In a wide-ranging interview, the Russian Ambassador talks about military cooperation, helicopter sales, Russia’s special relationship with Israel, western journalists and his dream of welcoming Vladimir Putin to Thailand in the near future.
AS a couple, they look impressive and by the end of the interview it was clear that this impression is no illusion. His Excellency Kirill Barsky PhD, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Kingdom of Thailand, sported a white diplomatic uniform with gold stars on the lapel while his wife, Olga Barskaya, wore an elegant multi-coloured dress.
Olga participated in the first part of this second interview with the ambassador (The BigChilli first featured an interview with him in December 2014) and displayed a charming mix of intelligence, warmth, loyalty and independence, qualities which perfectly complement the style of her husband. Like him, she devoted quite a few years to working in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I met Kirill in 2000 in New York, where we both worked at the Russian Mission to the UN. We fell in love and got married. I can speak Bahasa but I can’t read or write the language. In fact, I learned it when my husband served at the Russian embassy in Jakarta as minister-counsellor from 2004 to 2008. Actually our daughter, Maria, was the best teacher when we were in Jakarta.”
“She was just a little girl,” the ambassador added, “but she quickly became fluent in Bahasa and could communicate easily with our Indonesian nanny who couldn’t speak Russian or English. She acted as our interpreter.”
“When we left Indonesia Maria was four, and we wanted her to be educated in Russia,” said Olga. “We lived for six years in Moscow before coming to Thailand. Kirill was a Special Envoy of the President of the Russian Federation and I had a good job also.”
Both the ambassador and his wife take an active interest in the embassy school, where Maria now studies. “Our daughter stays most of the time at the school with the other children and they speak Russian. She can only speak a few Thai words,” said Olga.
“The school is for children who speak Russian but it is not only for Russians,” the ambassador added. “We have kids from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and a couple of mixed Thai-Russian boys and girls. The son of the Greek ambassador is also attending the school. The school is located behind the embassy. It is a secondary school from the 1st to 9th grade. We have 65 pupils and 10 teachers who are either sent from Russia or hired locally. Some teachers are wives of diplomats and some belong to the Russian community in Thailand,” Mr Barsky said.
“It is a very nice school with a vibrant curriculum, with lots of clubs, sports and cultural activities. We teach our students Taekwondo and gymnastics. We have a professional music teacher who is a singer and a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. The children are absolutely happy even if a little bit tired. They all speak Russian but they are learning English too,” said Mr Barsky, with Olga adding that some are also learning Spanish.
Olga spoke of her life in Thailand. “I am working at the consular division of our embassy here. We have so many Russian citizens who reside in Thailand and many tourists come here on holiday. They sometimes need assistance from the embassy. I have other things to keep me busy as well. I am a member of the diplomatic committee of the Young Women’s Christian Association, which is a charity organization. We organize events like the International Charity Bazaar that was held at Central World in November. I am also a member of the diplomatic committee of the Thai Red Cross Society.
“Since I have been here we have organized several events including the annual Diplomatic Red Cross Bazaar held this year in March at Siam Paragon. We also organized a function called ‘Elegance of Giving.’ This was a charity afternoon tea in honour of Her Majesty the Queen’s 7th Cycle Birthday held at Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel on April 24 that included a fashion show. All proceeds went to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s Craniofacial Center.”
Mr Barsky said it might seem easy to be the wife of an ambassador because there are people around to help the family, but in fact Olga’s workload is very heavy. “My wife is working from morning to night doing this and that, organizing and coordinating. We have a pretty big embassy here, and Olga is also in charge of the social and cultural activities, the embassy school and so on. Maria is now 12 years old. She is becoming a young lady with a lot of questions and new interests, desires and friends. This is another heavy burden on the shoulders of my wife first and foremost,” said the ambassador.
“No, the burden is not so heavy,” she said and they both laughed. “Well, I don’t cook at home. We have a chef sent from Russia and he does all the cooking for us, which is very helpful.”
During his first interview back in 2014, Mr Barsky laid out a list of his objectives as ambassador to Thailand. Asked to assess his progress, he said: “It is 18 months since I took my post and it feels like I have been here for ages. I can proudly say that we haven’t been wasting our time. I am very happy to say in summarizing my work that relations between Russia and Thailand have seen significant progress. Plans that were being discussed in late 2014 have already been partially implemented, but the main achievement is that the traditionally friendly relations between our two nations have been upgraded to the point that we’ve become close partners on a number of fronts.
“We have managed to coordinate a joint vision encompassing all spheres of cooperation, from political dialogue, security and defense cooperation to trade and cultural exchanges to interaction on global and regional issues to people-to-people contacts. Through high-level official meetings and practical cooperation between the business communities in our countries we have paved the way for the smooth and successful development of Russian-Thai relations in the years to come. This is the main achievement.”
