Germany's Choice Will It Be America or Russia?
Part 3: Germans Divided over Russia
In recent years, it's been easy to believe in a good Russia. There was no reason to be fearful: Germany was grateful for unification, economic ties expanded, and it seemed as though Moscow was being incorporated into Western structures through the G-8 and the NATO-Russia Council. And despite various difficulties, Russia appeared on the path to a democratic future. Many believed that divisions within Europe had been overcome.
But the Ukraine crisis has called everything into question. "Currently, Russia is not a partner," German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently told SPIEGEL. Now Berlin finds itself having to build bridges to a Russia that is increasingly the source of anti-Western and nationalist rhetoric, is intolerant of national, religious and sexual minorities and is motivated by the desire to regain its former significance.
Germans are divided over their relationship with Russia. Those who have always mistrusted Russia now feel fully vindicated, while those who have advocated sympathy for Russian positions are now calling for even greater understanding. In the SPIEGEL poll, three-quarters of Germans indicate it is "more likely" their trust in Russia has "declined." Nevertheless, some 40 percent of respondents said that they would like to see Germany cooperate more closely with Russia in the future.
This difficult new Russia was on display in Berlin in mid-May, when Russian official and Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin attended a meeting of the German-Russian Forum, a lobbying organization similar to the Atlantic Bridge.
The event was titled "Europe: Lost in Translation?" Yakunin, a tall, bulky man with a large, bulky head, portrayed himself as a representative of the new Russian nationalism. "I am Russian," his speech began, "and I'm proud of it." But the kind of Western values he wants Russia and Europe to share aren't the kind that most people in enlightened Christian societies would like to see: anti-Americanism, homophobia and narrow-mindedness.
"The Americans don't even know where Crimea is," he scoffed, calling upon the Europeans to join Russian in a common fight against "totalitarian liberalism." "The essence of democracy," said Yakunin, in a reference to the Eurovision Song Contest and its 2014 winner, Austrian singer and drag persona Conchita Wurst, "is not bearded women, but the rule of the people."
Can Russia be democratic? This question always remains in the background when Germany considers its relationship with Moscow. Hardly any statement in recent years has attracted more attention and notoriety than former Chancellor Schröder's characterization of Putin as a "flawless democrat," seemingly denying his authoritarian tendencies. Pro-Russian Germans are also often seen as having authoritarian tendencies. In a SPIEGEL essay, historian Heinrich August Winkler even accused them of being intellectually akin to the Nazis and their propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.
This is flat-out wrong. Germany can be the country that understands Russia better than others without jeopardizing its establishment in the West. It is not a question of having to maintain equidistance to both the West and Russia, and certainly not one of democracy versus autocracy. Embracing a policy that arises from Germany's central geographic location is not the same as embracing a central ideological position.
Sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas recently warned that Germany is slipping back into a "highly dangerous, semi-hegemonic position." But his concerns aren't justified. Germany no longer has to be afraid of itself. According to international polls, many now view Germany as world's most popular country. The calls for Germany to assume more responsibility are nearly unanimous abroad. During the euro crisis, Germany assumed a greater burden in fiscal and economic policy, and, like any leading power, was attacked for doing so. This simply comes with the territory.
Extracting itself from the Western alliance is not an option for Germany. NATO membership has brought Germany more than half a century of security and peace, and three-quarters of Germans are convinced that it is still necessary now that Cold War is over. The overwhelming majority of Germans do not question their country's ties to the West.
A Special Role for Germany
Still, Germany can make itself more independent of the United States. Schröder's refusal to become involved in the Iraq war was the right decision -- it was a signal that Germany, while remaining true to its alliances, is not willing to participate in a deluded policy based on lies that, as is evident today, has plunged an entire region into chaos. Obama has abandoned Bush's war policy, but not his intelligence-gathering methods.
Merkel could make it unmistakably clear to the United States that she is not willing to accept the NSA's machinations. So far, the chancellor's mild admonitions have not made an impression on Obama, as the latest spy scandal apparently indicates. This is why it would be correct to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Of course, this comes with a price. It will mean that relations with Washington will become very frosty for a while. But Germany can only credibly criticize Putin's policies if it points to the flaws in the Western alliance. At the moment, German sympathy for Putin is partly derived from the sense that the United States isn't much better, and that it is prepared to violate international law if it happens to further its political ends.
Germany has spread its wings in the last 20 years. It can no longer hide behind others. Instead, Germany can lead Europe to an independent political role. It must offer an outlook to Russia in its yearning to become part of the West. But it must also set clear boundaries if Moscow reintroduces violence as a political tool and threatens allies. For America, a Germany that assumes this role may not be a convenient partner, but in the end, may be a source of relief.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan