Individual and state interests are equal
Israel is one of the most visited countries in the world with the biggest number of holy places for believers of various religions. People go there as tourists and pilgrims, for business and cultural events, for medical treatment and permanent residence. Some people call Israel the historic motherland of Jews, others – a state of immigrants which brought together people from all over the world. Anyway, Russia maintains specific relations with Israel. One of the most competent experts in bilateral relations of our countries, Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the State of Israel Petr Stegny told VIP-Premier about the relations and many other things.
Petr V. Stegny has been Russian Ambassador to Israel since March 2007. Born in 1945 he graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and worked for seven years as Russian ambassador to Kuwait and five years to Turkey. In 1998-2003 he directed the Historic-documentary department of the Russian foreign ministry. He holds a PhD degree and is the author of several history books on Russia and European diplomacy of the XVIII century. He is a laureate of the Pan-Russian literary contest Alexander Nevsky. He speaks Arabic, English and French languages. Awarded with state decorations, including the Friendship Order. Married with a son, daughter, and four grandchildren.
COLLISIONS IN BILATERAL RELATIONSHIP
– It is common knowledge that relations between our countries have not been always smooth. How would you characterize present-day Russian-Israeli relations and the contribution of the embassy?
– During the history of the State of Israel, i.e. 61 years, several metamorphoses took place in our relationship. After diplomatic relations were established in 1948 they were twice severed and twice restored. However regardless of any developments the Israelis have always been and remain well disposed to Russia. They remember that the Soviet Union played a major role in the creation of the independent State of Israel. Our ambassador to the United Nations and later Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko addressed the UN General Assembly in November 1947 and actually outlined the basis for a resolution that envisaged the creation on the Palestinian territory of two states: Arab and Jewish.
When Israel was created Jews from our country began to emigrate there regardless of relations on the political stage. The process has never stopped and was an irritant for bilateral relations specifically in the ’50-60s. The political climate between our countries warmed up only after 1991 when diplomatic relations were restored for the second time. That happened, in particular, due to distinguished international relations expert Alexander Bovin who became the first Russian ambassador to Israel. It was he who formed the algorithm of our embassy activities in new political conditions.
At present relations between our countries are developing organically and naturally. We proceed from life and really existing cooperation. There is a constant search for new points of coincidence where we have cooperation potential and which comply with the general concept of international interests. Since 2005 presidents of Russia and Israel have been meeting at least once a year and there are all chances to preserve the rhythm in future.
DIAMONDS OF RELATIONS
– What is the priority in relations between Russia and Israel from the traditional triad of international relations – politics, economy, or culture?
– Naturally, our countries do not limit themselves by top-level political dialogue. We have, for example, a well-designed mechanism of consultations between the foreign ministries. Contacts at the level of department directors or deputy ministers take place approximately once a month. The necessity of such contacts has intensified of late after Israel expanded outside the regional framework and became more active in the United Nations and global policy. Security councils of our countries also maintain traditional ties and their representatives meet twice a year.
Economic relations are developing at a good pace, but the annual trade turnover of 2.7 billion dollars remains below the desired level. It should be noted there is an immense potential to boost the turnover, first and foremost, due to energy carriers exported by Russia. Israel is a world-known diamond cutting center, while Russia produces a lot of uncut diamonds. There were times when diamond trade and cutting accounted for up to 40 percent of bilateral turnover. The market has recently collapsed because of the crisis, but the demand as well as our relations in the sphere will definitely recover.
Good hopes are pinned on nanotechnologies. Israel has several dozen companies and world-known research centers, as well as numerous scientists engaged in the sphere. They are ready to work some time in Israel and some time in Russia, but our country has to create the necessary conditions for that. At present Rosnano State Corporation is drafting an intergovernmental agreement on nanotechnologies. A joint fund is planned to finance scientific research. Therefore, I believe prospects are good.
The same concerns agriculture. The Israelis succeed to harvest record-high crops on their churlish and stony lands, while their dairy farm milk production volumes exceed the figures of leading European competitors.
– Do you want to say the notion of “Jewish peasant” that we conceive as a joke has become a reality in Israel?
– There is no doubt about it. Present-day kibbutz, i.e. agricultural communes in Israel, educate such an attitude to labor, advocate such a socialist welfare distribution principle and socialization of production means which people could hardly imagine even in the period of developed socialism… In June agriculture ministers of Russia and Israel held a very productive dialogue at the grain forum in St. Petersburg and set up a taskforce. We can definitely say that strategic links have emerged in the sphere. Immense Russian territories and Israeli high technologies can yield a good cooperation result.
However cultural and humanitarian ties undoubtedly remain a priority in our relations. Benevolent conception of classical Russian culture is evident in Israel. For a majority of people it is tantamount to an inconvertible gold coin that does not devalue with time. Each week Israel holds a cultural or scientific event involving distinguished Russian theaters, popular vocalists and musicians… I can cite one vivid example to confirm the priority of the issue. We have an agreement on cultural and scientific cooperation, which calls to annually sign cultural exchange programs. However no programs have been signed in the past 15 years as there is no need for them. I did not see such an intense cultural life with Russian participation in any other country.
