Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of east forum Berlin, German Historical Museum

09.04.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Prime Minister Leancă,
Prime Minister Thaçi,
Mr Governing Mayor,
Ministers and Ambassadors,
Representatives of UniCredit and of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations,
Honoured guests,
Esteemed colleagues from many eastern European states,

I think we are very aware here in Berlin that this is not something we should take for granted, and we are not proud, but we are thankful that you are here today despite the fact that we are currently in a very difficult political phase. I extend a particularly warm welcome to you all.

I would like to thank the organisers for issuing their invitation at this critical juncture. I was very pleased, ladies and gentlemen, to accept the invitation to speak.

I would be equally pleased to take a long, hard look this evening at the east forum’s leitmotiv, namely the vision of a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. And I would be pleased to talk with you about the prospects for economic exchange and about the potential for growth for economies and for business in the countries represented here tonight. I would like to do that, as indeed most of you here probably would, but as you will have gathered from those words of welcome: things are not as simple as that just now, unfortunately.

Some people think that notwithstanding the political crisis we should get back to our everyday agenda as quickly as possible. Get on with economics and trade and everything else will sort itself out. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint them this evening. We should not fall into the trap of believing that there is an economic world alongside the world of politics which is unaffected by political events which cast into question the fundamental conditions for peaceful coexistence in Europe.

Today, 25 years after the end of the East-West confrontation, the fall of the Wall and German reunification – 25 years in which so many possibilities have been open to us, 25 years of political cooperation and economic opening – we are faced with the danger of a new division of Europe.

Last week I felt there was a bit of a breathing space, and was pleased we had reached it through patient negotiations and in a dialogue with all involved. Regrettably, you get the impression today that this breathing space might be about to end already. Certainly the news from eastern Ukraine suggests that the situation is becoming dangerous again. Not least because of the still worryingly high concentration of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. But above all because public buildings are being taken over every day. If we have such conflict situations in Donetsk, Luhansk and other major cities in Ukraine, then there is a clear risk that these conflicts might spill over into open violence.

That’s why we cannot simply get back to the usual agenda, and that’s why I say – in contrast to what Mr Cordes proposed just now – I fear I’m also going to have to disappoint those who say that the responsibility for the current situation is spread evenly on everyone’s shoulders.

That is not quite the case. I am someone who is willing to take a critical look at our own policies in Germany and Europe. I suggest that neither side – neither the EU nor Russia – has invariably done everything right. But that does not change the fact that the attempt to correct borders now, seventy years after the end of the Second World War, is, quite simply, in violation of international law. Furthermore, its political consequences – especially for a multi‑ethnic society like Russia – are entirely unforeseeable. By annexing Crimea, Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

And the secession of Crimea is a violation of Ukraine’s constitutions, both the one in force under Yanukovych and the 2004 constitution which has now entered into force once more.

A referendum which has no legal basis and which was rushed through in a couple of weeks changes nothing.

Russia’s actions in Crimea were unacceptable. We in Europe reacted appropriately and with one voice. Not with a complete rejection of dialogue formats, but certainly with the suspension of working relations in specific areas and with a second step involving limited travel bans and asset freezes. We did not break off relations.

We cannot and we simply will not accept a policy that splits or further divides Ukraine, a policy which annexes large parts of Ukraine or makes them ungovernable.

Should that be what emerges over the coming weeks and months, then we will have to consider further-reaching measures. Goodness knows that’s not what I or the Federal Government are aiming for. But we would support such a step, even if we suffered economically as a result.

Because if we were to tolerate a Europe now governed by the law of the strong rather than by the strength of the law, the damage in the long term would be immeasurably greater.

The business world too needs legal certainty and a minimum of confidence. Companies – both here and in Russia – can only develop if fundamental rules guaranteeing stability and peace on our continent are obeyed.

That is not a threat, by the way, but quite simply the functioning principle for dealings between states which have signed up to the Charter of the United Nations.

We have not simply accepted this state of affairs. Rather, I have always regarded it as my duty to try to get us out of the vicious circle of escalation and to use every possibility for de‑escalation.

We argued day and night for the establishment of an OSCE observer mission, crucial if we are to make any progress at all. Because if you have to make policies merely on the basis of agency reports, rumours and perhaps deliberate misinformation, then you run the risk of making things worse rather than better. That’s why the observer mission is so important: it gives us a sound basis of common facts when we are talking. I am pleased that we finally managed to get the observer mission up and running, which hung from a silk thread for so long.

The establishment of the observer mission – with the agreement of both Ukraine and Russia – was the first step in the right direction.

Now the aim must be to ensure that the mission, which set off last week with 100 observers, really does get up to 500 members and that it has access everywhere in Ukraine.

This must be accompanied by a reduction in the Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, a move announced by President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov last week.

All this needs to happen in the next few days and weeks.

But we are still at the stage of gathering facts. If we truly want to prevent the division of Europe, however, we will need to be more ambitious. That’s why we have been working for several weeks now to get Russia and Ukraine to engage in direct talks. That is the idea behind the international contact group.

I don’t mind how big it is. I don’t even mind whether Germany is a member or not. What matters to me is that Russia and Ukraine engage in direct talks accompanied by third parties. Because in the end de-escalation cannot take place over the heads of those involved. De‑escalation will only come about if Ukraine and Russia can talk to each other again transparently and hopefully also at some point with at least a minimum of trust.

