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DIFFERENT OPINIONS

The opinions expressed by the authors of the articles in this section are for discussion purposes only and may not coincide with the position of the Russian Government and the Embassy

25.04.2012

The Rapallo trajectory

What is it in the Russian-German relationship that helps it survive historical cataclysms so well?

In April 1922 the Soviet Russia and the Weimar Republic, two pariah states of the then Europe, signed a mutual recognition agreement in Rapallo, Italy. Thus they brought an end to their virtual isolation (Germany as a country that lost the WWI and Russia due to the Bolshevik revolution) while causing misgivings of the leading European powers.

From that time on, the Russian-German cooperation was making good progress throughout almost the whole of the 20th century (naturally, except for the years of the WWII and the immediate post-war period). Mutual attraction, first of all, technological, enabled them to overcome even such catastrophic events as the Great Patriotic War and the division of Germany. Business cooperation began to develop since early 1950’s. The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations – a joint organization of associations interested in exploration of Eastern (including Soviet) markets – was set up in 1952, while diplomatic relations between the USSR and the FRG were established as late as 1955. But this was for a reason. After Germany lost the war, she had but one way of expansion – the economic one – and preferably to the East, for Western Europe for a long time had no particular desire to see fruit of German revival.

Since the 1960’s their ties become close and strategic. Germany provided the USSR with technologies in exchange for commodities – the old tradition of adopting technological trends from Germany dates back to the times of Peter the Great. Siberian gas that flowed to Europe through German pipes defined geopolitical situation in the Old World for decades to come. In fact, we are still living within the paradigm laid down by Leonid Brezhnev and Willy Brandt. It is this paradigm that not only guarantees energy stability but also serves to strengthen security by way of deep interdependence. Successive attempts to disrupt the pipeline diplomacy made by the US since the times of Ronald Reagan succeeded only to a limited extent. Some projects did slow down, but, anyway, were eventually implemented. The project of a new generation – the Nord Stream – was commissioned in 2011and will come up to its full capacity this year.

Russia facing a choice

Business relations serve as a solid foundation for political ties being a reliable factor of stability. However, the political situation per se naturally influences business relations, and it’s in for a change.

God forbid to draw a parallel between the present and the time of the Rapallo treaty – neither Russia nor Germany are pariahs, both wield significant weight and influence in the world. Nevertheless, some confusion caused by the need to find a new identity in a fast-changing world is being felt in both countries. This sentiment might prompt a new rapprochement, like the one in the 1920’s, when isolation pushed them to search for common ground.

Russia is facing a choice – for the umpteenth time. The country has passed the immediate post-imperial phase, when her policy was mainly guided by the desire to prove that the collapse of the Soviet Union did not mean that Russia had stopped being one of the world’s great powers. All in all, it has been proved. But everything else is quite obscure. The world around us is becoming less and less predictable. There is no system of allies and alliances for Russia to rely on. Integrative relations with Europe are not going smoothly. Russia is not ready to give up its sovereign rights. The European Union is becoming a factor of unpredictability and instability.

At the other extreme of the global map there is explosive growth and development, Asia’s rise that is set to influence Russia in a fundamental way. Over three fourths of Russia’s territory lie in Asia, however the country has no clear-cut strategic policy in this part of the world. In the long term, if that continues to be the case, Russia runs the risk of turning from a subject into an object of regional politics, which is especially dramatic, for the Asia-Pacific region is a chief strategic playground of the 21st century.

Effective reorientation is hindered by a controversy embedded in the Russian realities. Three fourths of the country’s population live in its European part, while the population east of the Urals keeps diminishing. Modern Russia is a more European-minded country than the USSR, despite the fact that Russia has shifted towards Asia geographically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Psychological disposition of Russian elites towards Europe is only growing, no matter how political relations with the European Union evolve and how disparagingly Russia’s establishment perceives its future prospects. Above all, it is manifested in the orientation to the European lifestyle, consumption and education standards.

The spectre of the “Fourth Reich”

It should seem that the complexity of Russia’s situation has nothing in common with Germany’s position as the driving force of the EU economy and one of the most influential countries of the G20. However, in practice, Berlin is probably finding itself even in a greater fix.

A significant event occurred in the spring of 2011 - France and Germany, the two mainstays of European integration, found themselves on different sides of the Libyan barricades. Regardless of the reasons why Berlin refused to support the war initiated by Paris in Libya, this decision had major consequences.

The campaign to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi was not like previous military actions of NATO. Above all, there was the aloof position of the United States, which yielded the role of soloists to France and Great Britain. The US is planning to reduce expenditures and cast off excess obligations. Attention is shifting to East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. The US is interested in lowering the scale of its involvement in the Middle East while preserving influence. At the same time the US are confronted with the dilemma – what to do with Europe, its closest ally, who certainly must not be pushed away, but how to use it is unclear since it is unwilling to take on part of the military-political burden.

