On 27 October 2021, after several postponements due to the pandemic, the event entitled “Ice Age with Russia?” finally took place in Cologne, where Prof. Dr Gabriele Krone-Schmalz spoke about the challenges of German-Russian relations and discussed them with the audience, both in person in the hall and through digital connections. The event was organised by the Cologne-Volgograd Town Twinning Association, the Adult Education Centre, the Cologne Peace Forum, the Peace Education Centre Cologne, the Luther Church and the trade union ver.di.
Gabriele Krone-Schmalz studied Slavic studies and has been an excellent expert on Eastern Europe for many decades. She was an ARD correspondent in Moscow, initially as an assistant to the recently deceased Gerd Ruge, and she is the author of several books on Russia. The recurring basic idea of her extremely clear and knowledgeable talk was that we should stop demonising Russia and start understanding it. Russia and Western Europe could be a dream team if it were not for the strategy that has been pursued west of the Atlantic for over 100 years of not allowing precisely that to become reality. In doing so, Ms Krone-Schmalz by no means overlooks the fact that there are sufficient occasions for critical observation in Russia. But there is also the supreme good of non-interference in internal affairs and, above all, the task of putting oneself in the other’s perspective, in its history and culture.
That was precisely the aim of her talk: to know the other, to want to understand him. At the beginning, she drew attention to a contradiction: politicians and leading media in the European Union take it for granted to lecture the Russian government on democracy. At the same time, they afford themselves an EU that massively violates the democratic principle of subsidiarity and whose institutions are by no means democratically organised and legitimised; as an example, she mentioned the European Parliament with the glaringly different weight of representation of the individual states.
The policy of détente practised by the West in the Soviet era is unfortunately over today. Above all because the EU has left its foreign policy for 20 years to the new members Poland and the Baltic states, which for historically understandable reasons are very critical of Russia, so Ms Krone-Schmalz. But does this adequately represent the interests of Western Europe today? Even former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and George Kennan (US historian and diplomat) later described eastward enlargement of NATO as the biggest failure since the Second World War. Why have the offers of cooperation from the Russian side been ignored for decades now? Would there be German unity without Gorbachev? Didn’t Putin renew very serious offers 20 years ago to build the European house from Lisbon to Vladivostok? Did he not prevent worse escalations in the Syrian and Caucasian wars and play a decisive role in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons? Or played a decisive role in shaping the nuclear agreement with Iran? According to Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, there is a lack of “informed debates” about recent history; instead, there is a disinforming demonisation.
Russia has no interest in annexing the Baltic or other states. The “annexation” of Crimea, which is often cited as proof of Russian aggressiveness, was firstly not an annexation, but a clear majority decision of the population there, and secondly a reaction to the aggressive NATO expansion to the east. Ms Krone-Schmalz recalled the construction of missile bases in Romania and the massive financial support of the West for a coup in Kiev against a democratically elected government. Ukraine had been a declared strategic target of the USA since the 1990s. After 2014, only NATO-oriented politicians came to power in Kiev. Russia had to defend itself against the loss of its contractually certified Black Sea Fleet base. This was a strategic defensive action in the interest of state policy, for which any Western state would show understanding if it were honest.
In the West, there is little or no reporting at all on the fact that in Ukraine today the Russian language has been banned from the public sphere and brutal nationalist re-education is taking place. Understandably, the majority Russian population of Crimea has no interest in this. To understand the other side, one must also realise the following: After the end of the Soviet Union, not only did its territory break up into many parts, and Russia is not simply the successor to the Soviet Union; but about 25 million Russians are now minorities in other successor states and are often treated badly as such, especially in Ukraine. Large parts of the Soviet infrastructure, industry and agriculture, the majority of the port cities, are not in Russia. Of course, economic problems arise when a formerly unified economic area becomes fragmented and even hostile leaders come to power in parts of it thanks to foreign aid. Protecting oneself against this is a self-evident task of Russian politics.
Of interest were Gabriele Krone-Schmalz’s remarks on the internal understanding of the huge country of Russia. In some parts, the Middle Ages still live there, in others the modern age, often in close proximity to each other. Russia is not a democracy, but also not a despotism, she said. There are opposition media, even if they only have a small reach. But the Ekho Moskvy channel, through which Nawalny was able to go public for a long time, belongs to the state-owned Gazprom corporation! When asked by the audience about Navalny, the speaker said that he had great merits in exposing corruption in the country and that the legal treatment of him clearly contradicted human rights. However, she also cautiously reminded the audience that Navalny himself spreads extreme nationalist and racist views and has operated with fake “news”.
Criticism is allowed in Russia as long as one does not question the system and has unpatriotic intentions, she said. This does not mean nationalism or submissive confirmation of government action, but active thinking and cooperation in measures for the common good, and of course also the articulation of constructive criticism – within the framework of the given political system. However, freedom of opinion in the sense of Western propaganda is only a secondary value for a large part of the Russian population, according to credible surveys and the speaker’s personal impressions. It is more important for most citizens to be able to live their lives in peace and with sufficient supplies and opportunities for education. We need to take note of this instead of making our priorities the yardstick for others.
Ms Krone-Schmalz pleads for a different foreign policy of the EU and Germany that is not driven by the historical experiences of Poland and the Baltic states. These experiences do not correspond to today’s reality. The West must cancel its intention to admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO. The admission of Eastern European states to NATO at the turn of the millennium was already a mistake, if peace policy is taken as a yardstick. Western peace policy could and should have cooperated with Russia instead of advancing militarily to the east.
Dialogues at the highest level, personal meetings, for example in a Council of Foreign Ministers, between the EU and Russia should be revived; why not a major security conference, as there was even during the Cold War with the Soviet Union?
Cooperation with Russia would be a gain for the EU, which the EU should also understand as its own interest. Instead of propagandistic demonisation, information and understanding would be called for, which by no means excludes justified criticism within the framework of dialogue. Even today, a majority of the German population is very open to international understanding. In civil society, the cultivation of personal relationships is valuable, for example at the level of student exchanges or through town twinning. One possibility could also be the topic of climate change, which is certainly of particular concern to young people.
In response to a comment from the audience that our media landscape hardly allows other voices to be heard, the speaker said that the voices that do exist, but are too quiet, must just become louder. Those who are properly informed – and you can be if you want to – must also have the courage to speak up. This event alone and the possibility to listen to it on the internet1 shows that there are possibilities for information.
Krone-Schmalz has also written books that are accessible to everyone,2 some of which have made it into the Spiegel bestseller list and which she was happy to sign at the event. The organisers have also been able to offer other lectures in Cologne on the subject of relations with Russia, for example with Matthias Platzeck or with Fritz Pleitgen. Yes, the leading media may be more influential, but all the more reason for those who are better informed to carry the debate further, to “speak up”. Ms Krone-Schmalz has set an outstanding example with her clear talk. •
2 for example: Krone-Schmalz, Gabriele. Eiszeit, Munich 2017
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