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