Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg on 'Germans and Russians - past, present, future'

09.12.2014 - Speech

Rector Koksharov,

I am delighted to be here again. It has almost become something of a tradition for me to make an annual visit to the Ural Federal University – often at the coldest time of year. Last year I couldn’t come, national elections were taking place in Germany, and so I’m all the more pleased to be back now.


and, above all, Students,

Anyone who wants to understand the relations between nations must get to grips with their respective histories and geography. I have always liked these two subjects and so it really was a stroke of luck for me to have the opportunity to serve as Foreign Minister. It’s also why, wherever I can, I promote the subject of international relations and diplomacy! But I’m not here to give career advice, I’ve come to Yekaterinburg to talk to you, the students of this university, about the relations between our two countries.

That is exactly why I’m starting with geography and history. Before this trip, I looked at a globe and I thought: maybe geography can help us reach mutual understanding about the situation we’re faced with. Yekaterinburg lies pretty much bang in the middle between the edge of western Europe and the eastern coast of Asia. As the crow flies, it’s 5,100 kilometres to Lisbon to the West and 5,300 to Vladivostok to the East. Where could be a more fitting place to consider how we want to jointly shape this area of the world?

At the same time, Yekaterinburg lies South-West of the Ural Mountains, which we in Germany see as the border between Europe and Asia. For us Germans coming here implies a long journey deep into Russia, and this is where you’ll hear the old Russian saying: “Russia is big and the Tsar is far away.” The saying has a different meaning for Russians than it does for us. For me it means that our Western view of Russia is very Moscow-centric. That doesn’t do justice to the size and diversity of the country. That is another reason why I’m so pleased to be here in Yekaterinburg today. For I want to talk to you, the students, the citizens – not only about German and Russian politics but above all about Germans and Russians: about our peoples’ past, present and future.


Our shared past is mirrored in the history of this town.

In all its history, the city has never grown as quickly as it did during the Second World War, when it became the centre of heavy industry and an armoury in the fight against Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

The history of this city seems to highlight a recurring theme in the overall history of German-Russian relations – as complex as this history is, things all too often go to extremes. If our forefathers entered into conflict with one another, it was rarely just about power and dominance but much more often about existence itself – about subjugating the other. In the Seven Years War, Russian troops occupied Berlin. In the First World War, Germany orchestrated the fall of the Tsar and imposed a brutal peace on your country. In 1941 Hitler’s Germany attacked Russia and advanced nearly as far as Moscow, murdering as they went. Over 20 million Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians lost their lives in this bloody world war. When it retaliated, the Soviet army occupied Germany up to the Elbe River and stayed there for 40 years. Millions of Germans lost their homes and fled westwards.

Yet the wars between Germany and Russia are not the only signs of extremes. By the same token, there was also havoc at times when Russian and German leaders were getting on well! Our neighbours had bitter experiences during such phases. In the 18th century, German and Russian rulers divided the territory of Poland amongst themselves three times, until there was nothing left of Poland. Hitler and Stalin did the same as they marked out their spheres of influence over eastern Central Europe in the 1930s. It is vital that we keep this in mind in the current situation. We must also be aware of how these historical experiences still cause our neighbours to worry today.

Then, ladies and gentlemen, came 1989. Exactly 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. That fateful day, which was a joyful day for my country, not only marked the end of the division of Europe, it triggered the withdrawal of the Allied forces. Ladies and gentlemen, back then who would have dared hope that the withdrawal of Russian troops could come to pass as peacefully as it did? That is something that we Germans are grateful for up to this day.

Back then, when the Cold War came to an end and the former confrontation between East and West became a thing of the past, some even talked of the “end of history”. That was a huge simplification and we never truly believed it – myself included. However, with regard to German-Russian relations, did many of us not hope that enmity would be replaced by friendship once and for all?


We all hoped. But it would seem that the journey there is harder and longer than any of us had expected. And there are setbacks on the path, we are experiencing one at the moment. Above all however, when we look back, we perceive the years 1989 to 1992 in very different ways. What we in the West welcomed as the end of Soviet communism is something that was apparently seen as a great catastrophe by many here. Where we saw the end of totalitarian control, many here feared the collapse of the state. Where we saw countless new opportunities, there, others saw former certainties and fixed structures vanish. It is not only since the release of Svetlana Alexievich’s book ‘Second-hand Time’ that we know that for many people, in particular in Russia, the 90s were dominated by insecurity and a decline of their status, by chaos and by the enrichment of the few at the expense of many.

The fact that perceptions of the world differ amongst people and populations is one thing. In addition to this, our interests differ and this will always be the case. If there were no such differences there would be no need for either foreign policy or diplomacy. What concerns me, however, is that we clearly have not yet learnt to deal with different perceptions in such a way that they don’t automatically lead us to become distanced and alienated. We have not managed to look at differences and see the possibility of living alongside one another in a mutually advantageous manner, rather than just opposing each other. And above all, we have not yet managed to consolidate a path of development which leads to lasting peace on our continent.

