In the Security Council
Security Council, United Nations, Russia foreign policy, UN Reforms, multilateralism
He has a great sense of humour, Mr Ambassador. One day, by pure chance, I ran into him at the UN and took the liberty of asking if he was the person I thought he was ... He simply laughed and say — "Hush, please don’t tell anybody!"
However, every time there is a sensitive subject discussed in the Security Council, His Excellency is requested by the media to express his point of view — a task he carries out with brilliance.
Let us briefly state some of his long list of merits … He is a graduate of Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations, and has a Ph.D. in history from the USSR Diplomatic Academy. He has been Director of the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics/ Russian Federation. He also served as a spokesman for the Ministry and was Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation from 1992 to 1994. Prior to his current diplomatic post, Vitaly Churkin was his country’s Ambassador to Belgium from 1994 to 1998, and to Canada from 1998 to 2003. He was then Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, a post he held from 2003 to 2006. He was also the chairman of the Senior Officials of the Arctic Council — an enthusiast for the Arctic wilderness.
Q: You have a long and impressive diplomatic career. Which, among all your assignments, have you appreciated the most, and for what reason?
You make me sound like an old man! (Editoral note: His Excellency is in his mid-50s). Yes, in fact, I have been very fortunate in my life. I think that everything I have done has been very interesting. If you want me to go all the way back, I spent five interesting years as an interpreter at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Geneva back in the 1970s. Then I was a junior diplomat — a very interesting posting — in Washington DC in a period when things were changing. I came there in 1982 when Leonid Brezhnev was still in power, and I left in 1987 when Gorbachev had taken over. Then there was a very fascinating time when I was the last spokesman of the USSR Foreign Ministry. During my relatively short fourteen-month term, I worked for five different Foreign Ministers — if you count Shevardnadze twice because he returned for a very short period before the USSR fell apart. So I had a lot of fun. This is my third ambassadorial posting, and all of them have been both very different and very interesting. First of all, I was ambassador to Belgium — an interesting and diverse country whose people were very hospitable. I also had dealings with NATO during an important period in shaping Russia’s relations with both it and the Western European Union (WEU). Some people might
remember the WEU. I think that officially it still exists on paper, but its functions have been merged with those of the European Union. The WEU was a military and
political organization of European countries, but without any troops. They did have a Secretary-General though. Anyway, this was only to show you that it was quite important at that time.
Then, of course, came Canada which was rather different from Belgium. Canada is a very big, beautiful country and I covered it from East to West, and from North to South — often driving myself long distances from one point to another. For Russia, Canada is a very important country because there is an important Northern dimension to our co-operation. Canada is a G8 member country too, so there is additional contact when some important things happen.
Then, after leaving Canada, my main preoccupation was chairing the Arctic Council. To my surprise, I had to carry the flag of the Arctic Council all over the world because wherever people discussed climate change or indigenous populations, I was supposed to show up and tell people about all the good things the Council was doing in those areas. So I visited a lot of interesting places, like Spitsbergen, Greenland, Alaska ... I was also on the Barents Council.
Now I’m in New York! It is a very special place. Professionally, it is very interesting but definitely the most demanding too. The special thing about New York that I did not realize before (although in the past I had the opportunity to attend meetings of the General Assembly when I accompanied various Foreign Ministers), you really get the feeling of being "in the world" when you sit on the Security Council or in the General Assembly. When you talk to people in the corridor, you immediately know about things happening in far away places, which people do not often think about in Russia or other countries. It is fascinating.
Q: In your capacity as Ambassador to the United Nations, what do you
consider the main areas of interest for the Russian Federation today?
I will give my personal opinion, as I do not think one can easily identify the most important matters. Russia is a global power and a permanent member of the Security Council, where we are supposed to be dealing with all issues. Some of them are closer to our concerns, others go beyond them. I would say that the main interest for Russia, given its responsibility as a permanent member of the Security Council, is to make sure that all avenues are explored to settle the most difficult international problems that exist.
The Security Council is dealing with the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear issue, various problems on the African continent — Darfur is perhaps the most prominent one. There is this whole area of conflict situations. It is very important to try to find a way for us to solve them or at least bring the matter closer to a solution. If we were to be successful in that, then things could be improved in the world. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, even though we do sometimes make progress in some areas.
Then, of course, comes something for which Russia was one of the founding fathers and that is the anti-terrorist dimension of the UN activities. There are various committees dealing with the problems of terrorism, and this is something that is very important for Russia. Then come all other aspects of UN activities — economic, environmental — all of them are important for Russia.
Q: The Russian Federation is one of the P5 nations. On a personal front, what does this imply for you and your colleagues?
It implies that we spend quite a lot of time on Security Council (SC) matters. We are closely involved in preparing virtually all decisions of the SC. It is a kind of an open
secret that, in many cases, the first resolution of the SC is discussed by the Permanent Five and then placed before the rest of the Council. Sometimes some other
countries are also involved in these initial discussions. For instance, when we were
working on the North Korean nuclear problem, Japan was then a Member of the SC and was involved as the sixth participant in this rather complex process. On the Iranian nuclear issue, Germany is involved even though they are not at this point a member of the SC, but there is a format of six and we have maintained this format when we prepare resolutions.
This implies that there is a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. The stakes are high and you need to make things work: decisions carefully thought through; maintaining the unity of the SC. This, at least in our mind, has a very high price. All the time, we are trying to make sure — if it is at all possible — that we can generate consensus in the SC. It does not always happen, but at least we try.
