In the late 1960s and early 70s, when then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), set out to ease West Germany’s relationship with the Soviet Union and countries of the Eastern bloc, Egon Bahr was one of the key thinkers behind the approach. The SPD politician and interior minister at the time has retained his interest in Russia and now focuses his attention on the country and its leaders – without false blinders, and yet never with naïveté or in a belittling manner. Mr. Bahr discusses his views in a conversation with Handelsblatt.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Bahr, is this a new Cold War?
Egon Bahr: That’s a term from an era of sharp contrasts between political systems, a period marked by the desire of each of the two power blocs to force the other side to its knees. But after political leaders had come to the realization that they did not want war, they devised a concept that defines an intermediate state. I’m referring to the concept of peaceful coexistence. And yet the underlying conflict didn’t go away. Anyone who claims this is a cold war today doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The contrast between the systems no longer exists.
Apparently it does. Or at least Russia and the West aren’t speaking the same language, and the situation is threatening to escalate.
No. It’s just that the level of agitation is especially high in Germany. We’re the only ones who are talking about a cold war. At any rate, you don’t hear the term coming from the United States and Russia.
You and Willy Brandt are the two fathers of the policy of détente. Do you have a recommendation for the current German government?
You can’t enter negotiations with maximum demands, as the West is doing. You have to meet in the middle. With the Russians, you have to determine whether the basic positions are compatible. This was true in the past and it’s still true today. In Moscow at the time, we focused on improving relations between our two countries and ignored all ideological issues, including the subject of human rights. We knew that we would never be on the same page in that respect. Conversely, the other side never attempted to turn me into a communist. And I never tried to convert then-Soviet Foreign Minister (Andrei) Gromyko into a social democrat.
Are you saying that we don’t have to make Russian President Vladimir Putin out to be a flawless democrat today?
Putin will never be a flawless democrat – and neither will his children and grandchildren. I hope there will be a “democracy à la russe,” just as we have the American and British models of democracy.
Is that acceptable?
Yes, we should accept it. We should take a page from the book of former US President George H.W. Bush. He said that post-Cold War Russia needed to develop in keeping with its traditions.
“You can’t enter negotiations with maximum demands, as the West is doing. You have to meet in the middle.”
Is the subject of human rights negotiable?
There is a reason why the United Nations charter does not place the subject of human rights under the auspices of the Security Council. Too many characteristics of nations and religions need to be respected. This issue cannot be forced into hard and fast rules the Security Council could execute. Ms. Merkel knows that she cannot achieve real progress on this issue, neither in Russia nor China, and yet she pretends as if this could be expected.
In other words, politicians should lower their expectations?
It would not be ideal to again attain the intermediate state of peaceful coexistence of systems and intentions that are not comparable. This state simply does not imply that every partner takes on our system of values.
What does this mean regarding the current conflict between Russia and the West? To what extent can Putin be allowed to do as he pleases?
As an old man, I have the luxury of reminiscing about old stories.
Please, go ahead.
Kennedy essentially said that if you want to change the status quo, you have to consider the facts. He reached an agreement with the Russians, which was never documented anywhere, that the United States and the USSR would not wage a war over Berlin, Germany and Europe. This agreement was upheld. It was upheld during the Cuban missile crisis. And it was upheld beyond German partition, beyond the end of the Soviet Union and beyond the formation of the Baltic countries.
But that agreement is worthless today.
One could certainly be under the impression that Obama and Putin have reached a similar agreement, namely that there should be no war between the two powers – not over Syria, not over Crimea and not over Ukraine.
Conversely, this means that Putin has to be allowed to do as he pleases in Ukraine.
No. That’s out of the question. I just want to point out that the violation of international law through the annexation of Crimea doesn’t have to be recognized. We also didn’t recognize East Germany under international law until 1990, and yet we respected the country. That lasted from 1969 to 1990. We can also respect the annexation of Crimea without recognizing it under international law.
How can a ceasefire be reached?
A robust ceasefire would be the key step toward negotiations for a peaceful solution of the Ukraine conflict. If that happens, I don’t think it’ll be terribly difficult.
Under what conditions?
It’s long been clear in principle that NATO membership for Ukraine isn’t an option. Neither NATO nor Putin want that. The situation would then be analogous to the situation in Finland or Austria, that is, to have the full ability to act within the Western political and economic system but without inclusion in the defense alliance.
Is the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine a provocation for Russia?
The EU didn’t take a very smart approach. It took a long time to add the explanation that Ukraine won’t be ready for full membership for a long time. I think that’s the right assessment, but it took too long before it was made. The association agreement has been signed. The response from Moscow wasn’t enthusiastic, but it wasn’t grumbling, either. And Mr. Putin certainly has the right to grumble.
Are the West’s sanctions a reasonable means of exerting pressure?
Putin will have to acknowledge the fact that the West believes imposing sanctions is unavoidable, so as not to create the impression that it is willing to accept everything.