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IEP Lunch Debate with Dr. h.c. Gernot Erler, MP: “The New Russia as a challenge for European Policy”

Katrin Böttger and Gernot Erler

On Septe­meber 22, 2015 in the repre­sen­tative office of the German state Saarland an IEP Lunch Debate was hosted with Dr. h.c. Gernot Erler, member of the German Bundestag and coordi­nator for inter­so­cietal cooper­ation with Russia, Central Asia and member countries of the Eastern Partnership. The debate on “The New Russia as a Challenge for European Politics” was moderated by Dr. Katrin Böttger, Deputy Director of the Institute for European Politics (IEP). The event involved 170 citizens, including partic­i­pants from Germany, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden.

After Böttger’s short intro­duction, Erler began his speech which was divided into three sections: the partnership with Russia, the Ukraine crisis and its signif­i­cance for EU-Russia relations, and the future of said relations.

According to Erler, the Russian Feder­ation has undergone with the European Union a relation of “ignored alien­ation” since 1990. From the EU’s perspective, a joint and strategic partnership with Russia had developed thanks to the regular EU-Russia Summit and the inten­si­fying civil society and economic alliances. However, Russia increas­ingly alienated itself from the idea of estab­lishing congruent interests. Positive milestones included the joint youth exchange, prepa­ration for enlargement, and the joint NATO-Russia Council of 2002, noted Erler. The positive view of the devel­op­ments was unfor­tu­nately not shared by Russia. The color revolu­tions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan were deciding factors. Erler mentioned the presi­dential reelection of Putin in September 2011, accom­panied by electoral fraud and massive opposition protests, as a milestone in the “ignored alien­ation.” The drifting apart of the respective percep­tions and ignoring and blocking the Sochi Winter Olympics (2014) led to the emergence of different narra­tives of mutual perception.

In the second part of his talk, Erler stated that the Ukraine crisis consti­tutes the largest conflict between western nations and the Russian Feder­ation since the Cold War, and that a foundation for a future and common European policy needs to be estab­lished. Here, a look at the historical causes is necessary. The Ukraine crisis also goes back to the European Neigh­borhood Policy in which the EU had expanded its under­standing of trans­boundary cooper­ation in Europe to the EU border countries. The 2012 AA/DCFTA negoti­ation with Ukraine was seen by Russia as crossing a red line. Moreover, there would have been fear in Russia that the color revolu­tions could serve as a model for the Russian opposition. According to Erler, the long-term burden on the bilateral relations caused a loss of trust, which led to certain confrontation readiness, including military escalation. Erler labeled the dealing with the conflict in Ukraine as a challenge for the European Union, especially for Germany, which will next year will have chair­manship in the OSCE. The top priority is to end the hostil­ities and bring about a political solution that should be reinforced by the imposed economic sanctions. As Erler empha­sized, the goal of the economic sanctions are not to cause economic damage but instead to set a political signal.

In his third and last part, Erler addressed the devel­opment of the EU-Russia relations and empha­sized the domestic political devel­op­ments in Russia, especially in regards to the Russian foreign agent law and the law against undesirable foreign organi­za­tions. Although the work of civil society organi­za­tions has been increas­ingly hampered by repressive legis­lation in Russia, rapprochement should take place via dialogue, noted Erler.

Russia’s constructive partic­i­pation in the nuclear negoti­a­tions with Iran, the call to establish an anti-terror coalition against the IS in Syria, along with the recently active action against separatists in eastern Ukraine have made it clear that the Russian Feder­ation is less inter­ested in isolation and an escalation of the Ukraine conflict and more inter­ested in a western orien­tation, according to Erler. However, the conver­sation thread is not over, Erler concluded.

By: Bastian Hennigfeld and Nicholas Gregg


This lunch debate was organised in the framework of the project “Eastern Neigh­bours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens — ENURC” with the support of Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union.