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Thomas Friedman: Putin Fears Ukraine Much More Than America

Thomas Friedman: Putin Fears Ukraine Much More Than America

Serhiy Leshchenko, Ukrainska Pravda, 25 April 2014, 17:40

Thomas Friedman is an American journalist, one of the world’s most influential columnists writing twice weekly for the world’s most influential newspaper, The New York Times. His subjects for analysis, not mere news coverage, are international politics, globalization, and the Middle East.
Friedman received the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes for covering the 1982 Lebanon war, and the name of his second to last book, The World Is Flat, has become just as much of a mem as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. All Western researchers and experts either agree with him or refer to him.
While visiting Kyiv with his lecture, A Brief Theory of Everything, Friedman shared with Ukrainska Pravda his impartial thoughts on the transformations of post-revolution states, and spoke about Vladimir Putin’s fears.

Ukrainska Pravda (UP): How would you assess the situation in Ukraine? In your opinion, what are the most realistic scenarios that may unfold?

Thomas Friedman:  I would very much like for Ukraine to find its own path to the future that could be acceptable for the majority of its people, and that would encounter no problems on the part of Russia. But chances for this sort of developments are disappearing with every passing day. The future is at the stake now, and it is either Putin wins or Ukraine wins.

Ukraine has been doing a lot of things right. But your country needs to create an inclusive and legitimate political system that is able to implement Maidan’s expectations through the real political parties, government bodies, and the political process.

Several days ago I wrote in my New York Times column that Putin is much more afraid of you than us. Do you realize what in fact is going on? If Ukraine manages to translate Maidan ideas into life, and elect worthy leaders able to bring the spirit of Maidan into the politics, into the relations with the EU, and if both the East and the West are going to have good prospects, all that becomes a clear and present danger to Putin.

This is what he fears more than our planes, tanks, or even sanctions. The hardest part for him is that there are merely people next door who speak the same language and who have been associated with Russia for a long time, and now these very people choose their destiny themselves.

I do not want a war with Putin, and I do not want Ukraine to be at war with him. I wish the Russian people all the best. But Putin’s present behavior indicates that he poses the greatest threat to Russia and to Ukraine, of course. The road he chose leads Russia to a bad end.

So I think Ukraine has to set up the right priorities, namely to form a legitimate inclusive government that will be introducing Maidan ideas through parties, policies, elections, and good governance.

UP: You are speaking about an inclusive government that is, the one that will be including representatives of all parties, even the members of the Party of Regions. Yet how can you offer positions in the government to those who were killing your supporters?

Friedman: Let us go back to the experience of the Arab Spring countries. Which country has achieved the best results by now?

UP: Tunisia has.

Friedman: And do you know which country the US helped the least?

UP: Tunisia?

Friedman: Exactly. Isn’t it strange that the country we helped the least has got the best results? Why? Tunisia experienced differences between the religious and the secular parts of its society.

Much the same, your country has a lot of differences in the standpoints of the East and the West. Tunisia got two important things out of its ordeals, first, a political philosophy ‘no winners or losers’.

For example, you don’t like someone, you don’t trust that person, it can happen. Say, you’re a religious person, and he is not. But you still have to find the way to write the Constitution, which will satisfy the requirements of all parties — together. This is where no one wins, and no one loses.

That means, first of all, that everyone should participate in the political process. Second, Tunisia has a very well-developed civil society, and it made reaching the general consensus possible; workers’ trade unions, professional associations of lawyers and doctors, women and human rights organizations made it possible.

They have quite a number of social institutions going back to the era of Habib Bourguiba [the first President of Tunisia — UP]. Their proximity to Europe had its impact, too.

Get people involved, create equal opportunities for everyone in politics, even if it’s hard for you to get along with somebody. These are the basic guidelines that the people of Ukraine should follow. This is what you can do.

UP: We have already had a similar experience. There was a broad coalition during President Yushchenko’s term, but its outcome was terrible.

Friedman: I’m not speaking about coalitions. I mean the ability to move forward based on common values. It’s not an alliance of people, it’s a merger of ideas, values. Your future is in the rule of law, in the EU, and in fair and transparent elections.

You need to identify common values, and unite as many people as possible around them. It must be a coalition of common values, not some pie-splitting: ‘You get this Ministry, and I get this one, so we can steal together.’

UP: What must Ukraine do? What must we focus at? Where?

Friedman: There are certain priorities. The first is to create a fair, worthy and inclusive government. You need to build an exceptionally strong civil society, to introduce transparency, and to have the  mass media involved.

The second is what I call ‘globalution.’ To me, the ‘globalution’ is a revolution from beyond. The more contacts with the EU Ukraine has, the more it shares in the common European standards of transparency, accountability, responsibility, and good governance.

UP: In your opinion, how effective was President Obama Administration’s policy on Ukraine?

Friedman: You know, we overestimate America and its capacities in such countries as Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, or Ukraine, and underestimate what people in those countries are able to do themselves. I’m more interested in your actions, they are much more important compared to what we can do.

UP: It seems to me that some Ukrainians were disappointed. After all, you signed the Budapest Memorandum…

Friedman: Of course.

UP: That is, we have President Clinton’s signature on this document, but the US didn’t interfere in the Crimean conflict. Ukrainians are losing their faith in America’s guarantees.

Friedman: I understand your disappointment. I’m not a representative of the US President’s Administration, so I’m not going to defend them. But I think what you do yourselves matters the most.

