Interview with Vladimir Gratchev, Director, Division of Conference Management, United Nations, Geneva

Vladimir GratchevVladimir Gratchev is a pleasant man whom you may bump into early morning when he enters the Palais or late at night when he is leaving the office. He is a hard-working man who strives for a high quality of work. He graduated with honours from the prestigious Moscow Institute and had a career in the Foreign Ministry of the USSR and the Russian Federation before joining the UN Secretariat.
Recently, he has written a book about one of the well known and influential diplomats in Soviet/Russian times, Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov who played an important role in diplomacy throughout the whole period following the Second World War up to the first decade of the twenty-first century. We here at Diva are very honored that Mr. Gratchev accepted to grant us this interview because customarily he does not talk to the press. However, he did make an exception for Diva’s readers, and now we leave the floor to him…..
Q : Could you tell us something about who you are and what you have done ?
I started my career after I graduated from Moscow State Institute for International Relations (known now as MGIMO University) in 1975. Then, for twenty years, I followed what I consider to be the main part of my career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of my country. During this period I had three assignments : in New York where I worked at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, as well as in the Consulate General, which at that time was being set up. My assignment came to an end in 1979, due to the Soviet Union’s military involvement in Afghanistan which caused sanctions imposed by the United States and its Allies against Moscow. For one year I worked at the US desk of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and after I was reassigned to Washington for nearly six years as an assistant to Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin — a highly distinguished diplomat who was also the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. He deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records, because he had served at his post in Washington for twenty-four consecutive years. Unfortunately, he recently passed away. Historically, this was a very interesting period, during which Ronald Reagan, who was in the Oval Office, was describing the USSR as « the evil empire ». His Presidency started off with difficulties in the relations between the USSR and the United States but it ended with the beginning of Perestroika and the warming up of the political climate between the Super Powers. When my assignment came to an end, I returned to Moscow and worked for two years for the First Deputy Foreign Minister. Then, I was assigned to India as the Political Counsellor and witnessed the transition from the USSR to the Russian Federation there.
In 1993, upon the completion of my mission there, I was granted temporary appointments in the United Nations Secretariat in New York — first for five months, then six months, then eleven months and so on. For three-and-a-half years I was the desk officer for UN operations in Haiti in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations under Kofi Annan, Iqbal Riza and Lakhdar Brahimi. I have also to add the name of Rolf Knutsson, who has been and remains my tutor and mentor for many years. I was lucky and privileged to work under these outstanding personalities. This is how it all started for me in the UN. After Kofi Annan was elected Secretary-General, I worked in his Executive Office from 1997 until 2003. This was the most exciting time in my UN career since I was entrusted with political matters, such as Iraq, humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. Therefore, many nights were spent in the Security Council. In 2003, I made a move to Geneva as Chief of the Central Planning and Coordination Service of the Conference Services Division. In 2006, I was selected to succeed Omar Abou Zahr as Director of the Division which, under my watch, became the Division for Conference Management comprising of 620 regular budget posts with an biennium budget of approximately US$250 million .
Q : How many meetings do you organize yearly ?
DCM services more than 10,000 meetings a year, since UNOG is one of the biggest conference centres of the United Nations.
DCM has more than seventy clients, both regular and extra-budgetary. It provides services to UNCTAD, ECE, CD, UNFCCC, UNCCD, etc. and 60 per cent of our work involves servicing the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review, etc.
Q : You have plenty to do, and at the same time you have written a book. How do you manage to do all that ?
This is the third book that I have written. Before I took up my position here, my knowledge about conference services (word limits, RB and XB meetings, rules on documentation) was confined to my experiences in the Office of the Secretary-General. Once in Geneva, I had to quickly master new technical issues which represented a sea-change from the highly political and substantive environment of the 38th floor. My new job proved to be down-to-earth where one is guided by resolutions and financial authority established by the General Assembly. Actually it would be possible to become very frustrated when Member States’ demands are not always matched by their own approval of all the necessary resources. So, naturally, this situation often gives rise to the need to be inspired by projects which stimulate enthusiasm and intellect. When one is fuelled to accomplish something, then time and energy flow more intensely at the working place and make it possible to achieve necessary results in the work programme of the Division.
Q : Could you tell us something about your first and second books before we talk about the third one.