Elaborating on the high-level meetings, Mr Barsky made some interesting observations: “Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev visited Thailand in April 2015, and in mid-may this year Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is planning to visit Russia. The two prime ministers have already had bilateral meetings on the sidelines of international gatherings. We were also very happy to receive Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence General Prawit Wongsuwan and Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Somkid Jatusripitak in Russia last February.
“Also in February was the visit of Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation to Thailand. We hosted a very fruitful Joint Cooperation Committee meeting in Russia last July to discuss economic and trade cooperation, and in March First Deputy Minister for Economic Development of the Russian Federation Alexey Likhachev visited Thailand to make preparations for the Thai PM’s visit to Russia.
“These are bits of the success story of the Thai-Russian political dialog which was resumed after Thailand’s period of instability, when we didn’t have many contacts on the political level. I am sure that more visits and meetings will follow, including more at the highest level. It is my dream to welcome the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, to Thailand in the near future. When PM Prayuth received me at Government House in mid-January he told me that he wanted to invite Mr Putin to Thailand when he visits Moscow,” said Mr Barsky.
“I want to say that Russia has no problems whatsoever with Thailand. Our relations are not overburdened with conflicts or misunderstandings. Indeed, it is a very rare situation in international relations when two counties that used to be parts of different military blocks during the Cold War are rediscovering each other as partners and coming to a common conclusion that there are no obstacles to hinder the successful development of bilateral relations.”
Asked about the uniform he was wearing and the three gold stars, the ambassador said: “We don’t have strict regulations in terms of wearing the uniform. Usually it’s worn for official functions like presenting credentials, hosting national day receptions and so on. Many Russian ambassadors prefer to give interviews in uniform. In the Russian diplomatic service we have ranks like in the army, and the ranks are different from the title when we are posted. My title is ambassador to Thailand because I am the chief envoy here, but in terms of rank I am an envoy first class, which is equivalent to lieutenant general. My next rank hopefully will be as a full ambassador, which has the rank of a colonel general,” explained Mr Barsky, adding that female ambassadors also have uniforms.
Only three diplomats work at the Bangkok embassy’s consular section, plus four women hired from the families of the diplomatic and technical staff of the embassy. “We have one Thai lady who speaks Russian helping us and we rely on our Thai drivers to deliver messages and do some technical work. Sometimes I must personally intervene in matters concerning Russian citizens. We are here to protect the rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens but at the same time we cooperate closely with the Royal Thai Police (RTP) in locating and extraditing Russian citizens who have committed crimes in Russia and are trying to find a safe haven in Thailand. This is another aspect of our work.
“I have very good relations with the Thai authorities. I have met with Police General Wuthi Liptapallop. He is a very good partner and I am very proud to have his friendship. We have established a hotline between the embassy’s consular section and the RTP. We work directly with Pol Gen Wuthi and the officer under him. Whenever an accident or incident occurs which involves Russian citizens we immediately get in touch with the RTP and the Immigration Bureau, Ministry of Justice and Department of Special Investigations. It helps us to keep the situation under control and be aware of what is going on with our citizens and to help them when they are in trouble – or make trouble for those criminals who come to Thailand from time to time.”
The ambassador said that defense cooperation is another integral part of the bilateral cooperation. “We are in favour of strengthening ties between the Russian Army and the Royal Thai Army (RTA). On April 7 I attended the inauguration of the ASEAN Centre for Military Medicine which was opened by Defense Minister Prawit. This is a very remarkable center, established under the auspices of the ASEAN Defense Ministers-Plus Dialogue Partners (ADMM-Plus). The project was implemented by all 18 countries participating in this format, but Russia and Thailand played a special role in the establishment of the center as we jointly chaired the ADMM-Plus working group on military medicine. I was very proud to hear General Prawit extend a special thanks to the Russian Federation for its contributions to the establishment of the center.
“This is just one example how we are working to enhance relations and cooperation between our two armies. Of course, the procurement of weapons is another avenue of cooperation between our defense ministries. We are discussing many projects because Russia can provide any armaments or military equipment that the RTA desires. Russia is the second biggest exporter and producer of weapons and military equipment in the world and can satisfy the appetites of any party, including Thailand. We are very happy that Thailand is interested in expanding cooperation with Russia in this regard.
“Thailand is procuring Mi-17 transport helicopters from Russia and the first contract is already being filled. Now we are in the process drafting new contracts on helicopters. I hope, this is only the beginning. In the years to come we will see much more interaction in the area of defense.
“We observe that the Thai government and the RTA are trying to diversify sources for the import of military equipment. This is actually what many countries are doing now. We are ready to be a reliable supplier for Thailand, and our Thai partners know we always deliver on our promises.”
