During his visit to Moscow Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave the following interview to the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Published on 14 February 2014.
What is on the agenda during your visit to Russia? Whom do you intend to meet and what is the German Government’s most important message during your talks with your Russian partners?
For my first visit to Moscow since assuming office as German Foreign Minister, my main priority is to allow plenty of time. To take the time we need to discuss current crises, but also to take the time to jointly reflect on fundamental issues. I have known my opposite number, Sergey Lavrov, for many years, and we have close and regular contact. We met most recently less than two weeks ago at the Security Conference in Munich. It is important to me to be offering Moscow trust-based, constructive collaboration right from the start of my second term in office.
What has changed in German-Russian relations since your last term as German Foreign Minister? Has your view of Russia and Russian politics changed in the meantime?
Time has not stood still, neither in Germany, nor in Russia. The major conflicts and crises have moved closer to home. Yet my fundamental conviction remains unchanged – nothing can be done without Russia. We need one another to tackle the major trouble spots, whether that be the civil war in Syria, the E3+3 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, stability in Afghanistan or the resolution of conflicts in our shared neighbourhood, some of which have been around for more than 20 years.
Our countries are linked by far more than some media reports and public debates would sometimes have us believe. Relations between Germany and Russia rely on millions of contacts in society and culture, business and politics. Given our geography and history, the betrayal of civilised values by National Socialism and the experiences of the 20th century, we Germans have a responsibility to work on a common future with Russia. We are united by many shared interests – reliable treaty-based relations, sustainable economic growth, long-term political stability. I am interested in formulating political goals and implementing them through specific projects on the basis of these shared interests. That is also the purpose of my talks in Moscow.
What are the main problems currently impairing relations between Moscow and Berlin?
Our opinions differ on some things, which undoubtedly include our perception of the relationship between the state and society, the rule of law and civil rights. At times we have a different view of foreign policy issues.
We also differ in our approach to dealing with the challenges of globalisation. To preserve domestic stability and to hold our own successfully in the outside world, we need open debate and critical exchange. The fact that this view is not shared everywhere in Russia should not stop us from engaging in dialogue. On the contrary, it should be an incentive for us to engage with one another even more intensively.
We cannot afford to reduce our relations to the differences between us, instead, we should focus more on what we have in common. I would like us to cooperate constructively in as many areas as possible, both in the capital and on a regional level, both through increased interaction between our civil societies and by strengthening the middle classes in our countries. I am thinking, for example, of projects in the area of legal cooperation, in the health sector and to strengthen local government as well as working together more closely in the fields of education, science and research. Vocational training is another area which lends itself to closer collaboration. Russian enterprises and German companies in Russia alike have a great need for highly qualified experts.
We should also intensify our cooperation on issues relating to energy efficiency and environmental protection. I am keen to take tangible steps to strengthen our relations which help both Germany and Russia move forward.
Is Germany willing to speak as plainly as France did recently in favour of waiving the visa requirement between the EU countries and Russia?
Our common goal has to be for as many people as possible from the European Union and Russia to visit one another’s countries. Visa-free travel could move our relations a huge step forward. This goes for both economic exchange and intersocietal contacts.
We are holding fast to the long-term goal of lifting the visa requirement. Some progress has finally been made in the negotiations. Yet there is no point in putting ourselves under pressure. It is more important for all the necessary legal and technical criteria to be fulfilled than to set a specific date.
Do you not get the feeling that the EU’s policy towards its eastern neighbours has recently been considerably influenced by the Baltic states and Poland, and that Germany and other countries from “old Europe”, which are less interested in geopolitical competition and more in favour of cooperation with Russia, have taken a back seat? And that this is one of the reasons for the current crisis in relations between Moscow and the EU?
Germany works hard to promote Europe. That also goes for the European Union’s common foreign policy towards our eastern neighbours. It has nothing to do with geopolitical jostling for spheres of influence from the period of the Cold War, let alone a manoeuvre targeted against Russia. On the contrary, we are convinced that sustainable reforms in the areas of business, state and society are the key to a future with more growth, prosperity and stability. We therefore intend to support the countries in our eastern neighbourhood along their path to reform and offer them wide-ranging assistance for this task. That will help those countries which are seriously interested in undergoing modernisation and which are undertaking difficult reform efforts. It will also help the entire region, which will benefit directly from more intensive economic exchange and greater political stability. I believe that it is possible to embark on a path like this, to everyone’s advantage. And I expressly include Russia. We therefore need to join forces to consider what the opportunities are for further economic integration between Europe, Russia and our common neighbours and what conditions and limitations apply. This debate requires input from our common neighbours, and from Germany, of course, as well as Russia, Poland, the Baltic states and all the other members of the European Union. I believe that this is something that can be achieved. Foreign policy developments in recent months also reinforce this. It includes involvement in destroying Syrian chemical weapons and bringing the conflicting parties in the Syrian civil war together around one negotiating table as well as initial steps towards finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear conflict.
Do you think it will be possible to involve Russia in mediation efforts to resolve the political crisis in Ukraine?
In my view what Ukraine lacks is not mediators but trust between the negotiating parties. Nobody wants to see the situation in Kyiv escalate further. That is why we all have to do our part to promote dialogue between the opposition and government representatives in Ukraine. Russia can also play a constructive role in this.
Minister, does it not bother you that on Kyiv’s Maidan groups which openly declare their allegiance to a nationalist and in some cases neo-Nazi ideology are playing an increasingly prominent role? Do you not think that Europe should be sending a clear message to the Ukrainian opposition: if the future cabinet of ministers is to include people like Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svoboda party, surely the EU cannot regard such a government as democratic and cooperate with it unreservedly?
The point is that people in Ukraine should have the opportunity to determine the future of their country themselves, in free elections. Through the Association Agreement we have made our offer of future-oriented relations between Ukraine and the European Union. Whichever path the voters decide to take, one thing is clear: A good future for Ukraine cannot be founded on violence and extremism.
A political solution supported by the government, the opposition and above all by the Ukrainian people is what we now need.
Yet embarking on a sustainable solution to the country’s economic problems is equally urgent. Budget deficits can be eliminated in the short term. In the medium and long term, however, stabilisation can only realistically be achieved by seriously tackling the existing structural problems. Economic modernisation and political stability go hand in hand in the long term, as can be seen not only in Ukraine.