On 25 November the author and journalist Gabriele Krone-Schmalz had a panel discussion with former prime minister of Brandenburg and current president of the German-Russian Forum Matthias Platzeck (Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD) at Neuhardenberg castle, which is situated east of Berlin. The event was hosted by Frank Mangelsdorf, chief editor of the local newspaper “Märkische Oderzeitung”. The topic under discussion was called “In relation: Russia and Europe”.
The introductory text talked about a “disturbed relationship between Russia and Europe” and comments: “However strained the relations may be right now, both sides view each other with anything but disinterest, and it is fair to assume a desire to get along well together for both of them. Reason enough to look for ways to take steps towards a reconciliation.”
About 200 interested people participated in the event, many of whom had travelled from Berlin. Three hours after the event had been announced in June tickets had already been sold out. Nevertheless, at the box office there were people trying their luck to get in. And that despite the fact that Neuhardenberg is not just around the corner. The journey takes one and a half hours eastwards from Berlin, partially through beautiful alleys in the Mark Brandenburg and especially the Oderbruch with its many rivers, creeks, lakes and channels, almost towards the Polish border.
Participants didn’t regret the effort, as the frequent applause proved. Right from the start when Gabriele Krone-Schmalz criticised the pejorative use of the term Russia sympathiser. She could never understand how the verb “to sympathise” was meant to smear people since sympathy was the basis for understanding and therefore the foundation for reasonable action. Understanding something in sympathy always comes prior to evaluation, rather than de-valuation, in order to obtain a platform for acting reasonably. Being a Russia sympathiser, she argued, therefore is the best thing that can happen to you.
Matthias Platzeck gave a clear answer when the host asks him what had happened with our relation to Russia since the West’s euphoria about Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost 27 years ago: What happened was “gruesome” and the analysis of the underlying reasons far from complete. And this despite a literally thousand-year-old history of cultural, interpersonal and societal relations to Russia. With all ups and downs, almost no other country has a history so closely connected to our’s. He emphasised that a misjudgement made in 1989/1990s should not be forgotten in this regard: People had concluded that the West had won the Cold War. Francis Fukuyama published his book “The End of History” and announced the final victory of Western democracy and capitalism. In future there would be only one super power. On the other hand, there was the Charter of Paris with its credo that all relations would be guided by the principle of peace from now on.
Russia had still been there – but the country was in dire straits and the West had found no adequate response to this situation. All the West could recommend to Russia then was to copy Western values, Western democracy and the Western economic system, in other words to become like the West in order to recover. Until today, Platzeck argued, people in the West rarely considered what traditions, what history and which mentality the Russian people have. He had no doubt that Russia and the Russians were quite capable to seek and find their own way to the future.
However, when it became obvious that Russia had embarked on this way of her own, the West reacted with the reinvigoration of Russia as their “enemy idol”. Gabriele Krone-Schmalz said that this enemy image had a long tradition. Postulating that the West had won the Cold War did not necessarily end this war – if it really was to end both sides would need to feel they had gained something. The West, however, insisted on measuring things by their own standards: We were better off, and we were better at everything.
Gabriele Krone-Schmalz knows what she is talking about: She had witnessed the years of turmoil first hand as a correspondent of German state television ARD in Moscow. Legions of Westerners kept flying in and offered their advice on what the Russians should do and how they should do it. “All these ideological impositions”, she pointed out, “spoiled a lot of good beginnings and continue to do so until this day.” Russia had to come to terms with three revolutions simultaneously: Firstly, the transition from planned economy to market economy, secondly from Communist one-party rule to a system of constitutional justice and thirdly the revolution from the Soviet empire to the nation state. The West didn’t show much empathy, though. All they offered was some more paternalism.
When Matthias Platzeck explains how the Yeltsin era affected the pride of the Russian people he knows what he is talking about – in first-hand encounters people had told him in those years: “Now we are nothing at all, nobody respects us any longer in the world.” Mentioning terms such as market economy, democracy or privatisation “in the depths of Russia” in a discussion makes the atmosphere go “chilly” even today, since for many Russians all this is associated with their worst trauma of recent history when 95% of the population lost almost everything between 1991 and 1998. “The fact that we didn’t give a thought about all this, that we didn’t realise it, has something to do with a lack of empathy, otherwise we would have acted differently, had we taken things seriously, had we looked at it on equal footing…”, Platzeck added.
