With each other instead of against

German-Russian dialogue at this year’s “Potsdam Encounters”

by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

On 18 May 2021, the German-Russian “Potsdam Encounters” took place for the 25th time. The theme of this year’s conference was: “Turning Times – Prospects for European Cooperation between Pandemic and New Location”. Matthias Platzeck, Chairman of the Board of the German-Russian Forum, explained the significance and objectives of the conference: “Especially in the current difficult situation, closer cooperation between Germany and Russia as well as the EU and the EEU [Eurasian Economic Union] must be possible and encouraged. It is important to define concrete approaches for joint action and to implement targeted steps. We are working on this within the framework of the ‘Potsdam Encounters’”.

In 1999, the then Federal President Roman Herzog initiated the “Potsdam Encounters” with the aim of finding a deeper understanding for each other and new forms of togetherness through the discussion of current issues. Since then, high-ranking representatives from politics, business, culture and other public figures from Russia and Germany have gathered regularly each year for this conference, which usually lasts two days. The organisers are the German-Russian Forum in cooperation with the Russian Gorchakov Foundation for Public Diplomacy. Since 2019, the event has been under the patronage of Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, who this year gave an address that was unifying for peoples.
  The conference morning was devoted to political issues, while the afternoon agenda included questions of economic cooperation.
  Further speakers and panellists listed in the programme at the conference, moderated by Alexander Rahr, were Konstantin Kossachev, Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Dr Thomas Kunze, Director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Office Abroad and Country Representative for the Russian Federation, Wolfgang Ischinger, former Ambassador to the Russian Federation and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (replacing Dr Johann Wadephul, Member of the German Parliament, who arrived late), Professor Dr Alexander Dynkin, President of the Primakov Institute for World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dr Pavel Savalnyj, Chairman of the Russian-German Parliamentary Group and Chairman of the Energy Committee of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. In the afternoon, which was dedicated to German-Russian economic relations, the keynote speaker was Peter Altmaier, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy.
  In view of the tense situation in German-Russian relations, the event offered one of the rare opportunities for an open and equitable exchange. Most of the kick-off speeches and contributions to the discussion were based on the notion of peace, reconciliation, mutual understanding, the interest in good partnership relations, the will to continue the long-standing cooperation and were generally forward-looking.
  Matthias Platzeck greeted all participants with warm words and paid tribute to the Russian guests who had spared no effort to attend the conference in Berlin in person.

Reflecting again on what unites us

“Relations between the West and Russia, between the European Union and also between Germany and Russia are [...] in the worst crisis since 1990, since the end of the Cold War. We have long since entered a new era of confrontation and arms race”, Matthias Platzeck said in his welcoming speech. He referred to the war of extermination against the Soviet Union unleashed by the Germans which will be celebrated for the 80th time on 22 June. He recalled the victims on the Soviet side: 12 million soldiers and 15 million civilians. “I harbour a hope, admittedly a very faint one, that this historic date will make us reflect again. [...] And that we reflect much more again on what unites us, what can bring us closer together again, and not only on what divides us today.”

Creating trust through reconciling remembrance

He recalled the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr, which had shown “that deep rifts can also be overcome in relations between East and West”. Today, too, he said, “a reconciliatory commemoration of the victims of German crimes can again create more trust”. He emphasised the great potential and the great interest that also exists today in economic and societal cooperation between Germany and Russia. “The ideas of Ostpolitik – reconciliation, responsibility and understanding – live on today, especially among the citizens. Germans and Russians are working together in a spirit of trust in more than a hundred town twinning programmes, in youth exchanges and in school and university cooperation. They exchange ideas in countless joint projects – from new mobility to social participation to museum cooperation.”

Russia not interested in confrontation

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began his address by regretting that the pandemic has so far not led to the unification of the international community, noting, “The anti-Russia sentiments of some German media outlets have risen to a fever pitch”. 
  This is eroding mutual confidence and the very foundations of our relationship”, he said.
  He again stressed that Russia was not interested in confrontation and called for "developing a positive Russian-German agenda on a wide range of issues”.
  He said it was “It is notable that German business leaders invariably reaffirm their commitment to carry on mutually beneficial cooperation with their Russian partners”.
  He continued: “Moscow continues to regard Berlin as an important international player and remains open to dialogue, but a dialogue that is honest and mutually respectful. We know that in Germany, too, there are many of those interested in promoting relations based on the principles of equality and regard for each other’s interests [...] I hope that common sense will prevail and that the forces that put national interests above ideological schemes and bloc discipline in the spirit of the Cold War will gain the upper hand”.

Building bridges in a difficult time

In order to be able to overcome the economic problems caused by the pandemic, it is necessary to bundle the potentials; he referred to the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin to form the "Great Eurasian Partnership", which was open to all countries in Asia and Europe without exception”.
  He praised the Potsdam meetings as part of the positive connecting initiatives in the Russian-German society-to-society dialogue, which today had a special role to play: “After all, they have been originally created as ‘all-weather’ arrangements independent of the changeable political situation”.
  Sergey Lavrov and Matthias Platzeck are just two examples from a series of contributions to this year’s “Potsdam Encounters” that seek to build bridges in a very difficult time.  •

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