Russia in Europe: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
The following open lecture, “Russia in Europe: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” was presented by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of the Open Russia movement, successful businessman, and former head of YUKOS, at ESMT Berlin on March 20, 2017.
Today would have been the 90th birthday of Hans Dietrich Genscher – a remarkable German political ﬁgure and a truly wonderful human being. It is in large part thanks to him that I am a free man and able to speak here before you today. May his memory continue to shine brightly!
On 25 December 1991, the Soviet ﬂag was symbolically taken down from the Kremlin tower and replaced by the Russian tricolour. And just a little more than a month later, on 7 February 1992, the Maastricht treaty was signed, signaling the birth of the European Union – one of the main driving forces behind which was and remains Germany.
Russian-German relations today are not the best they have been, and this has German society worried. Worried both for pragmatic reasons (Russia is an important trading partner— around 2% of GDP) and for historical ones (throughout the past century Russia and Germany have either been friendly or have fought ferocious wars with each other).
That being said, there are two opposite approaches to this question contending with one another in German society. One says that Russia is so important, we have to continue business as usual. The other says that Russia has done and is doing things that must not be done, and until this is corrected we need to speak with it in the language of sanctions, essentially shutting it out from the common European space.
These two extreme positions are both equally wrong, at the very least because we should not look upon the Putin regime and Russian society as a single whole, and if we do go and talk about Russia as a whole in the given context we are playing right into the hands of the Kremlin’s propaganda.
Yes, it is hard to imagine that there is a difference between the Kremlin and society if we look at the reports of sociologists, which speak of 86% support for Putin. But we must remember that these are not completely independent sociologists, and that they are working in an authoritarian country where many people continue as before to regard them as agents of the regime.
But the main thing is that today’s Germany cannot allow itself either to turn away from Russia or to close its eyes to the Kremlin regime’s attempts to transpose its internal practices inside Russia over to the international arena. Both the one and the other would mean a high probability that subsequent events will unfold in an wholly unacceptable way, because historical experience shows us that such regimes are inherently unstable on the one hand, and prone to try and solve their internal problems through external military adventurism on the other.
In other words, to put it in even starker terms, if nothing is done, when the regime comes crashing down nobody knows what might come crawling out of the wreckage; and if we close our eyes to what they are doing now, nobody knows what trouble it might still be capable of causing before it crashes.
For the Kremlin, the best solution would be to monopolize all contacts with Europe on behalf of all of Russia, on the model of the Iron Curtain in Soviet times, because common European values such as rule of law, a government accountable to society, and democracy are alien to its very nature and represent a real danger—but this is impossible on a practical level in today’s transparent world.
It is precisely for this reason that the Kremlin is not going to abandon its efforts to inﬂuence the rest of the European countries through propaganda, interference in elections, and support for radical forces and individual politicians.
Its task is to weaken and if possible destroy Europe’s political and economic unity, to weaken the political leadership of the European countries, and if possible to bring pro-Kremlin or at least merely isolationist forces to power in them. The ultimate goal is to be able to move Russia away from a European path of development without any impediments getting in the way. And actually, the Kremlin is not even trying to conceal that these are its goals.
Germany is not immune to any of this either.
Who is going to stand up against these trends in Russia?
We are—the Russian Europeans. This term was made popular by the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. We are the people who are convinced that Russia is Europe, even if it might be another Europe. Russian culture is a part of European culture; Russian history is an integral part of European history. Russia has no other way to go than together with the rest of Europe.
Our mission, including those of us who ﬁnd ourselves outside Russia against our wishes, is to continue to try and prove that our people want to live in a free and open society, developing institutions that bolster freedom, justice and human dignity. Just like all the rest of the peoples of Europe.
Yes, our room for maneuver is very small. We do what we can. I categorically reject the notion that it can only be an either/or proposition: either political struggle or “small deeds”, either coming out on the streets or trying to get the pseudo-parliament to use at least a tiny bit of common sense when it rubber stamps understandings reached between government agencies. Anything done to help bring change is valuable.
There are those who criticize me for being open to the notion of working together with people with different views, including concerning the Ukrainian-Russian conﬂict. I see no grounds for such criticism. I have declared on numerous occasions that the Kremlin’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are unlawful, and that means criminal. Furthermore, this is a crime not only against the Ukrainian people, but against the Russian people as well, inasmuch as it is destructive for Russian society.