Therefore we must all check ourselves and ask what has gone wrong in recent years, what we should have done better. I’ve asked myself this, too. And I’m sure that on both sides, in the field of politics there is a great deal that we could have done better than we did.


Let me look back to my first visit to Yekaterinburg. It is six years ago now. At this university, I presented the idea of a partnership for modernisation between Germany and Russia.

I brought a raft of concrete initiatives with me – on the energy sector and energy efficiency, on modernising the healthcare system, on education and research.

I can still remember one of my comments. I said: “We are living in an age in which it is no longer the number of tanks and missiles which decides a country’s strength but the number of intelligent people, the practical use of knowledge, and its level of global integration.”

Was that a false assumption? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, we haven’t learnt to base our political decisions and actions on this assertion. Despite this, I will continue to advocate this stance and I believe that here with you, the students of this university here, I’m in exactly the right place to do so. Because you are the future of this country.

And because I believe that, I can’t restrain myself from clarifying a few points regarding Europe’s most serious conflict.

In short, this is how I see it: in the Ukraine crisis, Russia has called into question one of the fundamental principles of Europe’s peaceful order: the inviolability of borders, something which is also guaranteed by the Helsinki Final Act and the Budapest Memorandum, and to which Russia, too, has subscribed. In recent months I’ve had many discussions with your Foreign Minister and with your President – most recently the week before last in Moscow – as well as with many others, on what a violation of this principle means for us in Europe, for Germans just as much as for Russians, and I will continue to seek out such discussions. We are without a doubt in the middle of the worst foreign policy crisis Europe has seen since the end of the Cold War. From our point of view, the nadir was Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the attempt, seven decades after the end of the Second World War in Europe, to correct borders unilaterally, with no regard for national sovereignty or the procedures used by the international community. We cannot treat each other this way.

As far as we’re concerned, Russia now views its foreign policy interests as rather at odds with those of Europe. At the moment, it certainly seems to us that Moscow sees the EU as less of a partner and more of a geopolitical rival. Vice versa, in Europe the fear predominates that Russia is seeking a role on the global stage, that it is less and less interested in partnership and is more focused on military might. An honest analysis of the current situation – which does not go to say that this must remain the case – must come to the conclusion that after years of rapprochement and growing partnership, we have reverted to becoming increasingly politically alienated.

That must not be allowed to become the forecast for the future of relations between our two peoples and states. That is why I am all the more keen to ask: Can we allow political alienation to cause our populations, our people, to become alienated? I don’t want that and I’m sure that most of you here in the room don’t want that either. That is another reason why I’m here.

I am appealing in particular to the young people in the room. When we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s Germany and the Nazi dictatorship next year, then we owe it to this history to counteract the threat of political alienation, as political differences all too quickly metamorphose into differences between people. And this is what we are experiencing – the clichés, prejudices and reflexes of bygone days are rapidly coming back to life.

Isn’t it insane that this is happening now of all times, in an era of globalisation when information is available all the time and all over the world? Amidst always being up to date, amidst the hectic flow of bits and bytes, aren’t we losing the very essence of deeper knowledge about our neighbours? Isn’t the inundation with more and more news about trivial matters – where information, speculation and disinformation sometimes blur until they can no longer be told apart – actually the reason why the spectrum of our knowledge about our neighbours is becoming smaller? Slavic studies have been on the wane in Germany for years. Fewer and fewer young Germans are learning Russian. And are things much better the other way round? How many of you can understand me without headphones?

Bilateral cooperation has also become more difficult in civil society. Some German non-governmental organisations are currently noting that their Russian partner organisations are keeping their distance. I recently heard an alarming story from a European colleague, who told me that a highly qualified Russian staff member, who had worked for his country’s embassy in Moscow for many years, had handed in her notice because she no longer wanted to work for a “foreign organisation” in the current situation. I ask myself and I ask you: is this the direction we want to take? I am certain that no one here in this lecture hall endorses this path. But if we don’t take this direction, which way should we go?


So let’s talk about the future of our peoples. Please allow me to quote for the last time from my speech here in Yekaterinburg in 2008: “Virtually never before has a young generation in Russia had so many opportunities to shape a bright future for itself and for this country!”

Is this null and void at a time when we are grappling with the conflict in Ukraine? Absolutely not! On the contrary, my wish is that you will make use of the opportunities open to you. And I believe the same thing now as I did then: these opportunities are significantly larger when we work with each other rather than against each other!

Let me give you a few examples.

At the start of my speech, I talked about geography and said that it is almost as far from Yekaterinburg to Lisbon as it is from Yekaterinburg to Vladivostok. Perhaps this central location will open people’s eyes to this economic space as a whole. I recently suggested in Germany that we should explore the options for closer dialogue between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, with the aim of making better use of our joint economic potential. We could discuss economic synergies, as well as concerns or conflicts of interest in dealing with each other, in an equally constructive way in this type of dialogue. And ultimately, this dialogue could be a preliminary stage as regards taking joint steps towards an economic regulatory framework from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a framework that Russia has always advocated. I am certain that both sides would benefit from this.

