June 4, 2008

Estonia, Germany and Relations with Russia

Gruusias (ehk Georgias, ehk Jürimaal) toimuvad täna tuhandete vaatlejate valvsa pilgu all lõpuks kauaoodatud (või kauakardetud – sõltub vaatepunktist) parlamendivalimised, kus suure tõenäosusega nopib võidu president Mihhail Saakašvili partei Rahvuslik Liikumine. Võtmeküsimuseks on peaasjalikult see, kui suureks just täpselt kujuneb Rahvusliku Liikumise ülekaal.

Gruusias (ehk Georgias, ehk Jürimaal) toimuvad täna tuhandete vaatlejate valvsa pilgu all lõpuks kauaoodatud (või kauakardetud – sõltub vaatepunktist) parlamendivalimised, kus suure tõenäosusega nopib võidu president Mihhail Saakašvili partei Rahvuslik Liikumine. Võtmeküsimuseks on peaasjalikult see, kui suureks just täpselt kujuneb Rahvusliku Liikumise ülekaal.

The complexity is in fact so great, that giving but a surface overview would exceed the scope of this article.

The first thing one has to realize is that Germany has an inherently different view on Russia for reasons that go above and beyond the fact that Estonia has suffered Russian occupation for decades. For one there are obvious geostrategic differences between the two states. Germany does not share a border with Russia, unlike Estonia. In terms of threat potential and perception that makes a big difference. Further, Germany’s relative power vis-ą-vis Russia is exponentially greater than that of Estonia. These two, basically unalterable, factors begin to explain why the foreign policy of Germany and Estonia will often be divergent.

Another factor, the influence on German policy of which should not be underestimated, is economic interest. German companies have already invested quite heavily in Russia and see enormous potential in the expected Russian effort to modernize its industry and infrastructure. These industries, which have great influence in the German political establishment, lobby the government heavily to keep relations with Russia as smooth as possible.

In addition to these structural factors, there are also more intangible, sub-conscious or psychological motivators that play an important role in forming German foreign policy towards Russia. Traditionally Germany has always had strong and good relations with Russia and it has historically been Germany’s intend to bring Russia into the west. The Second World War, with all the changes in the German psyche it brought about, has exacerbated this tendency in three important ways. Firstly, it has made Germans desire the role of mediator and bridge-builder, replacing more aggressive tools in the process. Secondly, Germans can subconsciously sympathize with the Russian trauma of having fallen from great height. We know what it is like not to be taken seriously! Thirdly, the second World-War has imbued Germany with an overawing desire for stability. Subconsciously this leads to valuing stability and prosperity above and beyond other values. It is important to note that this is no absolute truth, but that I am rather describing a tendency in an extremely simplistic and reductionist way.

While the above subconscious motivators influence German attitude towards Russia, there are also those that make mutual understanding in the German-Estonian relationship more difficult. For Germans the Second World War ended in 1945 and the time since then has been characterized by guilt and coming to grips with the past. Though this process is not finished per se, the general tendency is for the “new” Germany to emancipate itself from this. A statement from the German foreign minister Dr. Steinmeier, which was part of a speech concerning the German “Ost-Politik”, exemplifies this attitude quite nicely. He said:

“I know that Russia’s cooperation with Poland and the Baltic States is embedded in historical experiences, which are painful.[…]In 2009 the Hitler-Stalin-Pact has its 70th anniversary. Aren’t we far enough along […] that the divergent national perceptions, with which we view the past, can be balanced out? Because: it is here that the roots of the continuing reservations and new tensions lie.”

This statement shows that Germany views the Second World War and its consequences as past and done with and has little understanding for further historical resentments obstructing what it views as objective policy making. It, however, also raises the question of why the period of Soviet occupation, which part of Germany was also subjected to, is discounted, for it have not been close to seventy years since the fall of the iron curtain, but only close to twenty. The reason, in my opinion, is that Germans view the depredations of the red-army and the ensuing occupation as their due punishment. In addition, while the German population in Eastern Europe suffered greatly under the advancing red army, the Germans in the German Democratic Republic were not subjected to as harsh a treatment or the mass deportations as the population of other Soviet republics.

Obviously there are differences within Germany concerning the policy towards Russia. The conventional wisdom is that the chancellery favors a more cautious approach towards Russia, while the MFA favors a more engaging course. That would divide the issue along party lines, with the Chancellor’s CDU favoring the more conservative approach and the Foreign Minister’s SPD favoring a more friendly stance. Again, this would over-simplify the issue. While very idealistic, pro-Russian attitudes are a bi-partisan phenomenon (though they are certainly more abundant the further left along the political spectrum you move), neither Merkel nor Steinmeier are myopic utopians. This can be seen in Merkel’s insistence to meet Human Rights Groups in Russia and the often very openly critical dialogue she has had with Putin. It is also evident in the MFA. Though it did have a more conciliatory view, the Russian actions towards Georgia and the Ukraine have not gone unnoticed and, I believe, that a vigorous debate over future policy is ongoing as a result.

In summary I want to say that Germany has a different policy towards Russia, which is certainly partly based on subconscious motivators, but it is not utopian in nature. For one, it is adapting to new circumstances. Secondly, any policy formed under the current grand-coalition will suffer from the very diverse interests that have to be incorporated and, as a result, will be vague and uninspired. Thirdly, one should not forget that Germany is doing what every state is doing, even within the EU, jealously looking out for its own economic, energy and security interests!

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