Vladimir Yakunin, co-founder of The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Photo: Dialogue of Civilizations

Every year a think tank headquartered in Berlin brings together politicians, academics, and experts from around the world to discuss geopolitical and socio-economic issues on the Rhodes Island of Greece.

Named the Rhodes Forum, the annual event is regularly attended by high-calibre politicians such as the former prime minister of Israel Ehud Olmert, the former president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz and former Portuguese Minister of European Affairs Bruno Maçães.

Perhaps surprisingly, despite the ongoing tensions between Europe and Russia, one of the founders behind this think tank is Vladimir Yakunin, a prominent figure internationally and former KGB officer during Soviet times.

Once the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Secretary at the United Nations (1985 – 1991) and the President of Russian Railways (2005 – 2015), Yakunin is known as a political scientist nowadays. Inspired by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory, Clash of Civilizations, he named his think tank Dialogue of Civilizations, with a mission “to forge shared world views through dialogue, and to contribute to fair, sustainable and peaceful world order.”

“Politicians need to rethink their approach to globalization,” says Yakunin. “Globalization has led to power imbalance, making some nations more dominant than the others. But this is simply not sustainable.”

“We are now living in a world where the United States is a leading country, not the [only] leading country. The bi-polar world has ended.”

Geopolitical game-changer

As the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak spreads globally, with the number of infection cases hitting the two million mark, this pandemic is pressing the reset button on the world economy. The OECD has downgraded growth forecasts and estimates that the global economy could grow at its slowest rate since 2009. Meanwhile, the United States — the world’s largest economy — had seen more than 6.6 million jobless claims in the week ending April 4. 

Yakunin envisions possible scenarios as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. On the one hand, he agreed that more and more countries have been focusing on national interests, and looking at ways to limit their exposure to a further threat from abroad, including looking to localise supply chains. On the other, he points out that this pandemic has already been a great leveller when it comes to nations, and after a short-term spike in focus on national interests, he hopes that political leaders will start to work more closely together to tackle the challenges facing the world. 

For Yakunin, the current crisis may represent an opportunity for the United States and Russia to “reset” their diplomatic relations. Since 2014, the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and Yakunin is also on the sanction list. Given the new reality, Yakunin thinks that “President Putin and President Trump should come together and identify ways to work together.”

He said: “Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. But the world will face even greater challenges than the current pandemic, for example climate change. In this time of crisis, only solidarity among nations can help us to weather the storm. It is time to put ideological differences to the side and to address critical global issues together. We should not let historical events and cultural bias prevent us from moving forward.”

Sino-Russia relations

While some countries have seen the rise in anti-Chinese rhetoric since the Covid-19 outbreak began, Yakunin is optimistic about the Sino-Russian partnership. 

Yakunin recalled that the USSR was the world’s first nation to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and the Soviet Union also supported the PRC enormously in the early days. The “brotherhood” — claiming the USSR as the elder brother and China as the younger brother — of two countries was often celebrated in the propaganda.

Now, Yakunin said that the new generation of political elites in Russia, including President Putin, no longer follows such old-school thinking. As he said in a recent interview with China Global Television Network (CGTN): “Despite occasional sources of friction in the past, Russia has always viewed its closest neighbor as an important strategic partner. Today more so than ever.”

Asked if the troubled relationship with the United States is a fundamental driver to this partnership, Yakunin disagreed: “Looking at the US-Russia-China relations from a zero-sum perspective is an over-simplified way of understanding international relations. In the world of multilateralism, it consists of civilizations at the same level of equality, not in military terms, nor in economic terms, but with the equal status to engage in global dialogue.”

In the context of Russia — as the country looks east in view of the axis for global growth pivoted to Asia — China, Russia’s counterpart with over 4,000 kilometres of the shared border, will always be of great strategic importance to Russia, Yakunin said. 

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