Secondly, security. Naturally, I too cannot predict what the security architecture of our common space will look like in 15 or 20 years. But even someone who merely glances at this space and its history will see that there can only be lasting security in Europe with Russia, and not against Russia.

On the basis of these fundamental principles, we should look for opportunities not only as regards resolving the conflict in Ukraine, but also as regards reinstating and enhancing the instruments of cooperative security in Europe in the long term.

The OSCE, which we Germans will chair in 2016, will play a key role in this dialogue process. We value the OSCE in the current crisis, but also for its role in the past. The CSCE process began during the coldest days of the Cold War, resulting in – and as a German, I say this with particular gratitude – the gift of our peaceful reunification. We want this to serve as an example for us. During our chairmanship, we want to do everything we can to augment trust among the members once again and to revive honest dialogue. Along with the Swiss chairmanship, which will end shortly, we set up a group of international experts on Friday. The experts will make suggestions on these issues before Germany takes over as chair. I am pleased that Russia will take part in this.

Thirdly, we look frequently and intensively at the crisis in Ukraine. But far, far more is actually at stake. Security is also at risk beyond our own region. International crises and conflicts are coming at us thick and fast these days, and they pose the same threats to Russia as they do to Germany. We thus have the same interest in working together on resolving these conflicts, which include the civil war that has been raging in Syria for over three years, the barbaric terrorism of ISIS and the danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which is why we are negotiating with Iran. I cannot address each of these threats in my speech here today, but the same thing applies to them as a whole: without us, without cooperation between Europe and Russia, we will never resolve even one of these conflicts.

Fourthly, we see this if we take a quick look at the state of the United Nations. As long as two major powers – such as Russia and the United States – are in conflict over Ukraine, the UN’s most important institutions are more or less blocked. This is a cause for grave concern. The Security Council has never been as important as it is now – because of the large number of extremely dangerous conflicts occurring simultaneously in the Middle East – but equally, the Security Council has rarely been as incapable of functioning as it is now. It is almost a question of survival – or at any rate of our joint interest – that matters do not remain this way!


You can see that I have not given up hope that conflicts can be overcome and that we can find new paths to each other following conflicts. However, there is only one effective instrument for this, namely open, honest and ongoing dialogue. Every student knows that this is easier said than done! They know that the urge to talk about each other is often greater than the willingness to talk with each other. They know that talking at cross purposes is more common than honest discussion about the root of a conflict. Anyone who has attended good and not so good seminars at university is well aware that monologue plus monologue does not equal dialogue. This is why I am appealing so urgently that we use the few remaining channels of communication and forums as what they are, namely a means to clarify interests, if necessary also a place to argue, and if possible, a way to search for understanding – but less as a way to denounce others in the media.

Particularly after having spent several years working in the field of foreign policy, I believe that a culture of dialogue is not a matter of course. It does not come about by itself – instead, genuine dialogue must be learned. And this brings me back to you, to students, because dialogue has no chance in the political future when young people do not learn how to communicate. This is precisely why Germany wants to do its part, particularly during politically difficult times. Now more than ever, we want to strengthen the ties between people, as what now counts are contacts in society, town twinning, cultural exchange, and initiatives such as the Year of German-Russian Literature and Language.

I am counting on connections between young people in particular. We already have a very good foundation in the world of academia – and just a short while ago, Rector Koksharov gave us figures proving this, using this university as an example. There are currently over 800 German-Russian university collaborations, as well as a range of scholarship and cooperation programmes. Our plan is to extend these programmes. I am very pleased that the German Academic Exchange Service and the Association of Leading Russian Universities are in contact with each other with the aim of providing further scholarships. I would like to warmly invite you to make use of these opportunities. You are very welcome in Germany! And conversely, I would like to encourage German students to find a way to study in Russia in order to see the country’s size and diversity for themselves and to make contacts with young Russians – with you.


I do not wish for all the things I have suggested here because I am naive or because I believe in the notion of the “end of history”, as if there were no differences between us, as if we only had things in common. Instead, I wish for all these things because I want to prevent a history of extremes from being followed by a future of extremes! I believe it is in the interests of our two peoples that we learn to get on with each other despite all our differences, so that we manage to work together where we should work together and establish trust, forums and rules for doing so; so that the pendulum of history, which oscillated between such extremes in the past centuries, swings less widely; and so that politics become more predictable.

A childlike belief in a future without conflicts and differences of opinion is unrealistic. It would be naive to hope for this – both in everyday life and in politics! It will be an uphill battle for us to prevent a new division between East and West and to repair damaged trust. But this is my hope – and I believe this hope is realistic. Thank you very much.

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