The ambassador said his embassy is also actively promoting bilateral relations through non-militaristic means. “We are trying to advance the image of Russia in Thailand through mass media. In the past 18 months we have organized cultural events, academic seminars, performances of the Russian opera and ballet, receptions, art exhibitions and so on. One important event was the exhibition of photographs taken by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev held in Bangkok from March 23 to April 3. At least 20,000 visitors viewed the beautiful images taken by the PM at the exhibition at Siam Paragon. It was a very colourful collection and a very colourful event which displayed the talent of the Russian leader.
“The event also had the very important purpose of demonstrating the beauty of Russia to the Thai people. I believe it has encouraged Thais to take an interest in my country and possibly to visit. We may continue to use the photos to promote Russia in Thailand. One project we have in mind is to present the photos in an album which will be made available to Thais who love photography and are interested in knowing more about Russia.”
On Russia and Israel
An acknowledged expert on international affairs, Mr Barsky spoke about Russian military support of Bashar Assad’s government in Syria, and more specifically if this affects Russia’s relationship with Israel. What he said might surprise some people. “The Russian Federation and Israel enjoy a special relationship indeed. Up to 30 percent of Israel’s population are Russian immigrants or their offspring. There are old and new immigrants. Some came before or just after World War II, and others in the 1970s when a decision was made to allow Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Some came from third countries after they left the Soviet Union for different reasons.
“Today about a third of the population of Israel can speak Russian fluently, and even second and third generation offspring of Russian immigrants continue to speak Russian.
“There are many other reasons we wish to maintain a strong relationship with Israel. Among them are our shared memories of the Holocaust and other bitter lessons of World War II. Russians and Israelis are among the most determined adherents to the principal that the atrocities and suffering of the war must not be forgotten. Certainly Russia is among the nations that fought most fiercely against Nazism, and today along with Israel we are in the forefront in the fight against the glorification of Nazism
and new forms of Nazi ideology.
“Fighting terrorism is another area that provides a platform for our strong cooperation and we hold the same positions on many aspects of counterterrorism. We coordinate very closely with Israel’s security and law enforcement agencies. Israel is one of the parties of the Middle East conflict and Russia is a member of the international Quartet of countries working together to find a solution to the conflict. So of course we have to work closely with Israel in this matter.”
Media in crisis
In the previous interview with the ambassador, he had much to say about global media and what he believes is its bias against Russia. What does he think today?
“There is a degradation of journalism; journalists have become hostages of big politics and this is, of course, a reflection of what is happening in international relations and world politics now. But it is also a manifestation of another problem: journalists being corrupted and willing to go along with whatever their governments instruct them to say or impose on them.
“In fact, this is very sad because journalism has always been a profession for brave people who think independently and wish to defend the truth without fear of reprisals. This courage is something that has been undermined in recent history. I hope that journalists everywhere will recommit to high standards and not try to paint certain countries and people in black because of the global trend or because they are paid to do it. I hope they will be able to tell the difference between good and bad, between evil and noble principles.
“I can’t defend all Russian media because there are good and bad journalists in every country, but at least Russian journalists are trying to be on the side of truth. What really frustrates Russian people – not only journalists, the general public as well – is that the western mass media ignore very obvious facts and put things upside down. This is really disgusting!
“We know that we have many problems in my country and these problems are well known to the government and to the public. We are openly discussing these problems. Just read Russian newspapers or watch Russian TV. We have no taboos in Russia. If you don’t like President Putin you can criticize him through mass media. We want journalists and also politicians in the West to do as we do and openly discuss the problems that exist and reflect on the realities we are facing in the right light, instead of trying to make white black and black white.”
Impressions of Thailand
Asked if he had changed his opinions about Thailand after living and working here for 18 months, Mr Barsky said he had, but only in one respect: “I never thought that Thais would be so friendly to Russians. I felt that Thais are amicable and very polite and kind to all foreigners, but I suspected that many might have a negative impression of Russian tourists because there are so many, and there are invariably a few who act badly. Two years ago 1.6 million Russian tourists visited Thailand. Last year there was a decline for various reasons, but it was still a lot. With such great numbers of tourists it’s impossible to avoid unpleasant situations entirely, like accidents and incidents which involve Russian tourists.
“But what I have found is that Thai people are very friendly to my countrymen. They don’t believe that Russian tourists in general make trouble and they cherish the tradition of friendship between our peoples that goes back to the special relationship forged between King Rama V and Emperor Nicholas II. I was very surprised to learn that Thais both young and old know the story of how Russia acted as a guarantor of the independence of Siam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they are very grateful. This has been the biggest surprise in my 18 months here.”