Most Western media played a regrettable role in this. Gabriele Krone-Schmalz got a lot of applause when she referred to the discrepancy between public and published opinion. When the host asked her whether we were too much relying on black-and-white pictures when painting reality today, investing not enough time in exploring things, Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, who is also lecturing about journalism today, explained what decent journalism continues to be about. Time may move faster today in general, the world may have become more complex but sound and decent research is still crucial and the world rarely just divided into good and evil. Many journalists, however, had changed their work ethics and seemed to see it as their task to educate people rather than inform them – to lead them on the path of improvement. “I find that devastating”. On the contrary, journalism has the obligation “to give the whole story, as complete as possible, not just one side, and to change perspective, to put oneself into the shoes of the people whose real life I want to report on, in order to better understand and evaluate things.” If a mainstream opinion is established for the sake of providing fast orientation, and because everything is far too complicated – and then an atmosphere takes hold in which any opinion different from that mainstream is smeared as extremist, then we arrive at a point “where a majority of people can’t identify themselves with this press any longer.”
Matthias Platzeck criticises the media, too, for their sketchy coverage. He calls it a dramatic situation that circumstances as complicated as peace efforts are covered in an un-differentiated zebra thinking. The discrepancy between what people actually think and discuss and the published media opinion has become huge. “We should be alarmed by this situation”, Platzeck argues, and: “The media should report what actually is the case, rather than educate people.”
Gabriele Krone-Schmalz found plain words regarding all those Donald Trump articles: “Nobody cares how I like Trump personally. As a journalist I have to analyse why he was elected.” In doing so, a respectful style has to be maintained, even “… if I cannot stand the guy.” An incomplete picture is painted if “… some e-mail hacks by foreign intelligence agencies” are blamed for the election result. This is “speculative reporting”, she said. Instead, media should report what actually is the case, with respect and a certain distance. People should bear that in mind while reading articles. Speculating about criminal intentions in every contact with Russia does not contribute to an improved relationship between Russia and the USA, rather to a worsened one. “The man was right”, she commented on Trumps statement during the campaign that a good American-Russian cooperation was in the US interest. Today however, everything he does to achieve this goal is compiled and utilised to blame him, “… so that he might eventually lose his position.”
Matthias Platzeck, who used to serve as chairman for the Social Democratic Party for one year, was asked about the relationship between Russia and his party. He responded: ”This was a nice evening – until now.” Politics requires craftmanship, he insisted, one needs to know what one is doing and this is time-consuming. For the preservation of peace on our continent reading papers is not quite enough, one needs to be present and invest into maintaining relationships. Studying the résumés of Bundestag MP’s today, one finds a lot of America, England, France, Russia is mentioned less often than Neu Zealand. Egon Bahr had valued his “back-channels” to Moscow because in dangerous situations he could call them and get information based on mutual trust. Insufficient knowledge about a country increases the risk of a war by coincidence. This is one aspect of what is referred to as the “alienation between peoples”. 2017 was supposed to be the year of German-Russian youth exchange programmes – “this year just went by unnoticed, and this should alarm us.”
When asked about the West applying double standards if Russia is concerned, Gabriele Krone-Schmalz states that she has dealt with this fact in every single book she has written. This is such a widespread practice that one could write about another example every day. “Totally regardless whether it is about doping or anything else, these double standards regarding Russia are so deeply rooted and quite offensive, too.” Matthias Platzeck adds: In panel discussions in Russia he has often experienced that whenever the topic of Russian violations of international law was raised, Russians approached him and asked about the Bundestag decisions in 2003 when the USA invaded Iraq in breach of international law, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. “Why has nobody of you called for sanctions back then?”
