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Opinion: Unease in German-Russian relations

The Petersburg Dialogue, a regular round of informal talks, highlighted the existing dichotomy in German-Russian relations. Participants could not overcome the divide, writes DW’s Ingo Mannteufel.

The Petersburg Dialog – the meeting of German and Russian representatives from the fields of politics, economy and society – is always a good indicator of the mood between Russia and Germany. That was also true for this year's round ot talks hosted by the German city of Kassel.

Unlike in other years, there were no simultaneous German-Russian government consultations this time. That deprived the convention in Kassel of the big attention from the media. But that was no disadvantage. On the contrary: Instead of everybody focusing on a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia's President Vladimir Putin and their daily political business, the Petersburg Dialog this year was able to focus on its very job. Participants discussed the current state of German-Russian ties. Debates showed that there are contacts on a variety of levels and that they are based on a solid and good foundation.

Repressive development an obstacle to better relations

Political, economic and civil society stakeholders in both countries want to deepen collaboration. And both sides said there is potential to do so. But concrete obstacles also became apparent.

German stakeholders, in particular, have an uneasy feeling because they have observed that domestic developments in Russia have been accompanied by repressive tendencies since Vladimir Putin returned as President.

Those tendencies are a stark contrast to the strong desire expressed by both sides to intensify the partnership between Germany and Russia.

This dichotomy is also expressed in the new coalition agreement between the future German government of CDU, CSU and SPD. The deal contains a Russia chapter, which leading Russia experts from Germany's new so-called grand coalition explained at the conference.

The text explicitly states that the future German government intends to continue collaboration with Russia. But, a further development of the partnership at the highest level will hinge on whether advances in the fields of civil society and democracy are promoted in Russia, rather than hindered.

Different or common values?

But it's not clear what will happen if domestic politics in Russia stays the same. That conflict became very evident at the Petersburg Dialog. Russian representatives did join in the chorus of those who called for good and stable German-Russian relations. But many turned a deaf ear whenever criticism was voiced regarding the development of domestic politics Russia. Russia has committed itself to the common European values in several international documents and institutions. Russian representatives nevertheless spoke of "different moral values" between Germany and Russia.

So the big question next year will be what consequences this dichotomy in German-Russian relations will have for the relationship between the governments in Berlin and Moscow. The new German government will likely adopt interest-driven policies toward Russia, which will show little enthusiasm and instead greater pragmatism.

Petersburg Dialog requires reform

The Petersburg Dialog, in principle, is an apt forum to discuss real and perceived differences in values prevalent in both German and Russian society. That's why it's important to keep it in place. But there is need for reform. The meetings have to be given clear objectives with the aim of achieving sustainable results. The drafts for statements made at the conference must be circulated earlier than on convention day. Important discussions must no longer be moved by acclamation from the plenary session to behind closed doors. With behavior like this, civil society representatives are exposing themselves to absurdity. And it is similarly absurd for the Russian state to finance the bulk of costs of such meetings.

Overall, the Petersburg Dialog has to become younger, more feminine, more diverse, and more open; and it has to have more equal representation. This is true for participants, as well as for the representatives on the steering committees. In German-Russian relations, in general, pomp and ceremony ought to make way for a stronger focus on discussion and debate.

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