RUSSIAN DIASPORA IN ISRAEL
– Do Russian embassy staff often contact representatives of the Russian Diaspora and organizations of compatriots in Israel?
– A big number of compatriots is a major specific for Israel. Alexander Bovin prudently realized it at his time and designed a dual activity model for the Russian ambassador. On the one hand, it is combined diplomacy like in any foreign embassy; but on the other hand, it is permanent maintenance of constructive relations with boundless Russian community. We work to keep the tradition.
There is a strong pan-Israeli association of Russian immigrants headed by Michael Raif. It is a member of all international structures and the Russian Union of Compatriots. There are very strong veteran organizations, the association of victims of the siege of Leningrad (close to 300 people), numerous unions of Russian writers, artists. Tel Aviv has a Russian cultural center. The main principle of our work with all of them is to care for real interests of the people, including non-members of any organization.
Our consular office has often to work as a social security department. We pay pensions to 35 thousand citizens living in Israel. They are people who emigrated to the country before 1992 and retained Russian citizenship. The staff of the consular office of the Russian embassy and of the General Consulate in Haifa regularly travel to various cities and settlements of Israel to issue various certificates to pensioners and help them with consular formalities. It is difficult for the aged people to travel to capital cities to timely receive the necessary documents, but they do not want to disrupt their ties with Russia. And we help them in that.
DUAL CITIZENSHIP, LANGUAGE, EXTRADITION...
– Mr. Ambassador, how many Russian immigrants are in Israel and what is the dynamic of permanent resettlement to the country? Does Israel allow dual citizenship, why are there problems with extradition of the accused, and what is the attitude to the Russian language?
– There are various data on the number of Russian-speaking citizens in Israel. Some data say there are close to 1.5 million people, while the total population comprises close to 7.5 million. If we speak about Israelis with long-time Russian roots, their number will be much bigger. I believe it would be proper to speak about 50-60 percent of the total population. Last September Russia and Israel signed a visa-free travel agreement for their citizens. The civilized world is becoming globalized and our countries are a part of that world. Therefore, the initiative became mutually acceptable. It has been done, first and foremost, in the interests of ordinary people to ease the life not only for Russian ethnics in Israel, but also for pilgrims, tourists, businessmen… It brought fruit, as the number of people from Russia crossing the Israeli border has doubled this year against last year. Today other former Soviet republics want to follow Russian suit and agree on visa-free travel with Israel, however the local government so far is only considering
Statistics on permanent resettlement from Russia to Israel are also contradicting. Today nothing impedes a person to reside in Israel with an Israeli passport and in Russia with a Russian one. It is very difficult to calculate the number of the former and the latter. This is common world practice, which is quite new for us. We and the Israelis are monitoring the process and trying to comprehend whether it has more negative or positive aspects. De-jure Israel does not recognize dual citizenship, but de-facto we know about 200 thousand Israeli holders of Russian passports. And nobody gets arms twisted for this clear legal inconsistency. Israeli approach to such a situation is commensurate to the interests of an individual which are equal to the interests of the state.
The justice ministries of our countries are considering an intergovernmental agreement on extradition of people accused of crimes committed on the Russian territory. However the process has been currently suspended on our initiative. Although the problem in relations with Israel is quite actual, it is completely new for our country. Russia has similar agreements with Baltic republics, but so far there have been no enforcement cases. I can say the process has begun, but I don’t know when it will be over.
As for the attitude to the Russian language, I would say many countries which are geographically close to Russia and consider themselves civilized can learn a lot from Israel in this respect. Israel does not ignore the Russian language and it never tried to oust it. There is an official line to study two state languages in Israel: Hebrew and Arabic, but not to the detriment of other languages. The first foreign language here is English, while French used to be the second for a long time, but ceded the place to the Russian language today. The Russian is taught in schools and higher educational establishments. Israeli specialists prepared special manuals for children from mixed families this year.
Besides domestic Israeli initiatives, there are also outside non-government organizations which actively promote the process. First and foremost, I would like to mention the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation headed by Vyacheslav Nikonov. The foundation is very efficient and I highly appreciate its efforts to support the Russian language. To study in the Israeli Open University in Tel Aviv by correspondence it is sufficient to simply speak Russian. The same concerns all exams and the diploma. The Russian-language state diploma triggers no employment problems. It is accepted on the whole territory of the country.
The Russian language, culture and commonplace customs and habits have become an integral part of both social and political life. They speak Russian to me everywhere in Israel – in the presidential office and the foreign ministry. A growing number of official negotiations between Russian and Israeli delegations are conducted in the Russian language. One may claim it is not important for a professional which language to speak. But that is not true in reality. The absence of a language barrier and the presence of commonplace habits promote the formation of a civilized view on many political processes.
Interviewed by Viktor SIRYK