Speech by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the German-Russian NGO conference

25.04.2013 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Professor Fedotov,
Dr Schockenhoff,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to welcome you all to the German-Russian NGO conference here in the Europasaal at the Federal Foreign Office.

Non-governmental organizations today rank among the driving political forces of an ever more closely interconnected world. It is not rare nowadays for NGOs to be leading the way when it comes to thinking outside the box, finding new ways of solving problems.

Their proximity to the problems on the ground as well as their specialist knowledge and the networks that connect them make them very valuable political players.

In these globalized times more than ever, it is only by working together and transcending national borders that states and civil society will be able to respond adequately to this increasingly complex world and meet the economic, environmental and social challenges of the age. A society that fosters the civic engagement of responsible citizens will be better placed to adapt to the changes that sweep the world.

The only possible stable society is the society that learns from its experiences and so can keep step with change.

Free and diverse societies have more potential for stability in the long term than those in which freedom is restricted and uniformity imposed. This is even more true now, in this globalized age, than it has ever been.

As Germany’s great Foreign Minister of the 1920s, Walther Rathenau, put it, “The waters of world history flow inexorably into the valley of freedom. Nothing can push them back; at most, they might be halted. But block their path for too long and the dam will break.”

Freedom, democracy and the rule of law are the foundations on which the Russian and the German legal systems are built.

Germany’s Basic Law proclaims that “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” Russia’s Constitution says that, “The recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the State.” We can see there a good example of the common area of European values.

People sometimes accuse the West of trying to impose its values on Russia. This accusation is unfounded, and even dangerous in that it positions Russia outside the European system of values. In the Council of Europe and in the OSCE, we have committed ourselves to these European values together.

President Putin has time and again reiterated that Russia has a European outlook. We should take him at his word. Peace, freedom and prosperity are built on our European values. And that is why pursuing and enhancing a strategic partnership between the EU and Russia remains the right thing to do.

Our continent can only enjoy peace and prosperity if Europeans and Russians are open to one another.

Russia was the partner country at this year’s Hannover Messe. Last year, the volume of our bilateral trade reached a record high of more than 80 billion euros. There is potential for yet more.

Economic exchange will develop all the more strongly the more conducive framework conditions for it are. These are, first and foremost, the rule of law and transparent and consistent behaviour on the part of the authorities.

Promoting good investment conditions and strong civil society are not contradictory goals; they are two sides of the same coin.

We welcome Russia’s desire to make itself even more attractive to investors. We also welcome Russia’s desire to strengthen the middle classes. We will be glad to support Russia in the endeavour.

The strength of a country’s middle classes is an indicator not just of the state of its economy but also of its levels of justice. A broad-based, healthy middle class is what underpins a stable society.

That is why my counterpart Sergey Lavrov and I have agreed to make the middle classes a topic within the German-Russian Modernization Partnership. A first German-Russian conference on this subject will be held in Moscow a few days from now. I am glad to note that the German-Russian Forum is a part of that conference, as a co-organizer.

Civil society in our two countries is lively and colourful. Tens of thousands of volunteers commit immense amount of time and energy to protecting the environment or to social projects. We welcome people’s voluntary dedication to promoting tolerance, educational opportunities, legal certainty, human rights and other honourable objectives.

When NGOs are met with suspicion on the part of the state, their working conditions become extremely difficult.

It is never nice for governments to find themselves under criticism. It is important, however, that civil society be treated as a partner by those in the political sphere.

We expect NGOs to be treated fairly and with respect. If they are not, we will speak up about it. We cannot accept the fact that civil society is being made subject to increasing restrictions. We do not feel that the criminal justice system, even prison sentences, are appropriate as a means of doing so.

Several hundred non-governmental organizations in Russia have been comprehensively checked since February. The German Government views this concerted action with concern.

We are concerned not only because German organizations have been affected, but principally because of the consequences for Russian civil society. The German Government has made that very clear to its Russian partners.

The organizations in question are accused of using money from abroad to finance their activities.

Civil society is not a national project, especially in these globalized times. The subjects and challenges that civil society is engaged with today often transcend national boundaries. In this era of ever greater interconnection, governments, businesses and NGOs all operate at the regional, national and international levels. We are living in an interconnected world.

We want to continue weaving closer ties between German and Russian society. We want to promote contact between the people of our two countries and make it easier for German and Russian NGOs to work together.

Germany stands by its long-term objective of visa-free travel between Russia and the European Union. I will continue to work for progress in negotiations on the Visa Facilitation Agreement.

Until those negotiations are concluded, we should be making full use of all means already available under European law to make travel easier. I am personally convinced that this is vital.

When we focus on the strategic opportunities inherent in cooperation with Russia, it does not mean that we can’t engage in a frank and sometimes critical dialogue in a spirit of partnership.

I thank you all for your important work, and I urge you not to let up in your dedication.

What we need now is more dialogue, more openness and more exchange, not less. I don’t need to tell you how hard a road that is to follow. But it is the right one.

Thank you for your attention.

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