Middle east

Karin Kneissl Opens Up to Sputnik on Death of Diplomacy, Energy Crisis, Grain Deal and Press Freedom

 / Go to the mediabankFormer Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at the session “New Time for Diplomacy” at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok / Go to the mediabankDr. Karin Kneissl served as Austria’s foreign minister in the late 2010s. The diplomat was forced to leave her home country after facing harassment and death threats over her ties with Russia, and now resides in Lebanon. Mrs. Kneissl opened up to Sputnik’s Fault Lines on a range of issues, from the global energy crisis to Middle Eastern politics.Sputnik: Let’s bring in our guest, Dr. Karin Kneissl. She served as an independent federal Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria from 2017 to 2019. Dr. Karin Kneissl is also an analyst and she’s an author. She studied law and Arabic at the University of Vienna, and completed her dissertation on the notion of borders in the Middle East via Austrian grants at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She later studied at Georgetown University in Washington. She’s clearly an academic, and she was a Fulbright scholar – a very impressive woman. Dr. Kneissl, good morning. Thank you for joining us on Fault Lines. Karin Kneissl: Good morning to Washington. Thank you very much for the invitation. Looking forward!Sputnik: I’m glad we were able to connect with you today. We have a host of things to talk about. But briefly, I wonder what are your thoughts on the political violence speech that Joe Biden gave, and then today, on the breaking news that Imran Khan’s convoy was shot at and he was injured?Kneissl: Yes. I just read about that.Sputnik: What are your thoughts on that? Do you believe that there is growing political violence around the world?Karin Kneissl: Well, when you look at it in a historic context, I don’t think that our contemporary situation is much more violent than when you compare it, for instance, with the late 19th century, where you had a Russian czar who was assassinated, Alexander II. You also had an anarchist movement in many countries all across Europe before World War I, and a number of members of Cabinet were assassinated, whether it was in France or Germany, in the period between World War I and World War II. It’s not to belittle what is happening right now, but I think one should always keep the larger historical picture [in mind]. It’s definitely not the brightest time of history, but there were worse times, maybe.Sputnik: Yes. Thank you for those thoughts and historic context. Obviously, this is not anything new, if you really look at it. I mean, our own US president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated before the public’s eyes. And it’s probably more to do with the speed with which the news actually gets out there. So we are able to get it instantly, as with the news about Imran Khan.Karin Kneissl: Exactly, I read about it while I was waiting to be put on air. I just saw that Imran Khan was attacked during his march. And yes, there’s physical and political violence, and there’s a lot of verbal violence. What I regret in today’s world, and what I’ve observed… I’m worried about it. When I came back to diplomacy five years ago as a minister, I observed that we had lost all capacity to look into each other’s eyes, to take time and to build trust through conversation. We just read out talking points, speaking notes, whatever you call them, the script for a conversation. Something that has been lost, in particular in the Northwestern hemisphere, but still exists to a certain extent, if I may say, in the Middle East, in the Eastern parts of the world, is taking your time and dedicating interest to your counterpart in a political conversation. Diplomacy has died a silent death over the last few years, and then came the pandemic, which condemned us to some sort of “Zoom diplomacy,” which has nothing to do with real diplomacy. We can see and feel it today, that the vocabulary that is used, the attitude of some high-ranking government officials, professional diplomats, has nothing to do with what I would call a genuine conversation that can lead to something.2022 US MidtermsBiden Tries to Catch Up With ‘Threats to American Democracy’ Speech Days Before Midterms3 November, 01:13 GMTSputnik: Yes, I would agree. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken has his own Twitter feed and he tweets something, sometimes very snarky or very nasty at another foreign minister, it’s very unbecoming of a world leader to speak in that manner. I feel like that kind of descends the conversation for the rest of us. It’s a little toxic. And Dr. Kneissl, thank you for joining us. Since you’re a wealth of information, I wanted to ask your thoughts on the fact that Russia has reentered the grain deal. Can you explain the significance of that particular corridor in the Black Sea?Karin Kneissl: Definitely. Just to give you two or three figures – Russia and Ukraine are both among the top five grain producers and exporters of grain, plus sunflower oil, which is used for all kinds of cooking. So both countries have their place in supplying not only their own people, but the rest of the world with grain. From the very beginning, there was a constant fear