Towards the end of the event the host posed the question which other similarities could be found between Germany and Russia. Krone-Schmalz argued there were huge similarities, mainly about the focus on the well-being of society, about getting-along well with each other. She saw the biggest danger in today’s atmosphere of mistrust that violent conflicts could erupt. Many minor misunderstandings could accumulate “up to a point of no return where things get out of control irreversibly.” Platzeck diagnoses the need for a policy of commemoration and history in Germany, no future was possible without that being sorted out. We have to ask ourselves why 27 million victims of the invasion of the Soviet Union, “the worst war of annihilation which mankind has seen”, are not as present in our matrix of commemoration as compared with other victims. After this war the peoples of the Soviet Union offered reconciliation and at the end even their friendship. “We treated this offer with anything but sensibility.” The auditorium signalled their agreement.
All this is noticed in Russia and the alienation keeps growing. Although there is still a widespread sympathy with Europe and especially Germany, the rift is widening. This growing alienation is dangerous, because if knowledge about culture, language and customs of the neighbour is declining, people get more vulnerable to being manipulated into believing the biggest lies because nobody is there to challenge them.
However, during the recent city partnership event in Krasnodar, with the foreign ministers of Russia and Germany participating, the atmosphere had been different: “We won’t allow this to be destroyed!” And there the Year of Regional and Communal Partnerships had been announced. This meaningful initiative now has to be brought to life. And under big applause Platzeck added: “If it doesn’t work ‘at the top’, at least the grassroots have to stand strong.” •
Gabriele Krone-Schmalz was born in Lam, Lower Bavaria in 1949. She has an academic background in Eastern European history, political science and Slavic studies and holds a doctorate in history and political science. She is self-employed as a freelance journalist and author. Krone-Schmalz worked at the Moscow studio of ARD (a joint organisation of Germany’s regional public-service broadcasters) broadcasting. Since 2000 she is a member of the Steering Committee of the Petersburg Dialogue, since 2006 member of the Board of Trustees of the German-Russian Forum. Since 2011 she is a professor for television and journalism at the Business and Information Technology School (BiTS) Iserlohn. As one of Germany’s leading experts on Russia, she appears regularly on television. She is the author of numerous books on Russia, most recently “Russland verstehen. Der Kampf um die Ukraine und die Arroganz des Westens” (Understanding Russia: The Battle for Ukraine and the Arrogance of the West, 17th edition 2016) ISBN 978-3406675256 and “Eiszeit. Wie Russland dämonisiert wird und warum das so gefährlich ist” (2017 Ice Age. How Russia is demonised and why this is so dangerous) ISBN: 978-3-406-71412-2.
Matthias Platzeck was born in Potsdam in 1953. He is a graduate engineer in biomedical cybernetics. He was one of the 144 deputies of the German new federal states, who were delegated after the unification in the German Bundes-tag. In 1990 he was appointed for the party Bündnis 90 (Alliance 90) Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Regional Planning of the State of Brandenburg. From 1991 to 1993 he was a member of the Federal Speaker Council of the party Alliance 90, whose merger with the West German Green Party in 1993 Platzeck did not accomplish.
In 1994 he was again appointed minister, in 1995 Matthias Platzeck became member of the SPD. Matthias Platzeck earned great merits in coping with the flooding disaster on the river Oder in July/August 1997. Since June 1998 he belongs to the Brandenburg executive committee of SPD. He was elected Chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) on 15 November 2005 with an overwhelming majority of 99.4 per cent. From 1998 to 2002 he was Lord Mayor of Potsdam. In 2002 he was elected Minister-President of Brandenburg. In 2004 and 2009, he was re-elected Minister-President by the Landtag Brandenburg. In 2013 he resigned for health reasons. Matthias Platzeck has received numerous awardes, including the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class of the Federal Republic of Germany (1998), the Order “Peter the Great” of the Russian Academy of Security, Defense, Law and Order (2005), the Grand Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany (2011).
On 19 February 2017, Matthias Platzeck held a highly respected keynote address on the European-Russian relationship in Dresden. This speech can be read at: http://www.deutsch-russisches-forum.de/portal/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Dresdner_Rede_MPaD_190217_Freigabe.pdf
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