Mr. Gudenus, you are considered as an Russia expert and a friend of Moscow. Where does this new - perhaps old - fear of Russia come from?
Gudenus: The fear is still based on the stereotypes of the Cold War, sometimes even on the experiences from the Second World War.
The Second World War ended in 1945 and the Cold War in 1989...
Gudenus: But the anti-Russian sentiments are still very easy to reactivate, as we can see. What is interesting is that all liberal and left media currently agitating loudly against Moscow are precisely the ones who like to accuse others to be prejudiced or xenophobic.
Whose interest does the fear of Russia serve?
Gudenus: Clearly not Europe's interest. Us Europeans associate with Russia much more than, for example, with the United States. Given the anti-Russian media storm one would perhaps not think that, but it is so. So we should ask: Whose interest, therefore, Europe and Russia not moving closer together serve? It is not hard to answer: Washington wants to prevent this at all costs.
Critics would accuse you now to be "anti-American"...
Gudenus: What a load of nonsense. These are simply facts. In terms of anti-Russian propaganda, the U.S. pushes the tempo. We constantly hear: All evil comes from Moscow, Russia is not a democracy but a dictatorship, Vladimir Putin is a dictator, etc. The fact that so many European media and politicians simply parroting this makes it very questionable. So they try to keep public opinion in line. No current anti-Russian resentment seems too cheap, not to be spread by Western mainstream media.
Isn’t the fear of Russia an important livelihood for the NATO?
Gudenus: Absolutely. The fear of Moscow clouds perception. Russia is not moving around the world with troop contingents to destabilize countries and overthrow governments. The Americans operate with the help of NATO and unfortunately also with the help of our governments.
Nevertheless, the fear of Russia in the 1990’s hardly played any role - until Putin brought it back. What is so scary about the Russian president?
Gudenus: Vladimir Putin took over an ailing country which was in the hands of pro Western oligarchs. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin after him had sold out the country. Russia was in a complete desolate state in the 1990’s. Yeltsin was not only controlled by oligarchs, politically he was a puppet of the West. In Moscow the joke was at that time to point to the U.S. Embassy instead of the Kremlin when asked where Russia is ruled from. That speaks volumes. Putin has put the country back on its feet and consolidated Russia. He disciplined a large part of the oligarchs. This is not well received in Washington and Brussels at all.
You speak Russian fluently, you have attended university in Moscow and a large part of your circle of friends consists of Russians. How do they think of the campaigns in Europe?
Gudenus: Since the crisis in Ukraine started, friends from Russia call me constantly. They are usually completely surprised and of course angry at the comments coming from Europe. My friends and acquaintances read every day on the Internet what is being said and written in Europe. Most of all, they are annoyed that the coverage here does not correspond to facts. Much is fictitious, many simply copied, and without being well researched.
Gudenus: For weeks Europe was beating on the drums that Russia was preparing for war. There was talk of enormous troop movements and even of a military occupation of Crimea before the referendum on March 16 this year. This is all fictitious. None of this was true. And yet it was repeated every day. My Russian friends were following it very closely. The loss of reputation of our mainstream media is significant.
But the Western media have repeatedly shown pictures of Russian soldiers in Crimea...
Gudenus: (laughs) Well it is clear. There are indeed Russian troops stationed there. The Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol has a home port; under the agreement with Kiev, Moscow has always been entitled to station troops there - that's truly nothing new. What the Western mainstream media did is particularly perfidious. They filmed the normally stationed Russian soldiers and later claimed that there was a Russian invasion of Crimea. Such reporting is particularly insidious because it deliberately deceives the audience. This is not sloppiness, but intentional.
You once said that the Western media reports about Russia remind you of "pre-war rhetoric." Isn’t that a bit exaggerated?
Gudenus: Not at all. We should look at propaganda from previous wars. We are now experiencing exactly the same. A country and its political leadership are completely demonized, at the same time it advertises its own military capabilities. Putin stands for everything that is bad. Our media and politicians berate him as aggressive, devious, dishonest and dangerous. The first Hitler comparisons did not take long to come. Who operates such reporting wants to incite the people in this country.
A "pre-war rhetoric" usually precedes a war...
Gudenus: That is correct. Therefore, we must do everything to oppose in a positive way this incitement and this war propaganda. Politically, for us in Austria it is as follows: The Freedom Party has positioned itself very clearly as a peace and understanding party.
You were together with your party colleague Johannes Hübner as observers of the March 16 referendum in Crimea and were criticized sharply by the established Austrian media.
Gudenus: We were asked by the Russian non-governmental organization “Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections"(EODE) to observe the referendum. I agreed immediately.
Gudenus: In mainstream media, the image being spread was that the inhabitants of Crimea would have to vote under Russian threat of violence, so to speak. It was often stated that the vote was not free and everywhere were Russian soldiers. I was interested in the truth, so I wanted to see with my own eyes if it's all true.
How was your and Johannes Hübner’s experience on the referendum day?
Gudenus: First, none of the media reports proved to be true. The vote was not under the “impending Russian gun barrels" as the Western media claimed. The referendum reminded us of a normal Sunday election as we know it from Europe. Everything was in perfect order.
How "free" were you in your movements within Crimea?
Gudenus: Absolutely free. We could totally spontaneously go anywhere we wanted. Each polling station was open for us without prior notice or announcement.