that one of the consequences of the current situation in Ukraine might be an artificial shortage of food, and thereby exacerbating the famine crisis that we have in all kinds of war-torn places, but also in countries which are dependent on grain imports because there’s not enough domestic production. Like Lebanon, for instance, where I’m currently living. Even though the soil is fertile here, it is [still] import-dependent. Both countries supply, to a certain extent, the rest of the world with their grain surplus. Now, the Black Sea is currently a theater of war. We have seen attacks, we have seen maritime drones being used recently, there was an attack on the Russian fleet in Sevastopol a few days ago, which triggered this momentum that the Russian leadership said: “we withdraw from the grain deal that was brokered in July,” because, allegedly, Ukrainian forces used this humanitarian corridor that had been created for the transport of grain vessels for military purposes. So that was the triggering momentum. Now, once again, Turkish diplomacy has stepped in, President Erdogan re-brokered some sort of understanding, most probably asking all parties involved to refrain from military activity in that particular area. The Black Sea and the Bosphorus traditionally have a special role to play. Geography is the constant factor of history. You can’t change geography. So, the Strait of Bosphorus, which crosses the city of Istanbul, and the Black Sea are simply very important geostrategically. It is essential to make sure that these vessels full of grain and sunflower oil, whether they come from Ukraine or Russia, have free transit, free passage to move across to the Mediterranean. This is essential not only for food supply, but as a distant observer, I would also add that what is important about the grain agreement is the technical cooperation between Moscow and Kiev: the ministries of defense and maritime authorities are involved in daily technical contact. And the Turkish authorities do excellent work in permitting something like true diplomacy to happen. And in my eyes, it goes far beyond the grain deal as such. It really shows that on a technical level, there is some sort of communication. And this is very, very important in that entire quagmire.Russia Resumes Participation in Grain Deal: Defense Ministry2 November, 10:23 GMTSputnik: Here, stateside, I’m sure you’ve seen it all over the news, the inflation rate in the US, the cost of food, the gasoline prices [are rising]. There’s a major threat, at least here on the East Coast, that we have only 50% of our diesel fuel in reserves. Joe Biden has obviously chosen as his path “non-diplomacy,” to [not] buy any Russian gasoline, whether it’s a finished product or crude. He has chosen that path. The American people are paying a very high price. And now this could be very detrimental to the entire economy. If our trucks cannot be filled with diesel to deliver food and clothing to the stores, this is going to be a major problem for the US. What do you make of Joe Biden’s choice? It’s not like the Russians chose to stop selling crude to the Americans. The Americans chose not to buy it. And now America is going to pay the price and is going to suffer. What do you think of that?Karin Kneissl: President Joe Biden, like many EU government officials, unfortunately, are not acting according to the fundamentals of market forces, and they are a market force country, I assume, which are called supply and demand. The moment you tighten supply by, for instance, as the US government did, cutting off the Russian supply to the US market, you shorten the supply, and when the demand remains the same, the prices go up. So this is the situation. For anybody who is even a little bit into economics, it’s not rocket science that we’re explaining here. Supply and demand. These are the fundamentals, the basics of a market economy. We are not in a planned economy, where a certain amount is always available, and according to a bureaucracy, this amount is partitioned. But it’s really about a global commodity, and oil is a global commodity. So the Russian traders and oil producers very quickly moved to other customers. Oil, ever since it came onto the market, after World War I in particular – and the US was and is again back as an important oil and gas producer.But diesel, because you explicitly referred to diesel, which is used in the US in particular for the trucks and for the transport in many EU countries like France, Germany, Austria, it’s also the preferred fuel for individual transport. And let me refer to an anecdote I heard many years ago, 20 years ago. The last big refineries in the US were constructed when Elvis Presley was still giving live concerts in the 1970s. And you might remember the boycotting by many municipalities, [the logic of] “not in my own backyard.” “I don’t want to have a refinery close by, because we want to use our coast for tourism.” It’s not a nice business. The oil business is not as dirty as it used to be 50 or 60 years ago, there’s been a tremendous advance in making it cleaner. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in different cases, but of course the refineries are smelly, and it’s not nice to have them in your backyard. So what happened over the last decades? It was not only crude oil that came to the shores of the Mexican Gulf Coast, of New Orleans, and so on, but it was the product as such. And diesel is a highly essential product for the transport business. And as for what you just explained for the US audience, we have a similar situation in France and Germany right now – in France, there’s an additional problem, namely a mass strike movement. In many refineries, people are simply unhappy with the fact that the energy companies, for instance, Total, the leading French company TotalEnergies, makes tremendous profits these days thanks to the high oil and gas prices, but it’s not materialized in the pay of the workers. So, yes, it’s all interconnected. And in a world where you artificially create a shortage of a good, you have to expect higher prices.AmericasUS Diesel Shortage is Result of Washington’s Brazen Policies, Analyst Says1 November, 19:13 GMTSputnik: Yes. We’re glad you brought up France as well, because earlier, and maybe this is a little bit of a fun topic, because we like to poke fun at this, but it’s unclear if this demand or ask came from Emmanuel Macron himself. But France effectively asked Rumble to ban all Russian media from its platform. Instead, Rumble turned around and said, “Okay, we’ll just deplatform the entire country of France.” So France can’t access Rumble. What are your thoughts on, especially in Europe, the deplatforming, which can be likened to modern-day book burning, when you deplatform information?Karin Kneissl: Yeah, you’re fully right with this analogy, I would to it. I mean it happened to Russia Today Germany, which already had problems with being confronted with the most incredible accusations over the last few years. And you know, let me answer your question maybe like this: I’m now living in the Middle East, in Lebanon, which definitely is a very special country by itself. But it’s not only here, it also holds true for Egypt, for Turkey, for all the Gulf Arab countries. I can open on a TV here, I can open on a website any radio, TV station, media website I wish to have access to – including Sputnik, Russia Today, TASS, whatever. And this is not possible anymore the moment I move to an EU country. A few days ago, I was in Cyprus for three days, and it’s just 120 kilometers away from here. But I can open all the pages here in Lebanon, an Arab Middle East country with all its problems of war, and the list is only in Lebanon, but there is freedom of speech. It might sound a bit strange or bizarre, but we have, to my understanding, to my eyes, now a much higher degree of freedom of press, freedom of speech also, in the Arab Middle East than inside the European Union countries. And I say that as somebody who has been involved in human rights, freedom of press topics for more than half of my life, because I studied here in this region in the mid-1980s, and then the situation was completely in reverse. In most Arab countries, it was forbidden to watch Israeli TV, even though it was just around the corner, and vice versa. Now, here you can watch whatever TV stations you want, which doesn’t hold true anymore for the European Union, where we were really pampered by many freedoms. But freedoms have evaporated over the last years, not only over the last 10 months ever since the war in Ukraine started. But there’s a situation which says a lot about the current state of affairs within the European Union, and also a country like France, which you mentioned in the beginning, where Rumble has been deplatformed.In France, you had over centuries a kind of political exile of thinkers, political refugees, whether they came from the continent of Africa or the Middle East, [there were] people who sought refuge in France. At times, whoever came to France to live in exile maybe also sometimes even started a political movement from exile, I mean, just let me name one political exile who later on became very famous. Ayatollah Khomeini, who started the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Where was his exile? Where could he breathe, where could he live, so to say, without being touched? It was Paris. And he came on an Air France flight from Paris to Tehran in 1979, starting the Islamic Revolution. So, 40 years later, you can say there’s much more freedom of press on the other side of the Mediterranean.WorldRumble to ‘Turn Off France Entirely’ After Paris Demands Russian Media Be Blocked2 November, 12:26 GMTSputnik: When you to talk to somebody that knows history like this, it’s just fascinating. I have so many questions to ask. Let me try to figure out which one is best. But I do have one: if you could just give your thoughts on Benjamin Netanyahu, especially as it looks as if he’s going to have a governing majority in Israel. But if you could just give your thoughts, we’ll give you the floor on it.Karin Kneissl: Well, I’ve given a lot of thought to Mr. Netanyahu. Let me start with maybe a psychological anecdote just for the audience that I often refer to when discussing Israeli politics. Mr. Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, was the one who led an Israeli commando [unit] in an antiterrorist intervention. Maybe you remember the El Al hijacking of a civil airplane to Entebbe in Uganda in the 1970s. And Yonatan Netanyahu was then 33 and he was the leader of that commando and he was killed in that. And I mention that because in those days, Benjamin Netanyahu, the brother, lived in the States. He was more a kind of US businessman. When you hear him, you can you can hear a US American accent. I mean, he doesn’t speak like the average Israeli speaks English. He has a very, very strong US accent, because he lived a long part of his life in the US, worked in the US, and he was very different from his brother Yonatan, who was the typical Israeli. And I imagine that because from what I know from the history of these two brothers, Yonatan was the darling of his father, and the old Netanyahu, the father, he only died three years ago at the age of 102. So the father, the day Yonatan was assassinated, met Benjamin Netanyahu, who had to somehow live in the shadow of his dead brother, of the brother who was somehow a “martyr,” you know. So I’m not a psychologist and I don’t want to venture into psychology, but I think it’s easy to understand that this man was then living in the shadow of the brother, who anyway always was the “better Israeli.” Benjamin was the Israeli living in the US and having a great time, and the other one fighting for his country.So when Netanyahu started his political career and in the late 1990s, my understanding is he always had to be more royal than the king, as you say. He had to prove that he’s the stronger and the harder one. And when he formed his government with Avigdor Lieberman a few years ago, I think it was like 10 years ago – I mean he’s now going to become prime minister for the fifth time – his father was asked in an interview, he was then in his late nineties and he was asked by the journalist, “What do you think about the members of Cabinet of your son, Benjamin, who is now going to become prime minister?” I think it was for the second time that he became prime minister. And the father answered, imagine, he said, “Well, you know, my son Benjamin always had a tendency to surround himself with strange people.” You have to listen to that as somebody who is in his sixties and you become prime minister, and your father makes these kinds of comments and statements. So, the father passed away at the age of 102. But I think that Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his place in history. I mean, this is not unique to him, what may be unique to him is the situation that there is this dead brother, Yonatan, killed in the 1970s as a hero fighting terrorists. And Benjamin is still looking for his place, where he can really make history as a prime minister.WorldIsrael’s Lapid Calls Netanyahu to Congratulate Him on Election Victory3 November, 16:39 GMTSputnik: He has certainly made his place in history in global politics, that’s for certain. And Dr. Kneissl, we have you for just a couple of more minutes, since you are in Lebanon, if you can give us a walk down memory lane. You are an expert in Middle East issues, obviously, you studied this. Can you walk us down memory lane with the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, as he retires? What was it like being in Lebanon during his War of Liberation against Syria? Walk us through all of that.Karin Kneissl: In that case, let us travel back into the late 1980s, the then-president, Amine Gemayel, finished his office and handed power competences over to the chief of the army, Michel Aoun, who in March 1989 declared war against Syria. The Syrians had been moving in and out from Lebanon for many years. Actually, they were installed in 1975-76 by the Arab League as kind of custodians. And this “War of Liberation” against Syria in 1989 led to tremendous bloodshed in Lebanon. Because it was in those days that the war really became a kind of civil war, a kind of broader war. Before, you had lots of proxies participating. You had to the entire Arab world, Iran, everybody was intervening here.In 1989, I happened to be in Lebanon. I was teaching in Byblos, and we had checkpoints every 200 meters. And the situation was completely surreal. There was Christian inner fighting that also emerged. This War of Liberation against Syria, as Michel Aoun wanted it to happen, some perceived him as a kind of little Napoleon Bonaparte in Lebanon, and there was tremendous media hype all around him. Finally, in October 1990, the Syrians moved into Lebanon with the blessing of the international community, and Michel Aoun was evacuated by the French. He was then in exile in southern France for several years, and the French took care of him in every regard. And hundreds of young people, whom I met in the bunker when I paid a visit to Michel Aoun then, were killed, were kidnapped, jailed, died under unknown circumstances. So, this youth movement that had been with him in 1989 completely broke up. And when Michel Aoun decades later came back as president, he was not the incarnation of anti-Syrian forces of this youth movement anymore. He was a completely different person. So it is as if Napoleon Bonaparte, you know, had not died in exile. And now he’s moving out, there’s another vacuum in the president’s palace. But it’s not the first time in Lebanon. It won’t be the end of Lebanon. Definitely not. Lebanon will continue, certainly.Listen to Dr. Kneissl’s full interview with Sputnik’s Fault Lines on Rumble here.


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