Q: There is a lot of talk about reforming the Security Council. What kind of Security Council would, in your opinion, be ideal?
First of all, we accept that the SC must be reformed. It must be enlarged because there are a number of absent countries who would seem to have a strong case to be regular members of the SC. However, you cannot have them all! One of the requirements in the SC is to be effective in terms of it working habits. The SC must therefore remain
compact, but we do not have a specific figure. My immediate predecessor, Andrei Denisov, coined the phrase "20+". What this "+" means remains to be seen, but certainly if the SC were made too big, it would really put a strain on its functioning. Let me explain. One of the things that many people outside the United Nations do not realize (I did not know it either) is how much time is spent on consultations. Nobody outside the Council can appreciate this work. The very positive and interesting thing about it is that there are real discussions and you can feel your arguments making a difference. On an important issue, everybody wants to speak, so you can imagine the time spent if you have thirty members on the Council. Even with fifteen members we sometimes spend hours discussing the wording of a short statement or a decision, so "20+" would definitely create a difficult situation in terms of working conditions.Then, the prerogatives of the current permanent members should not be in any way be changed or weakened. This is a very firm position for all permanent members. Sometimes people try to limit the veto power. We are not going to accept this.
I think it’s very important to develop a reform formula for the SC that will not divide the United Nations. You cannot simply adopt a formula that only satisfies a two-thirds majority. We think that there must be a formula that receives the approval of the over-whelming majority of the members of the United Nations. We should not divide people on this issue but rather unite them. Generally speaking, this is my
understanding of the dynamics of reforming the Security Council.
Q: What is the atmosphere like among the other ambassadors on the Security Council?
It is a very good question … We have a very good working relationship with practically all of the delegations, heads of the delegations and permanent representatives. We have fun even during some very tense discussions among the Permanent Five on some thorny issues — jokes and pulling each others’ legs. The atmosphere is very good. Really, the lines of communications are open and nobody is hiding a knife behind his or her back. So you can really communicate and deal with people. It’s an excellent
Q: It is also secret!
Yes, it is! But I’m sure you can talk with people who are present in consultations, and they can tell you that all this happens in very good humour. There are no hard feelings and people do not take things personally. This does not affect personal and working relationships at all. As I said, it is a very good atmosphere.
Q: Some of your colleagues have told me that they think multilateralism is in danger. Do you share their point of view?
No, I do not think so. We experienced a uni-polar world after the end of the Cold War, and I think that people now realise that it has pretty much failed. Given the dynamics of the world, we need to work in multilateral fora. There is simply no other way! No solution can be achieved by the rule of one or two powers. This is simply not possible!
First of all, I think that the importance of the United Nations should not be
underestimated as it is doing many important things. There are eighteen or nineteen
peacekeeping missions alone. There are, of course, other elements that should be
looked at and maybe enhanced, but this is a very valuable asset that has been developed over the years by the international community. The idea is that we should try to make it more and more effective.
Q: The UN has been criticized for being inefficient with far too much bureaucracy. What is your opinion?
Everybody should always be criticized for not being effective. This way you provide incentives to examine your method of operation. This is something we are very mindful about. Let me tell you that right now we are discussing the initiative of the UN Secretary-General to reform the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. We have our experts sitting on various committees looking at this very carefully and making sure that no unnecessary positions are created. That’s the mechanisms and that’s why it has taken so long. The SG made a proposal several months ago, and then they started looking at the finer points and cutting out things that are not necessary, not rational, avoiding duplication, etc. This is something that should continue to happen in the United Nations.
Q: Looking at the recent history of your country, it may be said that Russia is back in the international arena. Where would you like to see your country in the near future?
I think that this is absolutely accurate. We are, of course, very fortunate that the
economic situation has improved. This has enabled the government to put
together a number of very serious programmes: demographic, social, educational, cultural. It is of crucial importance that these programmes are implemented successfully. It takes time and one has to be careful because the worst thing is to waste money. Unfortunately, Russia can be the kind of country that is not careful about how money is spent — and it can then disappear into the sand.
Secondly, I think that we are going to see a continued enhancement of Russia’s international profile. The good news for the international community is that Russia is thinking very much in co-operative ways. We are not pushing our own agenda anywhere. Of course, we have our interests, we have our neighbours, but we do not have any ulterior hidden motives. We are not working against anybody. We are trying to build as broad an international co-operation as possible in each case to tackle the serious problems that confront us. This is good news for the international community and it can be very comfortable with Russian diplomats under such circumstances.
Q: So Russia is a rising star?
We are in a much better shape than we were ten years ago. The financial and economic situation is much better, but also I think about the experience gained over the last fifteen years. After all, it was an unexpected development for Russia. It took a while to adapt to the geopolitical environment in which we found ourselves to adapt, to see what the limitations were for our co-operation with some countries. I think this is a combination both of our newly acquired strength, a better understanding of the world and having established several new relationships. We are now in a good position to try to utilize them for the benefit of our own country and for the international community.
Q: How many hours a day do you work?
I seldom leave the office before 9 p.m. Sometimes I must attend a dinner, and then I come back here to do some work and return home at 11 p.m. or even later. Now I think things are improving and I’m trying to organize something better for my colleagues. I told them that they have to get back to their families before midnight and we are trying to make this work!
Q: Finally, Mr. Ambassador, what do you do when you have some time off?
Well, I try to play some tennis, walk or go to a concert. One of my colleagues here is a helicopter pilot, but unfortunately I cannot brag that I have such an exotic hobby! I do not even travel much — too busy. This is a job where your mind is preoccupied with so many things.