The international contact group is not yet in place. Agency reports have been more optimistic than me in recent days. But yesterday I had the chance to talk to my colleague Mr Lavrov, and also to Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, and a little while ago I spoke to US Secretary of State Kerry.

My impression is that the events of the past few days have made the danger of further escalation in eastern Ukraine very clear to all involved. We have no time to lose. We need to get people to the table and get them talking. We haven’t managed that yet, but after these latest conversations I am a bit more hopeful that we are on the right track and that the first meeting of the international contact group will take place next week. Of course Ukraine and Russia have to be there. And it would be good if the EU and US accompanied the process.

We must not get so wrapped up in setting up the international contact group that we fail to do what is urgently needed in Ukraine now. Ukraine is on the brink of insolvency. So we now need to take the first steps to ensure the country’s economic survival. Over four weeks ago the IMF signalled its readiness in principle to provide financial support. In the meantime the Ukrainian Government has initiated courageous measures aimed at making genuine reforms which the IMF Executive Board may possibly put in force next week, or the week after that at the latest.

Ukraine’s European neighbours are very willing to help. My Polish and French colleagues and I have therefore suggested an international conference, with three goals: to issue a signal of support, to launch the debate on necessary reforms in Ukraine and to agree an international division of labour with regard to what measures and support are available from whom.

Stabilising Ukraine is a superhuman task. You can all guess the extent of mismanagement and corruption which various governments have caused. This task is too much for anyone to master alone. The task would be easier if Russia were to get involved.

Not even Russia can have an interest in seeing such a large neighbour as Ukraine collapsing economically and politically. Russia has an interest in the country’s economic and political survival. I hope Russia will contribute towards stabilisation – for example, with an eye to the importance of the Russian market for Ukrainian companies or the importance of energy prices for a stable Ukrainian economy.

Supporting Ukraine - we in the West need to be clear about this – will have an economic cost for us all. That is why we need political legitimation for our support. The quid pro quo for help must come from a Ukrainian Government that meets its responsibilities. First and foremost, this means resolutely tackling corruption. My plea: don’t worry only about legislation. A law is quickly written and quickly passed. What is just as important as a law is an independent authority which has the possibility to severely punish violations.

The Ukrainian Government must respect the principles of the agreement of 20 and 21 February.

This agreement ended the bloodshed in Kyiv and other major cities. Ultimately it was not implemented further, because President Yanukovych left the country. But its principles still apply. The Government in Kyiv must gear its policies towards all regions of the country. It must work seriously on a new constitution with input from all parts of the country. In order to restore confidence within Ukrainian society, there must be a transparent, credible process to investigate and prosecute the crimes on the Maidan. And the Government must clearly distance itself from extremist groups, and must disarm so-called illegal groups. It is not acceptable that with a new Government in place, elected by parliament, the state’s monopoly on the use of force remains in question.


Ukraine is only one of the countries of the European Eastern Partnership.

There have been talks with Georgia and Moldova, too, about association agreements.

When I talk about the Eastern Partnership, then I’m not thinking in terms of “either or”. We know that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia’s multifaceted history means they are linked with Russia and with the West. So it would be difficult to decide between East and West, in favour of one and against the other, given these countries’ history and traditions.

If Georgia and Moldova are negotiating on greater freedom of travel and better trade opportunities under such association agreements, it does not mean they are turning their backs on Russia. On the contrary. We should talk quite openly with Russia and the EU and the eastern European partners about how we are going to move ahead. We should point out that trade agreements do not put up obstacles between us, but improve the possibilities for economic exchange between East and West. One thing is clear: such processes must not be accompanied by threatening military gestures. We stressed that at the spring NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels. Within the Alliance we are committed to solidarity. And we can envisage enhancing cooperation with Ukraine. But in situations like this it is also a matter of keeping a cool head. We cannot allow escalation – and certainly not military escalation – from our side either.

The Cold War is over. The logic of the 21st century is cooperation, not confrontation. We need to find our way back onto that path, because that’s the only way forward, and that’s the only way to reestablish lost trust.

I am sure Russia has seen from the voting in the UN Security Council and General Assembly that there is no support around the world for its activities in Crimea. Even old friends have grown sceptical. Russia paid a high price for its actions.

We for our part have no interest in Russian isolation, even if it is self-imposed. That would be more likely to increase the dangers. That is why we will continue resolutely to work towards a political solution. I hope we will also be able to convince Russia to show that things cannot go on in the way I’ve described.

Ultimately Russia’s security, its social development and its economic growth are dependent on cooperation with Europe.

Even if, unfortunately, this evening is not the moment for visions to become reality: a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok remains the correct goal. In recent weeks this goal has been more distant than any of us would like. But I am convinced that in Russia too many people continue to regard this as the right course. That was why we did not break off all the channels of communication. That’s why we need bridge-builders here and throughout the Eastern neighbourhood. We need bridge-builders in East and West to help us move closer together, particularly in these politically difficult days. I am ready at any time to work with you to build these bridges again and again. Mr Cordes, if we can believe Albert Camus, then Sisyphus was a happy person – especially when he had help, and I can feel that help in the atmosphere here in this room.

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