UP: Does it mean that we have to wage a war against Russia in order to defend the integrity of our country?

Friedman: Absolutely not. I don’t know Ukraine’s defence capacity or its abilities to fight Russia off.

UP: Our defence capacity is much lower than Russia’s.

Friedman: Yes. But I think if Putin seizes the Eastern oblasts of Ukraine it is going to be his biggest mistake and the beginning of the end of Putin’s regime.

UP: What makes you think so?

Friedman: My gut feeling tells me that people out there don’t want to be a part of Russia. They are more concerned with economical issues. They want to feel that they are respected here, and their opinions are taken into account. Secondly, if Putin does it Ukraine will be able to move freely toward the EU the very next day, and then, people in Donetsk and other cities will be wondering daily why the neighboring oblasts are doing so much better. And this will be another indicator of Putin’s wrong course of action.

These days, American page-oners are about Crimea. The economical situation is terrible there. Investments have been fleeing Russia; not only the money that has already been there, but the money of those who planned to invest in Russia as well. You can’t see the consequences yet, but you’ll definitely see them in a year.

UP: In your opinion, to what extent is the world going to change in 10-15 years?

Friedman: I would never have thought that I’d do an interview recorded on the iPhone Dictaphone. Ten years ago, you would have needed a big tape-recorder and a microphone to do that. And now you’re sitting in front of me with a handset. You can also make a few snapshots or shoot a video with it.

A smartphone is a very important thing. It’s not just a personal computer, it is a ‘very personal computer.’ They provide us with more and more opportunities.. If you didn’t speak English you could speak Ukrainian to me, and I would listen to you with the help of Google Translate, and speak to you in English, and you would be able to hear and understand me.

Ten years ago, we switched from PCs to smartphones, started using Wi-Fi, started using direct financing, crowdsourcing, and changed the data transfer methods, launched Indiegogo, Twitter, Facebook, and went all the way from Google to mass data processing.

These are all amazing achievements. If everything goes well, we’re going to see even greater things in the next 10 years.

UP:  Do you think America will remain the world leader? Or will it be China?

Friedman: It depends on what we are going to do. I wrote my last book on America. You can’t get anything by flaring your faults around or by pretending to be somebody extraordinary. We need to put efforts in order to achieve the results.

I think that the more narrow and interconnected our world becomes, the more important the timeless values like common sense or responsible parenthood are. These days, the responsible leadership or fair and just government mean a lot.

UP: Every country wants to have ‘a fair and just government.’

Friedman: Yes, but it’s not that simple.

UP: How do you get a good government, then?

Friedman: This is what you call leadership. There are countries where leaders and elite are completely corrupt, interested in plundering only. Other countries have more visionary elites. The latest New Yorker featured an article that compare Kurdistan and Baghdad. It was very interesting as a political analyst said that they steal 80% in Baghdad, and leave the country only 20%. In Kurdistan, they steal 20%, and leave the country 80%. When compared, we see that Kurdistan is fine, growing, and prospering.

I am not saying that one should steal 20% instead of 80%. One shouldn’t steal at all.

Now, let’s recall India and Pakistan. Back in 1950s, Javāharlāl Nehrū said that the development of institutions and technologies was of the highest priority. And Pakistan believed that the nuclear bomb, military bases, and officers’ clubs should be the priority. Today, we can see the difference.

So, some countries are lucky enough to have those visionary leaders while others have been suffering because of their corrupted elite.

I like Russia, yet I am with those who try to build their own future. I am not with those who come and say, you must stay within our sphere of influence.

UP: It is the Realpolitik of Henry Kissinger’s era.

Friedman: You are quite right.

UP:  You are saying that Ukraine needs new leadership, but Ukraine is 23 years old, and the US is 200 years older.

Friedman: I understand.

UP:  How can we cover that distance if we need to do it much quicker than you did?

Friedman: I know it is not that simple. But think about what you have already done. You overthrew the corrupt dictatorship in 3 months. It is a great achievement! The question is now, what is my strength, and what is his weakness?

His weakness lies with the things he fears the most. As I said, it is not the American tanks. He is afraid of the legitimate Ukraine. And if this is what he is afraid of, then you have to do just that, conduct fair and transparent elections, form the majority that would include responsible politicians, and continue to build the civil society that is going to keep a very close eye on them, day in and day out.

UP: Is there a threat for Russia on the border with China?

Friedman: The biggest risk for Putin is what he is unable to see. Do you know what are the things he’s not able to see?

He doesn’t notice a 23-year-old engineering graduate of Moscow University who has already decided to go to the Silicon Valley because he looks at the present-day Russia, and realizes there’s no future for him there.

He doesn’t see an investor in London, New-York, or Tokyo, either; the one who says, I thought about investing into Russian stocks, but I’ve changed my mind. This is what he’s unable to see.

UP: From your experience with the Arab Spring, how long does the window of opportunity stay open after the revolution?

Friedman: Good question. On one hand, there is no time limit. But on the other hand, there is energy that must be used while it’s still at its peak. This is why you must now hold fair elections.

Look at Tunisia. Or look at Poland. It had great problems 25 years ago. And look at what they have done in those 25 years! They are your neighbors.

The positive changes took place in Croatia as well. Are Poles really better than Ukrainians? Are they smarter?

You have enough time to start the changes. Yes, you may fold your hands, and say it is impossible, and this would be your reality. Or you can tell yourselves that you are able to do it – and get it really done.

Translated by Anatoliy Shara, edited by Inga Kononenko



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