One cannot simply write and publish what he or she likes when working at the United Nations. So if you want to write you have two choices : either to stick to fiction or write about something/anything other than about the United Nations — like Bollywood, or biographies, or history. In addition, prior authorization has to be sought and granted by the Administration of the Organization.
The first book was written in partnership with a long-term friend, Alexander Onya, with whom I worked in Washington and Moscow. We decided to write about experiences from our previous diplomatic life — an episode in Soviet/American relations, the search for, and punishment of, Nazi war criminals. The book was devoted especially to the sixtieth anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials. Ironically, the Soviet/ American cooperation in this field occurred during the worst days of the « evil empire » mentality but the bringing to justice of Nazi criminals marked a positive trend for improvement in bilateral relations. The joint collaboration in the search for Nazi war criminals that fled Europe after the Second World War to the United States and other countries was carried out under the auspices of the USSR Foreign Ministry and the US State Department as well as the Attorney General in Moscow and the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations in Washington.
The second book is about the use of information as a tool of diplomacy. Both the Soviets and Americans were involved in disinformation campaigns and « active measures », creating situations that were counterproductive to better relations. This came to an end with the new political thinking under Gorbachev, the days of Shevardnadze and Baker, when the Soviets and Americans decided to stop the « active » measures against each other. This book traces how such disinformation campaigns were discontinued. I would not go so far as to say that they have ended forever, but ultimately they were formally pronounced dead.
Q : Are your books only in Russian ?
The first book was written in Russian and later translated into Chinese. The second book is only in Russian.
Q : Would you like to see books translated into English ?
I have not given too much thought to this ! I preferred to move quickly to a new project. However, in retrospect, the first book ought to have been translated. I became convinced of this while reading articles on the 65th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials last year.
Q : So tell me about your new book.
My father-in-law, Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov was at the centre of diplomacy both in the USSR and the Russian Federation during historically fascinating epoch. When he passed away Diva published his obituary.
Ambassador Vorontsov was an impressive and at the same time a very decent man. His family, friends and colleagues encouraged him to write a book about his life — but he never did so. When he died there was actually nothing in writing except numerous press interviews and home archives.
I have a co-author, a well known Russian journalist — Gagik Karapetyan. He had managed to approach Ambassador Vorontsov several years ago and asked him why he had never written anything about his experiences since he had worked under so many different foreign ministers, starting his career in 1952. Gagik managed to persuade the Ambassador to grant him interviews during which his days with different foreign ministers were recalled. These were recorded. A couple of months before he passed away the Ambassador showed me the manuscript prepared by Gagik and asked me to read it. And I did — that night. After Vorontsov’s death, I called Gagik and proposed to him to write a book together in a slightly different manner in order to include everything that had been left out and to strive for a comprehensive account of the Ambassador’s life.
Yuli Vorontsov was very good at sharing his views with journalists and colleagues. So, I collected practically everything that was available in writing and put interviews all together, including his personal archives and handwritten texts. A well-known Russian film documentalist and friend of the Ambassador, Yuri Aldokhin, whenever he met with the Ambassador, put a camera in front of him and said, for instance : « Please tell me about Afghanistan », and he recorded Vorontsov’s recollections. The book included chapters on how the Ambassador was tasked to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan ; his assignment in Paris ; life in Washington ; Geneva disarmament talks ; his experiences as the USSR and the Russian Federation’s Representative to the United Nations, etc. The Aldokhin tapes amounted to six or seven hours of direct speech, and this also went into the book. So by the end of the day, a large part of the book is based on the personal accounts of the Ambassador. The reason why it is called « From Molotov to Lavrov » is because he started work when Molotov was the Foreign Minister, and continued up to the time when Sergei Lavrov filled this position. Of course, the book covers all Ministers such as Gromyko, Shevardnadze, Kozyrev, Bessmertnykh, Primakov, Ivanov, etc. At the beginning of his career, Vorontsov was an assistant to Andrey Vyshinsky, who actually passed away just after making a speech about the creation of the IAEA. The book reveals many interesting experiences and unknown facts as well as contains documents published for the first time. Friends and colleagues, like the current Russian Ambassador in India, Alexksandr Kadakin, First Deputy Foreign Minister, Andrey Denisov, Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, shared their recollections of the Ambassador.
Q : Does the book give a new vision of contemporary Soviet/Russian history ?
