Russia and Europe facing the challenges of the future

The Russian-European relations were the subject of the Körber Conference on 9 and 10 November. Experts from the world of politics as well as Literature Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller and historian Irina Scherbakowa discussed their shared past and examined challenges for "Russia in Europe".

The open and critical dialogue between Russia and its European neighbours is an objective that the Körber Foundation pursues as part of its focus topic "Russia in Europe". At the kick-off of the Körber Conference 2017 in Hamburg, executive board member Thomas Paulsen recalled that the founder and entrepreneur Kurt A. Körber founded the Bergedorf Round Table in 1961 in the middle of the Cold War in order to achieve a better understanding between East and West.

Hamburg's First Mayor Olaf Scholz spoke about the best way to talk to Russia today. The SPD politician recommended that, despite the tensions that exist with Moscow, as little as possible should be said about questions of guilt. The key strategic issue is Russia's relationship with the European Union, he said. Both sides should to agree on that. "As long as Russian politics nurtures the hope that we could return to a situation where it is primarily about Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and one or two other countries, this will not work," said Scholz. That is why Germany would be well advised not to act alone in talks such as those concerning Ukraine, he believed. The Russian government must accept the EU as a counterpart and the Union must continue its internal integration process, including military capabilities. In return, the EU as a whole must also develop a good relationship with Russia.

In a discussion with the Russian author and historian Irina Scherbakowa, the writer and Nobel laureate in literature Herta Müller confessed that she is discovering more and more of the Soviet Union in today's Russia. Since President Putin's second term in office, she has noticed intelligence officials in key positions everywhere. "In my view, this is a country that has been taken over by the secret service," said Müller. She often despairs when reading the newspaper about what is happening again to the people there. Scherbakowa, who works for the human rights center Memorial in Moscow, also spoke of a return of people's fear of the state. In Russia, trust is only to be found in the closest circle of family and friends. The future of the country is completely unclear. As a notorious optimist, however, she believes that there is no other way for Russia than towards a humane society and a form of democracy.

Keep all doors open for dialogue

Russia's permanent representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, emphasised that studies such as the recent Körber survey often leave it unclear whether it is Europe or the EU that is being discussed. Both are often equated, which leads to confusion. "The EU is not the shining temple on the hill," Chizhov noted. His task in Brussels is to convince the EU administration that it is high time to bring the Eurasian Economic Union together with the EU and to establish contacts. Russia is open for cooperation in both directions, to the West and East.

Former Polish Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz criticised Russia for developing an anti-Western stance and regarding the West not as a friendly partner, but as an opponent. The attack on Ukraine has made relations very difficult. The author Katja Gloger also spoke of a contradiction in values that had been in the making for some time. The EU faces major challenges in dealing with this growing conflict, she said. Therefore, patience must be exercised and at the same time all doors kept open for dialogue. This applies to the governmental level, but even more so to civil society ties. "Time is not on Russia's side," Gloger said. The country must reform its economy, society and political system in order not to remain on the periphery behind the USA, the EU and China.

Different cultures of remembrance

"We are now experiencing a clash of two different cultures of remembrance," remarked Alexey Miller, Professor of History at the European University of St. Petersburg. One culture of remembrance with a more cosmopolitan approach to history is determined by the fact that a nation should concern itself primarily with its sins. “But there is another culture of remembrance that is typical of post-communist Europe, and in parts also of Russia,” explained Miller. There, the culture of remembrance is agonistic and is seen as a field of conflict in order to fight over historical issues. Miller expressed criticism that the debate on Stalinism in the West is often highly distorted and misused. Two weeks before President Putin inaugurated the "Wall of Sorrow" in Moscow, another memorial in Butovo was opened as a private initiative on which none of the Western media had reported. There are almost 900 memorials for the victims of Stalinism in Russia, but the "Wall of Sorrow" is the first to have been opened by the president and to have a state character. Miller also admitted, however, that it was very difficult for historians and human rights groups such as Memorial to gain access to the archives. 

Because of the currently poor relations between Russia and Poland, many joint projects are being abandoned, argued Marek Cichocki, Director of Research at the Natolin European Centre in Warsaw. "This illustrates the relationship between the two countries."

From the Polish perspective, the differing view of Stalinism touches not only German-Russian relations, but creates problems regarding the German and European interpretation of the history of Stalinism. He observes that by concentrating too much on the crimes of Stalinism, one could portray communism as a seemingly more moderate variant or as a utopian ideology. "That is a clever move," said Cichocki, adding: "It cannot be accepted from a Polish perspective."

