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Opinion: Stand up to Russia and support democratic change

Germany's policy in Russia is the subject of heated debate. Jens Siegert from the Heinrich Böll Foundation advocates a two-tier strategy of being critical and vigilant as well as supporting democratic movements.

Jens Siegert, photo: dpa - Bildfunk+++

Jens Siegert is based in Moscow for the Heinrich Böll Foundation

This is a plea for Heinrich Böll's [deceased German post-war writer] belief that "getting involved is the only way to stay realistic." It was also Böll's motto in Russia and it still has relevance today.

Many of those who believe Germany should scale down its criticism of Russia point to the so-called ostpolitik of the Social Democrat government under Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its central theme was careful diplomacy, or "change through rapprochement," as it became known. It led to a thawing of relations between Germany and Russia, and its Eastern European allies.

Brandt believed that the Soviet Union had to be recognized as a legitimate partner before certain issues were addressed. The ostpolitik was designed to limit suspicion between the West and the Soviets and, ultimately, bring about a change of regime.

The idea was that the lure of freedom and democracy in the West would eventually be too strong to resist and bring about change from within. The strategy was incredibly effective.

Repeating mistakes

The ostpolitik did not cause the fall of the Berlin Wall nor the end of the Soviet Union. That was mostly down to the people in Eastern Europe - but the West helped by promoting moral values and an economic model that were very appealing.

Crucially, the West demonstrated that it was ready to defend its values if need be. In the end the downfall of the Soviet Union was down to three things: its inability to modernize, its aversion to dialogue and Western "power politics."

When talking about the need for a new ostpolitik these days, what seems to remain is the dialogue aspect of "change through rapprochement," in this case, the dialogue with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

It reduces the concept to rapprochement only - change is not happening anymore. But believing in its moral and practical superiority was essential for the West's ostpolitik.

But the ostpolitik alone did not bring about regime change, nor did its founding fathers, most of whom were Social Democrats. In fact they were so busy with the echelons of Soviet politics to realize the social change that had been under way among ordinary Russians and Eastern Europeans since the late 1970s.

Keeping the status quo

It looks like we are making the same mistake again now, leading to a blinkered view that focuses on the status quo. And that suits the current leadership in Russia.

Russia has, for some time, been what could be called a "status-quo power." Its foreign policy in particular aims to retain the current political order. The political elite sees any change as negative. In other words, for them, it would be about going from a major power - an empire - to a medium-sized global player, a 'mere' nation.

This persistent foreign policy is reflected domestically. Democratic change anywhere in the world is seen as a threat to Russia itself. Putin's frequent tough talking on the world stage is just a front and should not be mistaken for strength.

In Germany, the discussion centers around what Russia's behavior means for Germany. Some even wonder whether the "Putin model" of a controlled democracy or the Chinese model of development without freedom might not be superior to the Western model of democracy.

That, combined with focusing on dialogue with the state only, could mean that the difference between democracy and dictatorship is being blurred.

Two-tier strategy

So, how should the German government react to "strongman" Putin? Firstly, it needs to recognize that continually hurling insults -big or small - at his opponents in Russia and beyond are Putin's tools of the trade.

It is crucial to stand up to him on those occasions. In Putin's world, if you do not defend yourself you are an "opushchenyi" - which translates as outcast or untouchable.

Compromising without putting up a fight is seen as a sign of weakness by most Russian politicians.

The German government must talk to Putin, as he happens to be the one in power in Russia. I recommend a two-tier strategy, which, as far as I can see, Chancellor Angela Merkel has already taken to heart.

She regularly tells Putin in a friendly but confident, sometimes ironic manner that she will not stand for his insults. And it works, at the very least she is treated with respect.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. It is unlikely we'll be able to influence Russian politics in the short term. It may be possible to extract the odd concession or offer protection to someone but that's about it.

In the long term, we should try to encourage and support the people in Russia as well as democratic and liberal movements. It's about taking baby steps towards our goal of promoting democracy, which despite the aforementioned disputes, is not being questioned in Germany.

Jens Siegert heads the Moscow bureau of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the Green party in Germany. It is named after the Cologne author Heinrich Böll (1917-1985).