Maybe Russia would change its mind

Gernot Erler in conversation with Łukasz Jasina · 10 January 2015
Gernot Erler talks about European politics and war on Ukraine.

Łukasz Jasina: We need to start with the most popular topic of the last year – Ukraine.  We’re after a horrible year of political crisis in Europe. And you are one of the men, who shape the German Eastern Policy. I would like to ask you: how would you assess the German eastern policy during the last year? Were there many mistakes or everything was perfect?

Gernot Erler: I think it was right to seek a consensus in the EU. And the most important success was that we found a compromise regarding the sanctions and the whole policy towards Russia in the case of Ukraine and Crimea. We should go ahead with this approach, although it is not easy to find a common position given different interests within the EU of 28 member states. Our countries  are in different ways affected by the sanctions. If you speak about trade sanctions, then of course Germany is much more affected than any other country. When you speak about financial sanctions, maybe London is affected. With the issue of energy, the Baltic republics and Poland are the potential victims. So we need a compromise and I think it was a big surprise for Russia that we were able to come to an understanding and could answer in the common way from the EU.

Do you think any compromise with Russia is still possible? Are we still able to trustRussia when we negotiate with this country, when we negotiate with Putin? He lied to us so many times.

We are confronted at the moment with this great challenge regarding Russian policy: this is unpredictability. We don’t know the final goals of the Russian policy in the Eastern Ukraine. There are various options. One option is the further annexation of parts of Ukraine, like we have witnessed with the Crimea Peninsula. Another option is a so-called buffer state called „Noworosya”. Third option is to have a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, similar to Transnistria. Fourth option may be the end of support of separatists by Russia in return for a guarantee that Ukraine would not become member of NATO and not further associate with the EU. These are very different options and nobody can tell us what the real goals of Russian politics are at the moment. I think that the unpredictability is the biggest enemy of partnership and trust.

And probably Putin won’t be more predictable next year, it won’t help us. But you have talked about Transnistria. Do you think that Europe has any concept about Moldova? Pro-Russian parties were relative close to win the elections there. Moldova should be a good example of the European influence in the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Do you think we Europeans were good and we made good job with Moldova?

We have association agreements with three out of six countries in the Eastern partnership that means with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The three of them, all of them, have problems with Russian pressure as a reaction to the signature of the association agreement, and regarding the implementation of it. Of course that means that we have to think about how we can support those countries.

We were helpful to Moldova during the two last years. Europe was very present there.

Yes, we were present.

It didn’t help.

Yes, it didn’t help against the aforementioned challenges, but I think it helped in the country, indeed. But what we need of course, is to elaborate a strategy to support these countries and we should prepare something for the forthcoming Eastern partnership summit in Riga in May 2015. There is now a division: we have three countries that have signed an association agreement, we have one country –  Armenia -, that will become member of the Russian-led Eurasian Union, and there is Belarus, which is already member both of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Eastern Partnership, and which plays an interesting role in the Ukrainian conflict. There is also Azerbaijan – a country very reluctantly negotiating an association agreement and that is in my view a bit divided between options, between Russia and Europe. This situation is a challenge for the Eastern partnership, because the aim of this European strategy was always to make these countries work together with trans-border co-operation and by resolving the so-called frozen conflicts.

In my opinion we’ve got a little problem in Poland with Belarus. We remember this so-called compromise with Europe four years ago, Guido Westerwelle and Radosław Sikorski were in Minsk, they were talking with Lukashenko, and everybody knows what happened after the presidential elections. Now you said, what is true, that Belarus played a very important role. That is an issue of the „contact group” in Minsk.What is important, would happen the next December – I mean presidential elections. Do you think that Alexander Lukashenko ready for any trustworthy compromise, or is he playing his role again, like four years ago? Is he cheating us?

Well, president Lukashenko knows the determining factors of the EU policy towards Belarusquite well. He knows our position on the issue of the political prisoners. Without resolving this problem there’s no chance for a new chapter in our relationship with Belarus. So far, let’s wait and see what the priorities of the Belarussian policy and of the Belarussian leadership are.

There is another important factor relatively forgotten in Poland – that is Central Asia.

Everybody knows that something bad is happening now between Putin and Nazarbayev (I think he’s the most important politician in the Central Asia) and at the same time Kazakhstan is pretending or really improving its relations with Western Europe.

The visit of president Hollande in Astana is a proof of that. How we can improve our European relations with Kazakhstan? Because when we talk about Kazakhstan, we cannot give to Nazarbayev similar conditions that we gave to Belarus, like releasing political prisoners because there’ll be no talk with Nazarbayev at all.

First of all, the European approach towards this region should be a regional one. So of course, Kazakhstan is the most important and the richest country out of the five Central Asian countries. President Nazarbayev has pursued a very interesting policy: he has good relations with Russia but also with United States and China, and he is an important member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The German approach was always to look for common European policy towards Central Asia. We launched in 2007, during the German EU presidency, the so-called “EU – Central Asia Strategy”, which was a very important step towards an improvement of the relations between EU and Central Asia. A very important component of the strategy was a human rights’ dialogue, and we started them with all of the five countries. It was not easy with Uzbekistan, but at the end, we were also successful with that. Now, eight years after the launch of the strategy, is a very good time to make an assessment of the outcomes. That’s why I am looking forward to the Latvian EU Presidency starting on January, 1, 2015

Latvia has a strong relation with, and an important knowledge about Central Asia as a former Soviet land…

Yes, and Latvia decided to make Central Asia, and a review of the “EU – Central Asia Strategy” a priority in their presidency. Germany is very supportive of that project and is ready to assist Latvia in a very concrete way To add a detail: I was  personally involved in the elaboration of the Central Asia strategy in 2007 — at that time I was vice-minister of foreign affairs – and as one of the co-authors of the Strategy, I am very interested in supporting Latvia in that program.

What do you think, can we talk about a Turkish factor in the relations with Russia, because visit of Vladimir Putin in Ankara was not accidental, he explained that he’s gain Turkey, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern states. But do you think that Turkey can be an important player in the problems of Ukraine and Caucasus? Are Turks ready to be a new superpower in the Black Sea? And another issue – would China become interested in those problems because of the potential problems of Russia?

In my view Turkey can’t become a fully-fledged substitute for the European Union as a partner for Russia. You can make business with Turkey like you can make trade with China, because they are normal and predictable partners. But in my view that’s different to the character of the partnership between European Union and Russia. If you look back at the last two and a half decades, there was indeed a real partnership approach between European Union and Russia. We were working on comprehensive relations with Russia that go beyond business or trade relations. Our offer of a modernization partnership aimed at strengthening Russian society to become a more stable, predictable and reliable partner in the future. I have not seen Turkey and China submitting similar offers so far. That’s why, in my view, Turkey or China can’t become alternatives for the partnership we have developed in the past between the European Union and Russia. I know that there are some colleagues and politicians in Russia that have understood that quite well.  They are not in the majority at the moment. If you look at the Russian history you know that there have always been disputes between the so-called Westernizers on the one hand and the Slavophiles or Eurasianists on the other. At the moment the latter are in a majority, unfortunately.

Maybe it willchange?

I hope so!

Cooperation: Anna Olmińska, Piotr Szymański, Konrad Kamiński.