You were also in those areas where the Tatars live...
Gudenus: Correct. Above all, these areas were of interest to us, as it was said in the media reports again and again that there would be great difficulties. Johannes Hübner and I were also in Bakhchisaray, the capital city of the Crimean Tatars, which is about an hour away from Simferopol. For us, the city was particularly interesting because protests were expected there as believed by our western journalists.
Did the organizers try to prevent or delay your visit to Bakhchisaray?
Gudenus: (laughs) On the contrary. I even had the feeling that they were glad that we wanted to observe the supposedly "problematic" areas.
What was it like in Bakhchisaray?
Gudenus: It was completely quiet even there; there were no problems. The only difference to the districts with a Russian majority was the lower turnout. Some Tatar clan chiefs had called before the referendum for a boycott. But a large part of the Crimean Tatars still went to vote. Everything was quiet, disciplined and exemplary.
You were also in Sevastopol...
Gudenus: We went there also spontaneously because we wanted to see how the voting goes on where the large Russian naval base is located. Western media was reporting repeatedly about the alleged threatening atmosphere. But when we got there, we experienced the exact opposite. There was an atmosphere of festival in Sevastopol on the day of the referendum. We were drowning in a sea of Russian flags when we got there around 4 o‘clock. Russian music groups were playing on a stage. Sevastopol presented itself as a Russian city. And if we want to be honest, we must say: Sevastopol was always Russian, is Russian and will remain Russian.
You and Hübner were attacked by the Austrian media for your activity as observers. What exactly was the campaign against you about?
Gudenus: We were accused of being pro-Russian agents and they tried to make our mission look ridiculous. Simply put, the whole spectrum of defamation. The fact that we were invited by a Russian NGO was also criticized; they even asked who paid for the hotel, etc. It was a real joke.
When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sends international observers somewhere, no one asks such questions...
Gudenus: Exactly. Not even when any U.S. NGOs are active. Why should Russian NGOs have fewer rights than the U.S.? By the way, the OSCE had been asked by the Crimean government and also by Moscow to send observers - but the OSCE rejected because it would "legitimize" the referendum.
It is often stated that the referendum was not performed properly. For example, transparent ballot boxes, and the fact that there were no envelopes for the ballots were also criticized...
Gudenus: This review is a joke. Transparent ballot boxes are completely normal in many Western European countries. In Ukraine, transparent ballot boxes were always used. The purpose of transparent ballot boxes is precisely to avoid manipulations. By the way, when Yulia Tymoshenko won the elections in Ukraine years ago, glass boxes were also used. We heard no criticism from the West. Also the criticism of the alleged lack of envelopes for the ballots is bizarre. After all, one could simply fold his ballot to prevent anyone from seeing where the cross is marked. And many people at the referendum did not really care, others were even proud of their paper. Everyone could vote as he/she wanted.
The results were criticized by the West. Western media and politicians claimed that such a high number of votes for the reunion of Crimea with Russia could only be the result of tampering. How do you rate this?
Gudenus: Unlike most of those journalists and politicians who speak of manipulation, Hübner and I were actually there. The result coincides absolutely with the sentiment. In my opinion it is really scary how fast and recklessly certain people speak of manipulation, just because they do not like the result. This says a lot about their relationship to democracy.
What are we currently experiencing exactly? Is it just a peninsula in the Black Sea, or a great geopolitical upheaval taking place instead?
Gudenus: The referendum in Crimea and the political consequences have shown that a referendum, a truly grass-roots democracy act, can make the monopolar world order falter. The self-determination of peoples was actually taken seriously. Russia has shown that it has recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow plays again on the world stage, Washington now has serious competition. We can certainly speak of a massive geopolitical upheaval.
Is such a radical change good or bad for Europe?
Gudenus: I'm an absolute optimist. It is good for Europe. A strong Russia gives us more independence, more freedom. A strong Russia is good for us because it also pushes back U.S. influence. It brings Europe back to its balance.
Nevertheless, the EU has clearly sided with the U.S. Brussels also advocated sanctions against Russia...
Gudenus: (laughs) By this we know now very well the difference between Europe and the EU. The EU is not Europe. Sanctions against Russia are unacceptable; they are not in Europe's interest. In particular, the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria would suffer from anti-Russian sanctions. Russia is a reliable trading partner. Germany needs Russian oil and gas, Russia buys German machinery, chemicals. Approximately 19 billion euros of direct German investments are tied to Russia. From the EU countries, Germany is at the forefront of investors. France comes at second place with 12.3 billion euros, followed by Austria with 8.5 billion euros. Economic sanctions against Russia are absolutely detrimental to the European countries.
Whose interest do the economic sanctions against Moscow serve?
Gudenus: They serve the interests of Washington. The U.S. wants to keep Europeans in line. For the U.S. hegemonic aspirations, fear of Russia is perhaps the most important asset. We must regard Brussels and the EU as agents of such policy and as against the interests of European citizens.
Will the United States prevail?
Gudenus: Maybe in short term, but in long term I see the U.S. on the decline.
Gudenus: Because the situation is quite clear. Russia needs Europe and Europe needs Russia. Both need each other more than they need the United States. When Russia and Europe fight, Washington laughs. But I firmly believe that common sense will prevail. Soon no one in Europe will be patronized by the U.S.!