Interview with the political scientist and former journalist and diplomat, Joseph Cassar who served as Ambassador of Malta to the Russian Federation from 2002 to 2005. (Moya Malta magazine - Spring 2017).
Dr Cassar, could you please share your impressions about the major changes in the course of Russian history in the past three decades?
Cassar: The past three decades were of enormous significance on contemporary Russian history. This is especially more in the political, economic and social transition that occurred in the Russian Federation immediately after the dissolution of what was then the Soviet Union. This was not an easy transition and Russia and its people had to overcome great political and economic challenges.
The initial rapidity of that transition had a number of social consequences. On becoming Head of State in the year 2000, President Putin set himself two primary targets that gained great popular support.
The first was that of correcting the great economic imbalances within the Russian Federation that were generated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was done through measures that ensured a greater level of social justice.
The second was that of seeing Russia actively resume its international responsibilities in order to play a more significant role in the international community.
These two aims continued to inspire President Putin’s first two terms in office 2000 to 2008 as they did President Dmitry Medvedev’s term (2008-2012) and President Putin’s current third term in office.
What are your recollections of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU?
Cassar: Soon after becoming Secretary General of the then Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to introduce a number of economic and political reforms within the USSR. Initially, when the dual notions of glasnost and perestroika were first launched, many in the West thought that this was merely a propaganda exercise.
The Reagan-Gorbachev Geneva Summit of November 1985, the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) of February/March 1986 and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan between May 1988 and February 1989 were all events that convinced the West that Gorbachev was determined to bring irreversible changes within both the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc.
The Bush-Gorbachev Malta Summit in December 1989 that was preceded only days before by the fall of the Berlin Wall, is often said to have brought an end to the Cold War. As European countries that previously formed part of the Warsaw Pact broke away from Moscow, followed by the secession of republics forming the USSR, hardliners within the CPSU, became even more convinced that they had to resist and get rid of Gorbachev at all cost, as was evident in the short-lived coup of August 1991 and later the formal dissolution of the USSR.
As a result of the already mentioned harsh problems and challenges encountered during transition, there exist wide divergent views on how Mikhail Gorbachev’s role in history is to be judged, though personally I believe that eventually this will be positive.
What were the most memorable moments during your stay in Russia?
Cassar: There were many solemn state events that remain memorable in view of their historical or symbolical significance.
One such event was the visit of the Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami in May 2003 to attend the EU-Russia Summit and the celebrations marking the 300th Anniversary of the founding of St Petersburg.
An annual event that had enormous significance to me personally as it had for millions of Russians was the May 9 commemoration of Victory Day - День Победы. The presence of World War II veterans on such occasions was extremely touching, as was the remembrance of the millions who lost their lives during that conflict.
There are other events that remain memorable because of their cruelty and the sorrow they generate. These include incidents of terrorism, such as:
- The Moscow Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of October 2002 with the death of 170 people;
- The Moscow Metro Railway bomb explosion of February 2004 with 40 people killed and 122 injured;
- The Beslan School siege massacre of September 2004 that ended with the death of 385 people.
Clearly, within the lives of families and the community there are also many happy occasions. During my time in Moscow I had the fortune to attend joyful events such as baptisms, weddings and adoptions that bring families together in a spirit of celebration.
How would you evaluate Russia-Malta relations?
Cassar: This year Malta and Russia will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, the broader spectrum of Maltese-Russian relations has an even longer history with different levels of intensity influenced by broader international developments.
In the past half-century, successive governments in Moscow and Valletta have sought to strengthen these bilateral relations without ignoring problems or difficulties that periodically arise and have to be resolved or overcome.
The people to people relationship is what gives greater anchorage to these bilateral relations. This was again evident in both the talks and the three cooperation agreements in the fields of education, tourism, and trade signed during Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s visit to Moscow in November 2016.
You have worked in many countries. When you stayed in Russia you became familiar with Russian people and their mentality .What were you most surprised at? What attracted you most?
Cassar: In 1866, Russian poet Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev wrote the poem “Умом Россию не понять” that remains famous and often cited by Russians and foreigners alike. The poem says: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind, or measured with a common yardstick; she has a unique stature – one must simply believe in Russia.”
As in the case of any other country, one cannot really generalise on the character or the mentality of a people. Yet, there are indeed some common traits that are influenced by a common language, history, traditions and spiritual belief.
I was always impressed by the dedication of most Russians to their families and the way in which they work hard to provide the best for their children. In this regard, one also appreciated the ability to still enjoy simple things in parks and other open spaces as a source of joy, from reading to poetry and music, from dancing and singing, to sharing a meal.
The political picture of the whole world is undergoing unpredictable changes. The EU Malta Summit has just come to an end. The EU Heads of Government considered the most important issues relating to the problems of immigration and Brexit. What is your forecast for the future of the European Union, optimistic or pessimistic?
Cassar: On the 25th March, the EU leaders will meet in Italy to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties. In these sixty years, what was once a European Economic Community has grown to a complex and extensive European Union now facing enormous challenges, including the ones that you mentioned.
Rather than optimism or pessimism, I think what should guide European leaders at this point in our common history is a strong sense of realism, as that which inspired the founding fathers of the European Economic Community sixty years ago. We perhaps need to rediscover the determination to shun unnecessary bureaucracy and refocus instead on building an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe in order to eliminate political, social and economic barriers.
The solidarity which binds Europe with other countries, especially those in need of sustainable development, remains an essential component of future action.
Thanks to the ideals set in the Treaty of Rome, Europe has witnessed growing cooperation between countries that were traditional enemies of one another and led Europe and the world into war.
We pride ourselves that within our lifetime we have witnessed the end of the Cold War. Regretfully, some mentalities that prevailed during the Cold War era still persist. One hopes that, as the UNESCO Constitution reminds us, it is only through “building peace in the minds of men” that we can ensure a safer, more prosperous world for future generations.
The traditional question of our magazine: What would you like to wish the readers of My Malta?
Cassar: For those readers who have never come to Malta, I would wish to encourage them to visit and discover the beauty of our Islands. To those readers who already have been to Malta or presently live here, I wish to thank them for visiting us or being with us.
The Russian Community in Malta has contributed enormously in making Russia and its rich culture known to the people of Malta and Gozo and for this we are most grateful for, as I said earlier, it is people who are at the heart of relations between states.