The Russia – Germany – Poland Trialogue Continues
At the end of March 2012 the foreign ministers of three countries - Russia, Germany and Poland - held in Berlin second meeting in the trialogue format. They exchanged views on current European and international issues. Valdaiclub.com interview with Alexander RAHR, Director of the Russia/Eurasia Program, German Council on Foreign Relations, member of the Valdai Discussion Club Advisory Board.
How did this trialogue come about? What was the thinking behind it, what were its original goals?
The trialogue between Poland, Germany and Russia is a new phenomenon in European security policy. It is a very necessary and important instrument for the continuation of cooperation between the West and the European Union and Russia. I would even argue that this trialogue is today the best possible instrument in the rapprochement between the West and Russia, because other instruments don’t work or have become old-fashioned. In former times we already had a kind of trialogue, a kind of ‘troika’ which had a different set-up. Instead of Poland, France was quite prominent in this trialogue, this ‘troika’ which was also an important instrument in bringing Russia closer to Europe. The ‘troika’ functioned quite well during the first decade of the 21st century, especially during the Iraq crisis, but also later. But due to the resistance of new NATO and EU members toward this trialogue between Germany, France and Russia this mechanism was discontinued in Europe and has not met in the past five years. Now Germany and Poland have revived this instrument but without France. The participation of Poland in this new mechanism, in the trialogue, is very important because Poland in the past 10 years or even 15 years has been a country which has consistently been reluctant to support a closer relationship with Russia. Now Poland, which had been the major critic of the rapprochement between the EU and NATO and Russia, is taking the lead in a new kind of Ostpolitik, a new kind of eastern policy of the European Union towards Russia. This is a very good sign and should not arouse any suspicions among other eastern European countries, neighbours of Poland, that something is being done between Germany and Russia behind their backs. So this mechanism is very important, and I think it has a future and it will also lead to constructive results.
How would you evaluate the results of the second meeting of this three-party dialogue?
The most important result of the meetings inside this new trialogue is the fact that it has been established as a mechanism, it will meet now for the next couple of years. It will meet once a year in Kaliningrad, a very sensitive area, which has a very difficult history and which may also become a symbol for a rapprochement, a kind of thaw in relations between the European Union and Russia and especially between Germany, Poland and Russia. I participated in the meeting of the planning staffs of Germany, Poland and Russia exactly one month ago here in Berlin and I was myself very much surprised how warm the atmosphere between Poland and Russia has become, at least on the level of the ministries of foreign affairs. Poland was a country that until 2010 regarded Russia as an enemy. After the tragedy of Smolensk, the death of the Polish president on Russian soil due to the plane crash, the situation changed dramatically and Poland and Russia, or at least the heads of Poland and Russia, are in the midst of a very important rapprochement and both countries are making serious efforts to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of a very close relationship, for the sake of Europe. Many of the old conflicts are now in the past. Not all of them, of course. Certain conflicts remain and still threaten relations between Poland and Russia, but on the whole I would say the atmosphere has changed significantly for the better in both countries and this is also good for Europe.
The meeting participants stressed the need for deepening cooperation between Poland, Russia and Germany, especially in the Kaliningrad Region. This was not just a question of easing visa requirements for Kaliningrad inhabitants, but also about setting up student exchanges with the EU countries and economic cooperation. What opportunities are there for cooperating with Germany and Poland to speed up the transition to visa-free travel for citizens of Russia and the EU?
This is a very important point because as we know Russia suggested as far back as 2002 removing all visa barriers not only for tourists, but also for ordinary citizens traveling between the EU and Russia. That was 10 years ago. There has been very little movement in the right direction during this decade. Germany was the country which formally always spoke out in favor of the lifting of visas, but in reality the German bureaucracy was very much split on this issue. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in favor of removing visa barriers between the EU and Russia but the Ministry of Interior Affairs was in favor of keeping them, because it feared that a lot of criminal elements, especially from the North Caucasus, could enter Germany and the European Union without visas. And so Germany as the country which everybody, including Russia, expected to take the lead in exploring ways to remove visa barriers forever found itself stuck, stuck in its own bureaucracy and its own mindset. And so nothing moved forward. And now I must say it is very surprising to see that Poland, a country which until recently was very critical of Germany’s pro-Russian policy in Europe, has now become the pioneer country, the pioneer for removing visas for the citizens of Kaliningrad and Poland. This was done without a great deal of consultation within the European Union. It was simply done and that also improved the atmosphere between Russia and Poland, because Poland is the first EU country to say that “we are ready to completely remove visa barriers from our relationship” and it is doing so now in relation to the citizens of Kaliningrad, which is a very important step forward. Maybe through this practical step Poland has taken the lead among all the EU countries in improving their policies toward Russia on a more general level.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has proposed that the establishment of a “security community” could be one of the tripartite projects. What kind of community would this be? What would be its goals and tasks? As Mr. Westerwelle has himself pointed out: “When it comes to security issues, we are still a long way off unanimity.”
Germany is taking very seriously what Dmitry Medvedev proposed to the Europeans in his first speech as president in a foreign country, namely in Germany in Berlin in 2008 where he proposed a dialogue on a new Euro-Atlantic system. So far I would say only Germany has moved in the direction of a dialogue with Russia. The majority of the EU countries have abstained from a dialogue with Medvedev, with Russia on the Euro-Atlantic architecture because they are completely satisfied with the present arrangements for European security under America’s nuclear umbrella. Germany is probably the only country in the European Union (maybe now Poland also shares these views of the Germans) that we can’t build a common Europe against Russia or without Russia. So Germany has taken the initiative of endorsing the so-called Meseberg initiative of 2010, on security cooperation with Russia, on solving the existing territorial disputes in the east of Europe, basically the disputes which exist within the post-Soviet territory. Unfortunately the negotiations over how to solve this conflict have not come very far and they are also somehow stuck in the bureaucracy, in the different views, in the different mindsets of the active participants of this process. But nevertheless again and again German politicians have endorsed this Meseberg process and the need not only to strengthen NATO, and install missile defence installations against Iran in Europe, but in parallel to keep up a very important dialogue and negotiations with Russia on the common European security architecture. From that point of view Germany and Russia have become allies.
How do you see the prospects for future meetings in this trilateral format? How much can they really contribute toward deepening cooperation between Russia, Poland and Germany? Will these meetings, for example, help settle the dispute over the Energy Charter?
The Energy Charter is not a subject which can be discussed within this trilateral group. The European Energy Charter is something that should be discussed mainly with the bureaucrats in Brussels, because they deal with energy security and energy supply issues on a grand scale. But these trilateral meetings between Poland, Germany and Russia nevertheless have to be strengthened; this has to become a true mechanism for building relations between the West and Russia. Other countries should in the coming years join this group, these group meetings. I think then we will all do certain things step by step and improve our relationship. In many ways I know that some of the German non-government institutions have fallen in love with the idea of trying to reconcile Poles and Russians through their NGO activities. I don’t know whether this, say, idealistic or romantic approach from Germany will have any practical success, let’s see where it leads. I think that in order to reconcile Poles and Russians a lot has to be done by these two countries alone, without Germany, without France, without other European countries. They have to sit down and talk about their problems of recent history, acknowledge the fact that problems exist in the relations between the two countries. In many ways Poles and Russians don’t need mediators, who would probably be arbiters in things which are in fact very sensitive only for Poles and Russians themselves. So if the Poles and Russians can overcome these conflicts, which have been with them I would say for centuries, of course they will not be resolved overnight, it will take years but the process has to start. Then, I am sure, we will enter a new phase of European history, which will bring us closer together and not split us again.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise