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International Relations

Opposing 'us versus them' mentality on Russia

Social Democrat Gernot Erler has been appointed as Germany's new Russian affairs coordinator. In an interview with DW, he urges more understanding for Russia's perspective in order to foster a constructive dialogue.

DW: Some people in Moscow say your predecessor, Andreas Schockenhoff, was too critical and intolerant towards Russia. Do you share this view?

Gernot Erler: The major advantage in German-Russian relations lies in the fact that we have reliable continuity across multiple legislative periods. The fact that various priorities emerge at individual points changes nothing in that equation, and I will also of course do my part to make a contribution there - with complete respect, by the way, for what my colleague Andreas Schockenhoff has achieved here since 2006.

Should people continue trying to measure Russia against the standard of European values?

That's reasonable and permissible. But ultimately it's a question of also having a rational dialogue about Russia's interests, while leaving room for saving face. That's just been my experience in dealing with Russia.

What does that mean in practice? Should certain events in Russia no longer be followed critically?

No, and no one has suggested that. But efforts should be made in advance to understand the other side's position, taking into account political and historical developments. That way the other side perhaps doesn't feel stereotyped, but rather views the situation as something upon which a constructive dialogue can be built. I'm not at all in favor of an "us versus them" attitude - the Russia sympathizers on one side and the Russia critics on the other.

The German media have been critical on many cases ahead of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Is this criticism exaggerated?

I hope that the opening of the games offers a chance to get to know the many facets of Russian life - and it doesn't consist solely of President Vladimir Putin's work. In the past, that's always worked out with the Olympic Games. And I hope that I can contribute to it in a small way in my role as Russian affairs coordinator.

A scene from the explosion of a bomb in Volgograd
(c) REUTERS/Stringer

Terrorist attacks in recent weeks have raised security concerns ahead of the Sochi games

Is the release of businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other prisoners a sign of political tensions subsiding in Russia?

First of all, that's definitely a very important act for those affected, whether it's Khodorkovsky, the representatives of Pussy Riot or others. And it also represents an opportunity for those who didn't get to enjoy amnesty. What happened there has a certain dynamic that cannot be stopped very easily again. There's a chance that something really is changing there.

How do you view Putin's role in this situation?

It's quite apparent that the Russian president personally identifies with the Sochi project. Of course he has a big interest in it being an international success. Putin is now apparently prepared to implement a series of measures - you could even call them concessions - in order to secure this success. Those who have been affected by any number of political issues, but also active civil society as a whole, are using this atmosphere to point out the role these issues play.

Europe recently criticized Moscow's comportment toward Ukraine.

Ukraine has serious problems as a country situated between Russia and the EU. One aspect is the acute financial difficulties that are propelling Ukrainian politics. The country needs short-term solutions. The Russian side has used substantial means, including a dramatic reduction in gas prices, in order to offer Ukraine some alleviation in this difficult situation. Those were measures that the EU didn't match and probably couldn't have matched to the same degree.

That's simply an objective description of the situation, and you have to separate that from the long-term prospects for the country. And these issues are in dispute not just at Maidan (Ed. note: the central square in Kyiv rocked in recent weeks by protests) but throughout the country.

What do you think of Putin's suggestion of addressing the problem in a three-way discussion between Kyiv, Moscow and Brussels?

I think talks definitely need to take place and that Russia also needs to be included. Of course the problem is that represents a very hasty move in light of the serious affronts that have occurred. You can't react by immediately entering into three-way talks. But there's no question for me that a dialogue needs to take place about further developing the partnership with the East and the Ukraine, in particular - and that includes dialogue between the EU and Russia.

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