, just law -- and that responsibilities are, of course, clarified and positions taken. But let's not speculate with what is going to come. We have to wait.
RFE/RL: You mentioned the European Parliament. Russian officials often say, 'Let them pass whatever resolutions they want,' compared to their attitude toward the European Commission, which they consider pragmatic and less inclined to criticize Russia. How close are these two entities to one another?
Valenzuela: Well, they are extremely close. If you want to take the time to read the Lisbon Treaty, which is the one that is now in force in the European Union, you will see that the European Parliament has been entrusted with a lot of authority and a lot of power. So I think I'm sure that this is something that these persons that you refer to have said in a bit of a light manner and jokingly. I think that the European Parliament is a very serious institution which has a lot of power inside the EU.
RFE/RL: Russia and the EU often discuss the situation in the Caucasus in general and in Russia's North Caucasus in particular. Are there any consultations on these matters being conducted now?
Valenzuela: It is clear that this is an issue that is of importance to the European Union. Any situation that brings as a consequence violence and even terrorism and so on is an important one that you cannot overlook. As you said, this is not a problem which is unknown to the European Union. We unfortunately also have some problems of terrorism, so other problems of this kind, so, I think it is something we can understand very well. And occasionally, of course, this is a matter of discussion. Certainly, in our view, it is important when you have to face one of these situations is that you have to be extremely firm in how you fight against terrorism. At the same time, you have to be also very conscious of how you do it, in respect of laws, in respect of human rights. Not only for the issue of principle -- which is of course the most important one -- but also because in the end you are more effective and efficient in fighting terrorism when you do it that way.
RFE/RL: Russia and the EU have different opinions on whether Russia has fulfilled the agreements negotiated between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that ended the August 2008 military conflict between Russia and Georgia. Can you comment on these differences and what must Moscow do in order to completely comply with those agreements?
Valenzuela: I think this, of course, is a matter that is [too] complicated to be dealt with just like this. We think that there are certain aspects -- certain aspects, not all of the aspects, of course -- of the agreement that have not been fully fulfilled. At the same time, I think the important aspect is that we have these negotiations that are taking place in Geneva. I think that's the way we should continue dealing with this issue, hoping that these negotiations will be successful. They are going very slowly, but they are there. Obviously it is clear that this is an issue in which we have radically different positions from the very beginning because we have not recognized the independence of the two entities [Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. We absolutely support the territorial integrity of Georgia, which obviously is exactly the opposite of the position of Russia. So, here I think we have to acknowledge that we have different positions and what we have to do is to try -- diplomacy is there for something -- we have to try to work together even having this difficulty and, in due course, try to solve also this difficulty.
RFE/RL: The European Union usually adopts a very cautious approach to the frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. Usually, the EU focuses on humanitarian issues and puts off questions of status indefinitely. Doesn't this mean these conflicts will go on indefinitely?
Valenzuela: I think that, as you put it, it gives an idea that is not exactly 100 percent how it is. Because it is not that we want to postpone the status. On the contrary, if we could solve the status tomorrow, we would do it. I mean, it is not in our hands. If we could contribute to solve it tomorrow, we would do it. It is absolutely clear that frozen conflicts are very dangerous. We have seen it already. Let's hope that we don't see it again, but it is always an enormous potential risk. And another thing is if reality proves that we are not able to solve it immediately, in the mean time we have to take care of the people nevertheless. Sometimes, humanitarian aspects, very basic ones -- refugees, displaced persons. We cannot abandon them simply because we cannot reach an agreement on the status issues. So, it is not that we postpone anything. It is that simply -- unfortunately that is why they are called 'frozen conflicts' -- they have been very difficult to solve, [although] we see some specific progress at this time in some of them -- but the question is that in the meantime we can not overlook and not take care of people that are suffering the consequences of the conflict.
RFE/RL: But what about Kosovo, where the status was decided quickly and firmly?
Valenzuela: Well, it was not so fast. Let me remind you that the Kosovo conflict was in 1999 and the status issue was decided in 2008.
RFE/RL: Less than a decade. Isn't that quickly?
Valenzuela: This doesn't mean that it shouldn't be the same in Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem is that unfortunately, apparently, we, the EU, don't have the same weight in that case as we had in the case of Kosovo. In the case of Kosovo, we have to always remember that first it is near the European Union, so near that one day it might be part of the European Union. Second, there are nevertheless differences of appreciation. Not all the member states of the European Union have a uniform position. Some of them have not yet recognized Kosovo. And, the third aspect is that the EU had -- because of its closeness, because of its possible future in the EU -- the elements and the means to help in a very determined way. And that's what we have been doing and are doing. Our cooperation with Kosovo is absolutely fundamental. Unfortunately, it is not so much in our hands, the other conflicts. And I think that we have to try to find, with partners like Russia who have a very important role in these situations, to find the right solutions so we can speed up the processes.
RFE/RL: Moscow has been trying to get the EU to agree to a visa-free travel regime for some time now. Some observers are saying this goal can be achieved in the near future. How long do you think it will take to reach an agreement on this?
Valenzuela: Let me say two things which might seem contradictory but they are both absolutely true. One is that our commitment to reach one day a visa-free regime is a real commitment. So, it is not simply talking -- we really mean it. At the same time, it is also true that this is not something for tomorrow. We have now agreed on a common approach to it; we have agreed already in identifying the common steps needed to get there. And now I think we are about to agree on these common steps and start working on them. But this is going to be a relatively long-term process, which is difficult then to say because there are things that can go relatively fast [and] others will be a bit slower. So, really it is not a question to make guesses as to how long it will take. But it is very important also to say that in the meantime we are working on something that normally doesn't get that much attention, but which is very important in my opinion -- and that is visa facilitation. And visa facilitation is being renegotiated now, it is going to be amended, and is going to open, I think, very interesting opportunities. For instance, for a number of categories of professions, including journalists, most probably there will be longer-term visas with multiple entries, as is the normal practice. But even for normal citizens, once they have been issued visas a couple of times and everything has gone well and so on, they might be getting visas that can go, perhaps, up to five years with multiple entry. So this, of course, is being negotiated. We don't know how exactly it will look. But this will ease the movement and the exchanges enormously while we wait for the visa-free regime.
RFE/RL: You mention journalists, but a visa agreement regarding them is already in place, but Russia doesn't seem to be in a hurry to implement it with regard to European journalists.
Valenzuela: This is true. Quite often in the debate it is forgotten that it is not easier -- I would say sometimes even the contrary -- it is more difficult for European citizens to get a Russian visa than the other way around.