At the same time, it would be politically naïve to try and seek public consensus inside Russia without taking into account the position of Russian society on the question of Crimea.
I am in favor of a parliamentary democracy, federalism, and reliance on local self-administration. I am not in favor of re-creating the system of power that existed at the end of the 1990s, and do not believe that everything will get better if we simply get rid of Putin and replace one set of “inefﬁcient managers” with “efﬁcient” ones.
A law-based state, representative democracy, and real political competition— these are the principles on the basis of which I am prepared to work together with all kinds of different people.
Open Russia, the civic political movement that I founded, works in precisely this way, relying on a very broad understanding of the coalition for the beneﬁt of reform.
There are many who take a critical view of our work in particular concerning the creation of regional branches of Open Russia. They ask why we are supporting people’s participation in local elections, or in any elections at all for that matter – after all, you cannot change anything from the bottom up.
Of course we understand this; we are not naïve. Any elections in today’s Russia are not real elections, and it is impossible to transfer power through them. But there are many young people out in the regions who have an active life position and are prepared to create an alternative to today’s power, in terms of both new people and new ideas. And to let the public know that this alternative exists.
This is extremely important, inasmuch as a signiﬁcant part of today’s passive support for the regime derives speciﬁcally from this feeling that there is no alternative. Besides that, we want to have a real picture of what is going on in Russian society, which is something that ofﬁcial sociology and the governmentalized mass information media are providing less and less of. It is precisely for this reason that the work we are doing to create a regional network will continue.
In the area of international cooperation, we are promoting contacts between Russian civic activists and their colleagues abroad, organizing conferences and roundtables, and arranging training for people. What is imperative for us to have in this work is mutual understanding and support from civil society on both sides.
In recent decades, Germany has been doing some serious work in developing deeper relations with Russia in politics, economics, science, and culture.
These efforts have not been in vain – Germany enjoys enormous respect in Russia. Germany’s successes at achieving a national rebirth are highly valued, while its key role in intra-European processes is recognized and welcomed by Russian society.
At the same time, Russian society is weak and perforce ﬁnds itself outside politics. The Kremlin categorically discourages any forms of civic self-organization that are not under its control.
But society is continuing to evolve nonetheless, and it needs all manner of support in order to become a reliable counterbalance to the traditional way that authoritarianism regenerates itself. If we look at the example of Ukrainian society, we can see both the problems that stem from its weakness and the achievements that come from standing up to “traditional” corruption models. It is by no means a sure thing that Ukrainian society will win in the short term, but its transformation into a force that the powers that be ignore at their peril is absolutely obvious.
In other words, along with efforts aimed at keeping the Kremlin in check, it is imperative to continue efforts to get Russian society involved in common European processes. Cultural, scientiﬁc, journalistic, and student exchanges need to be expanded. More personal contacts, joint meetings and discussions, more interaction between individual people and civil society structures!
People ask me about sanctions against such representatives of Russian culture as the pro-Kremlin singer Kobzon. I am convinced that the advantages gained from free cultural exchange outweigh the possible costs. So as far as I am concerned, let them come visit. At the same time, matters such as the work of propaganda structures ﬁnanced by the Kremlin or of businesses controlled by the Kremlin need to be something that is addressed in agreements between states.
You may ask why we keep talking about keeping the regime in check and not about a more ﬂexible approach. The answer is because it would be a mistake to turn a blind eye to Putin’s perpetual tactical move—overstep the line, see how they react, then either keep forging ahead or take a step back. There are plenty of well-known examples, from several dozen “advisors” during the times of the maidan in Ukraine to the Ilovaisk troop operation, from the demonstrative ﬂights over military warships to the tragic incident in the skies on the Turkish border, where things came to within a hair’s breadth of a major conﬂict.
If all of us together do not want yet another military conﬂict in Europe, if we do not want to see the social balance within European countries being shaken, then it is imperative to draw very clear “lines in the sand” and to demonstrate a readiness to take tough measures in response to any attempt to ignore these lines. For example, if there is an attempt on the part of a foreign state to inﬂuence elections, the response should be immediate expulsion or arrest, not sitting around for half a year trying to ﬁgure out who is going to respond to it and how. Respond as you should! Blufﬁng is not going to work here— you have already conceded too much.
