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'I believe we have a lot to teach Russia in terms of free speech'

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'I believe we have a lot to teach Russia in terms of free speech'
Sweden's ambassador shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a credentials ceremony. Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool photo via AP
16:51 CEST+02:00
The Local spoke to Sweden's ambassador to Russia, Peter Ericson, to learn about the links between the two countries and what it's like working in Moscow at a time where on many levels these relations are increasingly frosty.

How would you say Sweden is seen in Russia; what connotations do people have?

We do have hard data on this. We have attitude surveys by the Levada Centre which is the one independent polling agency in Russia, and their findings are strikingly consistent. Every year since 2014, two thirds of the Russian population have had a positive or very positive view of Sweden. It's varied between 63 and 67 percent [the survey has not yet been published for 2018, but last year the figure was 64 percent], so remarkably stable considering that in 2014 there was [the Russian annexation of] Crimea and Sweden was very vocal about that, then in 2015 we had the refugee crisis and quite frankly Russian TV in particular is basically all government-controlled, so the picture painted of Sweden was that we were 'swamped', 'it's ruining the economy', 'the crime rate is up', 'we're on the verge of a civil war', et cetera.

So that's the official media's picture of Sweden, and still we have this very stable two-thirds positive opinion of Sweden among the Russian population. It's really nice to be ambassador of a country that's perceived so positively. When I'm travelling around Russia, which I try to do a lot, there's a huge and very positive interest in Sweden, so maybe it's contrary to what you would have thought.

What we see in this opinion survey is that Sweden is seen as an economically prosperous, socially advanced state where people have a good life, a high level of environmental standards, nice nature, but also the flagship companies and technology. That's everything from Ikea furniture, which is huge in Russia, to IT, transportation, Volvo and Scania. So Sweden is fairly well known and the image generally is quite similar to what we like it to be. 

Of course it's not nice to see bad things being said about Sweden on national TV, and that exists but that's not what I come across when I'm meeting people. I get questions about it but they're more confused or can't believe it. I try to explain what has happened and what we're doing about it, and they accept that.


Ambassador Peter Ericson. Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

What are the causes of this confusion and how do you think Sweden is misrepresented?

With traditional print media, some of it is very government oriented but there are also some more liberal, democratic news sources. They have a much more limited reach. Among the more democratic liberal and independent media there are both positive and negative reports about Sweden, mainly positive.

On social media, there was a famous blogger who this spring went to Sweden and he wanted to go to [Stockholm suburb] Rinkeby, I think it was, because a war correspondent [Darja Aslamova] did a piece saying she'd never been as afraid as she was here in Rinkeby. So he went there and took photos and put video online and he said it's crazy, this is nicer than many elite apartment areas in Moscow. There are no riots here, people are just walking around or sitting having coffee in the sunshine – what is she talking about? So in the media there's both positive and negative, but the net result so far is that the solid good reputation of Sweden actually remains.

Is countering false news reports a challenge of your job?

There was one really weird thing that happened on Twitter about a year ago. Foreign Minister Margot Wallström was quoted as saying that all white men should be castrated, [a statement which was] obviously false. This spread quite quickly [on Twitter in Russia], we noticed it and we put out a counter tweet saying this is just not correct, she's never said anything of the kind and it's offensive to accuse her of this.

We actually got in touch with some of those who retweeted it and had a large number of followers. We contacted them to tell them that this is just plain wrong so you should remove it. Some did and some said "well, it may be wrong but it's sort of probable and therefore I will leave it". 

We try to spread the word about what Sweden is in general terms to a general audience. There was a fact sheet produced by the Swedish Institute about immigration when that was a really big debate in 2016 after the influx of 2015, so we translated that into Russian and posted it on our website. If we were to find something which is totally wrong and spread very widely, we would probably try to counter it directly, but in general we let things go and we try to put out our message regardless of what's happening.


Swedish and Russian foreign ministers Margot Wallström and Sergey Lavrov in 2017. Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool photo via AP

Speaking of Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, I also wondered how Sweden's feminist foreign policy, and feminist government, is perceived in Russia?

As in some other countries, in Russia 'feminist' is a word with different connotations than in Sweden. When we had consultations in advance of our membership of the UN Security Council, we talked about Sweden's priorities during our two years and one of them is Women, Peace and Security. The reaction from a Russian official, whose name I shall not mention, was "yes, we all love women but it's not a security issue".

What we actually did there was each time the Security Council makes a resolution about an issue, we made sure that the aspect of Women Peace and Security, so female representation in peace processes and the different impacts that conflict has on men and women – concrete issues, were brought into the resolution, and that has worked well. In Russia the label [of 'feminism'] creates a certain amount of confusion but when we talk about specifics, it can work.

Then again, in multilateral forums, especially in human rights bodies, Russia is promoting so-called traditional family values which is of course counter to what the feminist foreign policy is promoting. Clearly our official positions in those negotiations are quite opposed in many cases, such as the role of women in society and in the home. Russia is in our perspective on the wrong side.

Is there anything you do to promote the Swedish view in that area?

When we travel in Russia, we organize different events. One of the main things we do is that when we go to small towns in the countryside – well, they're 1-1.5 million citizens so they're as big as Stockholm – we organize business events but also different cultural events. That can be film festivals, this year is the Bergman centenary so we have Bergman retrospectives and exhibitions. We do a lot of children's literature; there's a huge interest in Russia. One in every five translated children's books sold in Russia is Swedish.

We try to promote Swedish culture and thereby promote Swedish values. We bring modern Swedish children's literature which of course reflects the Swedish values, and also modern Swedish film, like 'En man som heter Ove'. It's about an old grumpy man, who is generally a repulsive person but turns out to be sort of human. He has a friendship with a young immigrant woman; he helps out a gay pizzeria owner's son who has to flee because his father is upset that he's gay. That film says more about modern day Sweden about both the role of immigrants, gender equality and tolerance than any lecture can, so we try to work with these issues indirectly, and Ove is commercially very successful in Russia.


Actor Rolf Lassgård as Ove in Swedish movie A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove). Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

And more generally, what other areas are there where Sweden and Russia can learn from each other?

Quite frankly, right now we see a process in Russia where the space for free speech, political expression, freedom of assembly; all these things are being limited gradually. So in that area, I think we believe that we have a lot to teach them, the problem of course being that the current Russian leadership isn't interested in being taught.

But we try to do this long term work which is, as I said, indirect. I try to talk about the fact that openness, free media, access to information about the government reduces corruption and that's good for the country. Do we have anything to learn from Russia? Sure, but I'd let my Russian colleague, Ambassador [Victor] Tatarintsev here in Stockholm explain that.

Ambassador Tatarintsev recently said relations between your two countries were at one of the lowest points in a long time. Do you share that view?

No. I actually put together a counter statement at the time. Of course, relations are strained. Sweden is opposed on the grounds of principles to the illegal annexation of Crimea and the continued military intervention by Russia in eastern Ukraine. They don't recognize that they are in eastern Ukraine, they deny it even though we know that it's a fact, and they say that the annexation of Crimea was in full accordance with international law, which it wasn't. We will not agree on that in 1000 years. So in that sense, relations are 'bad' because we have this major issue dividing us.

At the same time, we are neighbours of sorts. There are issues we need to talk to each other about and try to resolve, so even though we have this huge problem which is not going away, we also have other issues. The fact remains that last year ministers Wallström and Lavrov met four times for bilateral meetings. Relations are actually not that bad in the sense that we do talk to each other, there are exchanges on a ministerial level –some things we agree on, some things we clearly don't, but to say that relations are the worst since '82 or 1990, I don't really agree. 

What concerns him and the Russian government generally is that our interpretation of Crimea is that Russia acted contrary to international law and the UN charter. We all agreed on these issues and the procedures for if we had a complaint a long time ago and when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, they broke the rules. That of course makes a country like Sweden nervous and we have to take measures.


Foreign ministers Margot Wallström and Sergey Lavrov meeting in 2017. Photo: Maria Davidsson/TT

And what about issues closer to home, such as Russian planes in Swedish airspace, and talk of potential meddling in the election – how have these things affected relations?

The Russians' official reaction is "we never meddled in any elections, Nato planes make incursions into Swedish airspace much more often than Russian planes, you are just Russophobic and there's nothing to complain about". We think that we have solid empirical grounds for what we're saying.

The things you mention about Russian military activity make us feel – I choose my words carefully here –Russian actions have made the security situation less secure since 2014, with Crimea. It's natural for us to take that into account in our response. Our response is to strengthen our own defence, to increase cooperation with other countries and organizations, but on the basis of non-membership of Nato. I think Russia understands this perfectly well

That being said, we still want to work with Russia on things where we can work with them: politically, trade and investment, people-to-people contacts so things like student exchanges. We do that all the time. I could start every conversation with the Russians by saying that the annexation of Crimea is illegal, but most of the Russian population thinks otherwise and it would be the end of the dialogue before it even starts. So instead we try to talk about things that we can talk about, be it children's literature or selling trucks or equipment for waste management. You can study Swedish in 22 Russian institutions of higher education, so we try to support them, I visit the students and talk to them. I don't necessarily want to quarrel, I work on the areas where we can get a result and move forward.

Do you have one particular priority in your role as ambassador?

As with every embassy, we follow the foreign and domestic policies of Russia, we issue visas and all kinds of things, but the visible part of my role in Russia is to work on the basis of this positive view of Sweden, to continue to showcase Sweden as a modern, innovative, open, transparent and tolerant country, and to show examples which we think will be interesting for them.

I cannot claim credit for the two-thirds positive view of Sweden. It's difficult to explain exactly why that's happened but marginally we do contribute to this positive view, we hope, so it's stimulating and rewarding to work with such a big country and so many people that actually like us.

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