On the 25th of July, CERBA held its Moscow Annual General Meeting followed by a panel discussion with prominent Canadian journalists Fred Weir, Mark MacKinnon and Corinne Seminoff. Moscow CERBA Chairman Nathan Hunt started what turned out to be an extraordinary evening off by presenting an overview of CERBA activities and achievements in 2016-17, as well as the aims and goals for the upcoming 2017-18 year. Here are some of the highlights of Nathan’s speech:

“It has not been an easy three and a half years… In 2015, we expected to be under severe financial pressures, but it turned out our perceptions were more negative than they needed to be. The following year 2016 was an excellent year, with the financial situation stabilizing and our membership base beginning again to grow. …We found that we could fulfil a crucial role as the voice of Canadian business in the absence of active engagement from the Canadian government… At one stage, because of our continued engagement and communication with Russia, we were accused in Canada of blind support for the Russian regime, which was really not true. I firmly believe that the way forward towards reconciliation is through engagement and mutual respect, two qualities which have been conspicuously absent from the West’s policies towards Russia since the crisis began.  Now, fortunately, many governments are permitting minimal engagement, and I think that if we can find a way to encourage and expand that, it would do a great deal towards achieving a reconciliation between West and East… We are not a political organisation; we are only interested in creating good relations between Canada and the countries of Eurasia, which includes Ukraine. We have had engagement with Ukraine, have held events there in pre-crisis years, and have continued to engage with Ukrainian industry reps in sectors of importance to Canada.  We proudly represent the interests of our members in Kazakhstan where we have launched a CERBA chapter and held a number of successful events, including our recent launch of the Kazakhstan Canada Business Council.  We have also sponsored missions to Uzbekistan which is beginning to open up finally, as well as to Armenia and Azerbaijan. We constantly try to connect our members with the governments of not only Russia, but countries throughout Eurasia. We are now exploring the possibility of establishing new chapters, in Kazan, Winnipeg, and Uzbekistan.”

Nathan described some of the many events that took place over the past year, giving special attention to the first trade mission to Russia since the beginning of the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West. Amongst many other extremely interesting events, Nathan described the joint CERBA-Amcham event held in March with Gorbachev’s translator Pavel Palazhchenko. He mentioned that in May, CERBA was pleased to welcome Chris Weafer who made a fantastic speech on economics entitled “Russia’s Long-term Business and Investment Outlook.” Nathan also spoke of the meeting CERBA hosted with the head of the Canadian visa and immigration section, Bill Farrell and spoke highly of Bill’s work.

After his speech, Nathan introduced some of CERBA’s current board members who gave short introductory speeches. CERBA members were asked to confirm or deny the appointment of two new board members: Clark Bailey, the head of mining from EuroChem, a candidature that Nathan said CERBA welcomes not least because of the importance of this sector in Russia, and Matt Wills from John Deere, one of the leading manufacturers in Canada of forestry equipment. Nathan thanked CERBA’s sponsors, in particular Ernst & Young who hosted the meeting on the 25th, and played an important role in CERBA’s activities in Central Asia.

The formal part of the evening over, Nathan introduced three Canadian journalists, Mark MacKinnon, currently senior international correspondent for one of Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, Fred Weir from the Boston-based daily The Christian Monitor, and Corinne Seminoff who has just moved here to open the CBC English Services Bureau. All three journalists have long and distinguished careers and their achievements are too many to list in this article.

In his introduction, Fred Weir said that he came here 31 years ago, “at a time when this country was a superpower, entirely fashioned by ideology, had a huge army, with a vast network of supporting Communist parties around the world. The Soviet Union had an exportable ideology, it was hostile to the West, which it tried to undermine. It failed spectacularly, and now today we have a shrivelled Russia, which is challenged even within the ex-Soviet space, and all of its former Warsaw Pact allies are today members of NATO. Now Russia has largely embraced capitalism; you can walk down the road here and see shopping Malls, we are meeting in a building used by Ernst & Young, there are no fundamental ideological differences whatsoever between Russia and the West. There are some political tensions and arguments, however, aside from Orthodox Christianity, there is no ideology. Yet we’re told that everywhere we look, the Russians are tearing the Western alliance apart… the sanctions that the U.S. Congress is passing will pretty much end any attempt to get things back to normal… the situation is not funny and it is getting worse.”

