The disenchanted tsar

Victory all down the line. Alexei Navalny has disappeared into a penal camp, the protests of the indignant have been cancelled, air sovereignty on state television has been restored, the Europeans are kept busy with diplomatic expulsions and threats, and their envoy has been humiliated.

What a victory. Navalny is more present than ever: With a sure instinct for power, courage and a willingness to sacrifice, he has become a martyr. Power can no longer avoid working off his accusations of corruption and abuse of power. Even the president himself had to step into the ring. Navalny took the attack on his life as an opportunity to launch the central counterattack: One in four of the 144 million Russians has now seen that impressive video documentary in which ‘the blogger’ meticulously endeavours to prove that, contrary to the general assumption – “the others steal, but the tsar is good” – number one has also built himself a gold-decorated palace.

The power in Russia has a formidable opponent

The power is weakened, it intensifies repression, and the Internet triumphs over propaganda television. Even if the people have stopped their protests for the time being: their problems have not been solved, quite the opposite. Their real disposable incomes have fallen by 10 percent in the last seven years, the infrastructure is in a state of disrepair in many places and spending on the health care system has been cut more and more. And Rolls Royce recently proudly reported that in none of the 111 years of the company’s presence in Russia had it sold as many vehicles as in 2020. Moscow is the only city in the world with two sales showrooms of the noble brand.

The pitfalls of change

It should not be denied at all that the president is willing to solve people’s difficulties – but every new, grand plan to do so has failed so far. What has worked out, though, is the new bridge to Crimea, reportedly the most expensive connection in the world. All major reform plans do not run alone into the rubber wall of an excessive, corrupt bureaucracy that stifles any initiative. No, a regime that need not fear a democratic challenge need not change.

So they believe. Yet because they are not quite sure of this, and above all because they are convinced that “the West” is engaged in a grand conspiracy, they fear one thing: a “colour revolution” of the kind that swept away seemingly stable regimes in Tunisia, Georgia, or Ukraine virtually from one day to the next.

This could be prevented relatively easily. One would only have to respond to the concerns and worries of the citizens. After all, not everyone is calling for democratic freedoms. Impoverished pensioners or people living away from the glamorous metropolises have quite different concerns. But those in power also have perestroika and its consequences in mind: Attempts to reform could easily let the genie out of the bottle.

Confrontation instead of legitimation? 

Are further violence and even imminent collapse inevitable? Not at all. If it wants to, the power can react elastically and make a few concessions here and there or hand out benefits. The country’s natural wealth is great enough to survive economically difficult times. And there is also the repressive apparatus to keep the situation under control. People’s fear of arbitrary government action is the regime’s great ally because the power apparatus not only has police clubs at its disposal, but it can also expel people from university, endanger their jobs or threaten them with prison camps.

Truth, moreover, lies in the old Russian proverb: “The Russian peasant harnesses for a long time. But then he drives fast.” The criteria by which people agree with the power are prioritized differently in Russia than in our countries: Is order guaranteed? Stability? Is Russia a respected country? And only then: What is my economic situation? For this reason, too, “the West” should be careful in its reaction to proceed decisively, but not condescendingly – and not only for reasons of principle.

What next for Russia and Europe?

How should “the West” react to the developments in Russia, how should it shape its relationship with this great and – we should never forget this above all disputes with those in power – wonderful country with so many great people, not only those brave ones on the streets, but also the many who master their lives under sometimes difficult conditions?

In a tense situation and without a clear prospect of improvement, I believe we have handled the situation well and appropriately in the past – and should continue on this path. Three elements should shape our policy:

  • Where fundamental, commonly agreed principles are violated that guarantee human and civil rights and, in the end, peace, we must react. The means used should be political in nature, i.e. measures should be reversible and the conditions under which they can disappear should be known. By most recently sanctioning individuals responsible for the fate of Navalny, the European Union followed precisely this line. What is important is that we act in unison – and here “the West” still has some homework to do.
  • We must not waver in our belief in the power of dialogue – not even in challenging times like these. Throughout the difficult confrontation of recent years, U.S. and Russian diplomats have remained engaged in exchanges on arms control issues. German foreign policy has also strongly advocated this in Moscow as well as in Washington. The result: at the beginning of February, just a few days before it was due to expire, “New Start,” the important treaty on strategic arms reduction, was extended. We need to talk about issues of climate protection, international trade policy and, suddenly, also about combating pandemics. And one day also about where we want to go together and how we can succeed.
  • Where all politics is struggling, we must make even greater use of all the instruments that are so abundantly available to us to shape our relationship with Russia positively: the scientific and cultural exchange, trade and the encounters of civil societies. In this way we keep our countries and people together and underline our – yes, honest – interest in wanting to live together permanently in peace and for mutual benefit on this great Eurasian landmass. One day, it will also be in Russia’s interests again to follow a common path.