History does not need adjectives

The Director of the Centre for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, Gwendolyn Sasse, criticised the renationalization of history and pointed out that historians had already progressed further than this. "The idea of multi-perspective and global historiography is still in its infancy," she regretted. She said that she was uncomfortable with terms such as "common history, national history or patriotic history". "History does not need adjectives and it should not have them." There can only be one history, which is comprehensible on the basis of its current sources. It would be more meaningful than a linear historiography to pick out certain moments on which one does not agree and present the different viewpoints accordingly. In Germany, too, more Eastern Europe is needed in the history books – but it is actually becoming less.

Cichocki and Sasse both criticised the House of European History in Brussels for failing to portray different narratives adequately. The curators even stressed that they had wanted to take a unanimous line. "I find that to be a very problematic approach," says Sasse. The House of History therefore gives the strong impression of an EU perspective. "It is more of an EU project than a European project." Cichocki also criticised the fact that individual national histories were not taken into account in the museum and that there had not been sufficient dialogue with historians from different countries. 

Three scenarios for Russia in 2030

Three Russia experts took a look ahead to the year 2030, drawing up different scenarios. Mirko Kruppa, Head of the Political Affairs Department at the EU Delegation in Moscow, was convinced of a European way into the future. "Since there is a common trend towards modernisation across Europe, Moscow will also become even more European than it is today." The differences we are witnessing today exist solely in the political architecture that will disappear over time. He predicted that the EU will consolidate by 2030 and grow to 30 member states. Over time, Russia will also be forced by the modernisation trend to adapt its political system to the rule of law and to allow its citizens greater participation. "Russia has the best prerequisites for the adoption of European values," Kruppa affirmed. "Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state." For Russia he believes that there is no alternative to the way to the West.

Alexander Gabuev, Analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center who thinks Moscow is more likely to take an Asian path, disagreed: "Russia will depend much more on Asia and China than on Europe". Power plants, mobile phones and express trains already no longer come from Germany, but from China. The tightened US sanctions, which the EU would find difficult to avoid with a different sanctions policy, also contribute to this development. "You will have to follow this lead, because the United States is crucial for your security and your economy," Gabuev said. There is no conflict of values for the Russian leadership with China as there is with the EU, but actually great similarities. China calls itself a "socialist democracy", Russia speaks of "sovereign democracy" and yet neither country is democratic, he concluded.

Kadi Liik, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London, however, predicted a path to powerlessness. Russia urgently needs reform, but the economy is not going so badly that this will force a change. Liik regretted this and drew a pessimistic picture of the country's development, saying: "They will only think of reform when it is perhaps too late."

Finally, Gabriele Woidelko, Program Director "Russia in Europe" at the Körber Foundation, stressed that the continuation of the dialogue between Russia and its European neighbours, despite or precisely because of the numerous dividing lines, which had also become clear at the Körber Conference, would remain an important area of the foundation's work. The topics of foreign and security policy, historical reappraisal and civil society will remain on the agenda of the Körber Foundation regarding "Russia in Europe".

By Gemma Pörzgen

videos of the Körber Conference
list of participants (PDF)
survey “Russia in Europe: A Cold War in People’s Minds?”


Photos: Frederika Hoffmann 

  • Author and Historian Irina Sherbakova (left) und Anna Kaminsky, Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany    
  • Stefanie Babst, NATO, Admiral Karsten Schneider, Bundeswehr Command and Staff College, and General (ret.) Hans-Lothar Domröse (from left)    
  • Latvian guests: Press Officer Kaspars Adijans, Ambassador Inga Skujina, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica und Member of Parliament Sergejs Potapkins (from left)    
  • Lithuanian Ambassador Darius Semaška, Ambassador at Large Aušra Semaškienė and Thomas Paulsen, Executive Board Körber Foundation (from left)    
  • Michael Thumann, Diplomatic Correspondent for DIE ZEIT, and Markus Meckel, Senior Associate Fellow at the DGAP    
  • Gabriele Woidelko (left), Program Director “Russia in Europe” at the Körber Foundation, and Former Polish Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz    
  • The audience voted for the scenario the favored most for “Russia 2030”    
  • Contact

    Gabriele Woidelko
    Head of Department History and Politics
    Programme Director “Russia in Europe”

    +49 • 40 • 80 81 92 - 160
    Twitter @Woidelko

    Twitter @KoerberIV

    Nora Müller
    Executive Director
    Head of Department International Affairs

    +49 • 30 • 206 267 - 60
    Twitter @muellernora

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