In his introduction, Mark MacKinnon described how he had to close down the Globe and Mail’s Moscow office, and thus no longer lives in Moscow. “The fact that we do not have an office here has had an impact, I do think that what is on the front page of our newspaper does matter, it affects the questions that get asked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and how foreign countries are understood. I was amazed during the Crimea events that are now quite famous, how little the western military knew about the situation, and how they never considered the possibility that there would be a push back from Russia after Maidan. Although a lot of people who lived here thought that this would be a predictable outcome. …In Moscow, every single western diplomat knows that if you open up an embassy in Taiwan, that will trigger an angry response from the People’s Republic of China. The Globe and Mail is now doing the same as CBC here. It was a great mistake to close our eyes and ignore what is happening here, and this had many unfortunate consequences.”

Corinne said that she feels very strongly that CBC should be here, although she mentioned that she has been back on numerous occasions covering individual events and stories. “I think in general, it is important that our viewers and listeners get the news direct and not through somebody else’s reporting, especially in this time that we are living through now. I think what is so disturbing is that there are so many misconceptions about Russia, about life here, about Russians. So many people, friends, family, business people that I know come here and are shocked as in some ways in that Russia is far ahead of us, not the other way around… I do hope to break some of the stereotypes when we get up and running again here…”

A question and answer session followed. Here are a few of the questions and excerpts from the answers:

CERBA Board member Luc Jones asked is part of the reason all this is happening because the West needs an enemy?

Fred Weir said: “Certainly Americans felt that they had won the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed, and since then they have developed what might be called ‘imperial overreach.’ America is trying to run everything everywhere. Madeleine Albright, for example, famously called the USA the ‘indispensable nation’. That’s what she said. The view from Washington is that the world system is their system. But they have a particular view about Russia, and it might be because of what you are saying. In the 1990s, this town was filled with all kinds of foreigners, from consultants to carpetbaggers, and from the standpoint of the American political classes, they really expected Russia to change into a western country. They had this proprietorial world view, and they really feel that Russia let them down. I have been associated with Russia for a long time, and one thing I know, is that Russia is Russia. You have an urbanized, highly educated population and they are going to have their own opinions. …Nobody has that kind of attitude towards Saudi Arabia or China.”

Corrinne did not entirely agree with Fred, and said that “when I meet people of the younger generation, that they are trying to be more like us. The way they relate to one another, the way they relate to other people, the way they relate to their elders, their outlook on life, their values in life, it is clear that the communist kind of mentality is not their reality. I think in time Russia may be much more in harmony with the West although it may never be part of the West because it is a country with a completely different history. Of course, this is not going to happen overnight, of course the two former superpowers are still trying to dominate one another, and that may never end. I remember people telling me it would take 30 generations before anything changes here, but I certainly see a change amongst younger people.”

In his question, Art Franczek talked about the new sanctions which he said he spent two and a half hours that morning reading. His main question was: “what’s the problem with America?”

Fred Weir said that this is a very complex problem. “One thing that did occur to me is that the United States had a revolution, over two centuries ago. They overthrew a tyrant, and the Americans tend to look out at the world with the view that we overthrew a tyrant, and we can help you to do the same. But the Russian experience with revolution is that it opens the door to hell. …This is something they feel deep in their bones. The Americans, however, feel that the world is theirs to be looked after and managed. They have botched it terribly and they don’t seem to learn. …This is a huge subject for our age, and it is one that is bearing down on all of us.”

CERBA member Greg Alton asked whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that the media is coming back to Russia

Mark said that the reason that the Globe and Mail closed in 2009, a year after the Georgian War, was because the Editor-in-Chief said that the story had moved on from Russia. The discussion about returning to Russia came about because of the realisation that we don’t understand what is going on in Russia, and we need to. All the stories that are being written from Washington; there are a whole bunch of people who saying that this is what the Russians did, and I think we understand from journalism school that the western main-stream press is not being fair right now. I hope to be able to do a better job.”

Corinne said that it is important for us to understand where Russians are coming from, what their intentions are, what themes are important for them, what concerns the rest of the world has about what Russia is doing on the international stage. …You cannot do that sitting in Toronto. You have to be here, you have to meet real people and you have to travel the country. You have to dig deeper…” It is not going to be easy, there is some hostility because we are from Canada, and therefore I must work for the CIA!”

Fred Weir said that “… You get the view all the time from some Russian officials that the West is trying to overthrow Russia; they have a whole list of complaints about NGOs, and I have always said that they should ‘get a grip’. On the other hand, we have hundreds of American politicians blaming everything on Putin, and it is just awful to see this school of thought passing to America. There is no reason why Russia should be hated in the way that she is now by the West.”

After the Q&A session, Nathan stressed again that CERBA is not a political organization and is not trying to make any political point. The evening finished with a wonderful meal served with wine, provided by Ernst & Young.

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