On March 19, the CDU/CSU fraction of the German Bundestag hosted a day-long discussion, “Russia After the Elections: Modernization or Stagnation?”. It became clear to me that Russia, in spite of the recent social and political changes (since December 2011) still lacks a clear message toward Europe. Equally unfortunate, Europe lacks a thoughtful strategy about how to deal with the Russian leadership, even on issues of common concern. At the conference, the Russian speakers delivered two different messages to the German public. The first one, articulated by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Sergey Borisov (head of “Opora Rossii” business association) sounds quite simple: despite everything, Russia keeps moving in the right direction. It was hard to avoid the impression that there was another implicit signal behind Kudrin’s words: as soon as I am back in the government, everything will be even better. Both speakers were explicitly apolitical, though Kudrin, in his speech, tried to tacitly vindicate Russia’s claims for hegemony in the post-Soviet countries, reminding us that Russia, in the mid-1990s, took full responsibility for the entire debt of the Soviet Union.
Regarding post-Soviet integration, Borisov claimed that new regulations within the Russia–Belarus–Kazakhstan Customs Union have seriously augmented, among other factors, Putin’s popularity among small and middle-size entrepreneurs. Alexander Murychev, the executive vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, went even further. He argued that “German entrepreneurs feel good in Russia,” which “does much better than the crisis-ridden EU.” Therefore, it makes no sense for Germany to raise politically sensitive issues in relations with Moscow. Moreover, as Murychev said, “Germany is Putin’s favorite country in Europe.” This point was supported by Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the “Russiain Global Affairs” journal who, quite unexpectedly and even counter-intuitively, claimed that “Putin is more interested in Europe than Medvedev.” Lukyanov’s reasoned: Russia cannot integrate with the West, and this is not Russia’s fault since all Western institutions are in crisis. Therefore, as one may guess, Moscow's only option is to pursue a more robust and self-asserting policy in the CIS region. In line with this logic, Lukyanov presumed that the military conflict in August 2008 played a positive role for Russia in terms of preventing Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO. Quite pessimistically, he predicted that Russian–Georgian relations will remain stalled. This type of outlook ignores recent positive developments regarding compromise between Moscow and Tbilisi, such as negotiations on Russia’s WTO accession (mediated by the United States), Georgia’s relaxing of its visa policies, and Russia’s proposal to restore diplomatic relations. In Lukyanov’s view, the major threat to the Caucasus comes from outside, i.e., from the possibility of a military operation against Iran, which might have implications for Azerbaijan and Armenia. He was also quite explicit in pointing to the centrality of missile-defense issues, particularly in the context of the presidential election in the United States. Against this background, Lilia Shevtsova from the Moscow Carnegie Center offered a different, much less Kremlin-friendly outlook. She argued that modernization in Russia under the current regime is impossible, thus shedding doubt on the utility of the EU-Russia modernization partnership. Of course, not all Germans were pleased to hear that “the unreformed system is decomposing, and Titanic is bound to sink,” and that "they should have paid more attention to the dangers of leftist populism and nationalism," which holds currency in Russia’s protest movements. Undoubtedly, this perspective is a challenge not only for Russia, but for all its neighbors, including the EU. In a final Voltaire-ist thought: if Lukashenko did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Both Russia and the EU badly need Belarus as a reference point in their discourses: for the Germans, it reveals the negative connotations of Putin’s rule; for the Kremlin, it illustrates that "things" could have been much worse. Perhaps, this is one of the pivotal points inscribed in the Russian message sent to Europe.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.