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.