On the other hand, the Kremlin does not have any particular strategic alternative to reaching an understanding with Europe either. The attempt to shift the vector of relations in an easterly direction has clearly failed. Russia’s chronic simmering economic crisis is widening the technology gap, while military expenditures have once again become a crippling burden on the country’s economy. Perhaps the time has come to start a new Helsinki process as a way of resolving what has escalated into a full-blown situation.
European society needs to understand— the pendulum in Russia is deﬁnitely going to swing in the direction of reform and modernization in the next decade. There is no new “unique path” in sight. We are going to have to use our usual catch-up methods to reform the economy, which in many ways remains behind the times despite the generous inﬂux of petrodollars over the last 15 years.
But we should not assume that it will be the people’s dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the economy that will lead to a change of the current regime. We still have a long way to go to get to that point. More likely we will witness an increase in the friction between representatives of the power elites, who understand how greatly their place in the system, and indeed the system itself, are dependent on one person. And that is a sufﬁciently shaky foundation, even taking into account that Putin is still not nearly as old as Brezhnev was.
More and more people in the top and middle echelons of power are becoming aware that each new year of stagnation is reducing the competitiveness of the country and of its elite, and is increasing the risk of a destructive scenario for any transfer of power. A transfer that is very likely to happen in the next 6 to 8 years, and practically unavoidable in the next 15.
The question of a change of leadership in Russia is already moving into the practical realm. What the elites are really hoping to get from the 2018 elections is not so much a validation of Putin’s mandate as a clear program for getting out of the stagnation and setting the stage for a peaceful transfer of power by 2024.
The European countries have got to get ahead of the curve and start thinking about how they intend to respond to what is coming. Russia is going to need three things from Europe:
- a demonstration that European values can work for the beneﬁt of all nations, as well as support for their practical implementation through laws and procedures;
- access to technologies and to human resources; and
- the prospect of re-integration with Europe.
Europe is capable of helping to facilitate positive changes in Russia, appealing to its pronounced sense of belonging in Europe. However, it must be made very clear that we are talking not about a simulation, but about a real, internalized acceptance of democratic values, about the establishment of a rule-of-law state in practice.
Europe is going through a period of changes of its own. This is distracting attention away from Russia and those problems that its current leadership is creating—everything from propaganda lies and the use of unlawful methods to inﬂuence the political life of the European countries to exporting corruption and stirring up military conﬂict in the Ukraine.
As I have already said, today’s Russian leadership is endeavoring to barricade the country from European inﬂuence in order to slow the movement of history’s pendulum. It wants to achieve this not only by means of internal restrictions and propaganda, but also by sowing discord in the European family of nations. The “divide and conquer” principle is the Kremlin’s weapon of choice both inside and outside the country.
Europeans have got to take a longer view. And build long-term relations with Russian society without falling for such provocations. They must encourage positive change and help make it happen.
This work needs to be conducted right now, by getting progressively-minded Russians involved in a discussion about the ways to transform Russian civil society into a force capable of becoming the buttress of the new Russia.
We must take into account the mistakes of the 1990s, when a whirlwind of rapid changes caught both Russians and Europeans off guard. We are doing what we can. Let us work together.
About Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the founder of the Open Russia movement. A successful businessman, Khodorkovsky was head of YUKOS, one of the world’s largest oil producers, where he established international management codes of practice, and substantially increased production. A pioneering philanthropist, he established the Open Russia Foundation in 2001 with the aim of building and strengthening civil society in Russia.
An early supporter of democratic change, at a televised meeting with President Putin in early 2003, he criticised endemic corruption. Later that same year he was arrested, and jailed on charges of tax evasion and fraud, charges, which he denied and vigorously defended. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International; and finally released in December 2013. In 2014, the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the Russian Government had violated international law by taking YUKOS from its shareholders, for political purposes, described as a "full assault on Yukos and its beneficial owners in order to bankrupt Yukos and appropriate its assets while, at the same time, removing Mr. Khodorkovsky from the political arena."
Today, Khodorkovsky advocates an alternative vision for his country: a strong and just state, committed to observing human rights, free and fair elections, and the rule of law.