The Libyan campaign offered an opportunity to combine resolving these two questions. Libya is a gas pump for France and Italy, as well as a country that filters illegal migrants from Africa on the way there. Recognition of the direct interest together with the desire of Paris and London to prove their worth as international class players against the background of the European Union’s decline led to Europe’s key countries’ voluntarily rushing to the Libyan front. In other words, they took on the function of regional regulators, which corresponds to the goals of the United States - to find loyal partners in various parts of the world who could replace America in doing the job of maintaining order.

Inspired by the laurels of "the liberator of Libya," France intends to build on this success and take the place of the sole political leader of Europe. But Germany, which is caught in a pincer movement, serves as the economic foundation of the Old World. Everyone in Europe is demanding that Berlin take an active position to save the euro, but in the process they respond with enormous suspicion to any of its impulses to take such a position (the spectre of the “Fourth Reich”). Meanwhile, the logic of events inevitably pushes Germany to occupy the political, not just economic, centre stage. It is Germany who will lose the most of all if the euro collapses, so, in any case, for reasons of self-preservation it would be more advantageous to pull the drowning partners out of the swamp rather than try to disassociate itself from them or to throw off the burden. And in Germany itself, resistance is growing to making new sacrifices for the sake of the European currency. It is becoming ever more difficult to explain to the Germans why they have to pay for the carelessness and irresponsibility of others. Especially since Germany, in late 1990’s – early 2000’s, under Gerhard Schröder, was able to carry out unpopular and painful reforms, for which other states, including France, do not have stomach still.

The colorful and controversial international palette is misleading even for a thorough and serious country like Germany. The habitual global system is subject to deep erosion and radical change. In the 20th century Western policy was centered on constructing a system, in which Germany would never be at war again. And this policy was crowned with a brilliant success. The Germans, who always stood out for their military and geopolitical thinking skills, have got rid of both of these qualities. It is difficult to find a nation with a more pacifist attitude than Germany: when in 2010 President Horst Koehler was careless enough to hint at Germany having geopolitical interests in Afghanistan, he simply had to resign. And now, having achieved such incredible success, Berlin’s NATO allies complain that Germany refuses to fight.

Another paradox – Germany, which used to be the bulwark of American influence in Europe, now ever more often acts as an opponent of the US, for example, on how to overcome the financial crisis. While France, an eternal frondeur and irritant of the Americans, feels excited by her military involvement and tries to become closer to Washington, who needs a “junior Sheriff” to have around.

The unusual situation of being separated from France and the German domestic political tension associated with it intensify the confusion. The German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was subject to severe criticism for “loosing” the Libyan war and fell out with his closest allies. However, all the polls suggest that the majority of German citizens believe that he was right to refuse to participate in the Libyan operation, which exposes yet another aspect of the evident schism between the political class and its electorate.

The New Old World

Against this background the tone of the debates is changing. In late August 2011 a commentary by Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former head of the Federation of Industrialists of Germany, appeared in The Financial Times - it is the “healthy core”, but not the lagging Southerners, that should abandon the euro. Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Finland would create a new currency, leaving the euro at the disposal of the Southern Europeans, who could devalue it and thereby raise their own competitiveness.

The sensational aspect is that the author does not include France in the core. Of course, the retired industrial lobbyist can afford provocative pronouncements. But the German government always listens closely to the opinion of big business. If the current trends continue, the political ambitions of France and the economic interests of Germany may diverge, which would mean the end of the integration model that has existed since the middle of the last century.

Yet, the fiscal pact proposed by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy is now officially accepted as the right and only reasonable way to save the unity of Europe. But difficulties of its practical implementation might prompt new differences, including between its sponsors. Actually, it is rather difficult to imagine Paris accepting external control over its fiscal policy.

For the whole of the 20th century Europe was resolving the “German question” and finally succeeded. But now, any strategy would entail major strengthening of the role and influence of Germany. A country, which takes on the largest part of the financial burden, will claim the right to set conditions. However, the prospect of Berlin’s domination scares everyone, but it is inevitable in any case, be it consolidation of the Eurozone with introduction of strict rules and sanctions, or on the contrary, its fragmentation with formation of a “healthy core” around Germany. Paris understands that Berlin will become the undisputed leader in this new, more resilient and centralized, construct. Establishment of supranational budgetary diktat will not only imply restriction of sovereignty buy also obligation to follow German principles and rules.

What do all these difficulties have to do with its relations with Russia? The Old World will be changing. Politically, Europe will become ever more fragmented, as large countries will resolve their matters on their own, with the help of bilateral partners within and outside the EU. As history shows, in difficult times both France and particularly Germany often turn their eyes to Russia, the only nearby source of potential economic and political dividends. Such rapprochement has many times helped consolidate the position of these countries (Rapallo is just one example). It is difficult to imagine what Europe will look like in several years’ time, but this rule has so far worked in a variety of geopolitical circumstances.

Article by Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine




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