First, the book captures Ambassador Vorontsov’s personal views on events and personalities of his era, expanded with illustrations and contributions of other diplomats. Further, it contains many documents, texts from different publications that refer to Ambassador Vorontsov or events mentioned in numerous interviews, never published before. The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, knew Ambassador Vorontsov well (the latter was his Special Representative for CIS besides other assignments), and he was kind to write the preface to the book.
Q : We grew up during the time of the Cold War, a time of misunderstanding. You are, in fact, showing the other side of the coin. Don’t you think that « we in the West » should have access to this information ?
I am a child of the Cold War but I was lucky to study « another side of the coin », working in the United States for 21 years, as a Soviet diplomat from President Ford to President Reagan. The period from 1975 to 1986 was not the Cold War, despite the crises and « evil empire ». It was more a period of, let us call it « shy détente », very much influenced by the mistrust of the past. I have learned that certain political figures involved in diplomacy were open-minded and worked hard to overcome the stereotypes of the Cold War. Diplomacy has always been working for the thawing of the international climate. Ambassador Vorontsov was the First Deputy Foreign Minister and in this position he dealt with situations such as the crisis between Iraq and Kuwait ; the negotiations in Geneva concerning the ban on medium-range missiles ; and, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which was the main problem between the USSR and the entire world at that time. I fully supported the decision of the Soviet government to withdraw from Afghanistan, which saved many lives of my compatriots.
For seven years – actually until the day he died, Ambassador Vorontsov was the High-Level Coordinator of the Secretary General for missing Kuwaitis and third country nationals and stolen Kuwaiti property. From 2000 until December 2007, he prepared twenty-five reports of the Secretary-General on this issue, as well as numerous briefings to the Security Council. For a small State such as Kuwait, 605 missing persons represented a humanitarian trauma and much suffering for as long as it persisted. The Ambassador’s wise diplomacy and fundamental humanity contributed significantly to keeping hope and dignity alive and responsibilities focused.
Q : Do you think we lack people like Ambassador Vorontsov today ?
No, I think that every generation brings forth people of his caliber. You may recall Sergio Viera de Mello and Lakhdar Brahimi ; further back Dag Hammaskjold. Some of these people are not always to be found on the front pages. Some are visible, some are less — that’s all. I am happy that in my life I had the chance to be close to Ambassador Vorontsov, and that I was lucky when he shared his wisdom with me. He was one of those people who accomplished a lot without too much fanfare. Having said that, I do acknowledge that he was personally and professionally quite unusual – even exceptional. The former USSR had several diplomats of this standing. In this connection, I would like to mention Georgi Kornienko, who was the USSR First Deputy Foreign Minister and a predecessor of Vorontsov in this post.
Q : When is the book coming out ?
It will be launched in February in Moscow. Actually, 10 February is a professional holiday for Soviet/Russian diplomats and so, given Ambassador Vorontsov’s distinguished career, both during the Soviet era and the Russian Federation, I think this is the best moment to unveil the book.
Q : What do you consider to be the main legacy of Ambassador Vorontsov ?
I think his main legacy is that in diplomacy, first and foremost, one should have, and defend, human values. It is not very professional to try to outsmart partners in negotiations. It is the ability to listen and to understand as well as to appreciate your opponent’s opinion, whether you like it or not. It is the ability to analyze in order to reach conclusions based on the well-grounded opinions of diplomats from the other side while yet defending the interests of your own nation. This is my own view of the human dimension to diplomacy which has not been very much explored.
Q : Finally, on a personal level what has Ambassador Vorontsov left behind ?
He could have said so much but he actually said very little ! Students of diplomacy in his Alma Mater, the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, will surely be interested in reading the book to find inspiration for their future careers. Undoubtedly, his example has influenced me in both my personal and diplomatic life.
Q : Is this something that will only be possible for Russian students ?
No, hopefully one day this book will be translated. Also, the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation published, in 2009, a book about the Ambassador to which the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote a foreword and a Foundation has been recently set up in Denver, Colorado by Deborah Palmieri, in order to carry out a special project in memory of Ambassador Vorontsov. The International Informatization Academy established a medal named after the Ambassador. I am pleased that he is remembered by many people across the globe, in particular at the United Nations where he started a career at the Ninth Session of the General Assembly.