RD Interview: Walter Schwimmer, a prominent Austrian politician and Secretary General of the Council of Europe from 1999-2004, shares his views on what Russia should do next in order to find common ground with the nations of Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Photo: AP

Even as the fragile Minsk ceasefire shows hopeful signs of bringing peace to Ukraine, there has been little or no success in rolling back European economic sanctions against Russia. With that in mind, Russia Direct recently sat down with Walter Schwimmer, an Austrian politician and diplomat from the Austrian People’s Party, to find out whether Russia can ever find common ground with the West over the escalating crisis in Ukraine. This interview happened on the sidelines of the panel discussion “European Choice: Globalization or Re-Sovereignization,” held in Geneva on March 6, 2015.

Based on his extensive experience as Secretary General of the Council of Europe from 1999 to 2004, Chairman of the International Coordinating Committee of the “World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations,” and President of the European Democracy Forum in Strasbourg, Schwimmer gave us his take on how Europe perceives Russia now, and what steps Russia must take to rebuild economic, political and diplomatic ties with the European Union. The gap between Europe and Russia, he suggests, may not be as wide as we think.

Russia Direct: In difficult moments throughout Russian history, there has always been a discussion about the way Russia had to go: Europe or Asia. Every time during those pivotal moments, Russia never closed itself off for Europe and followed its own path of development. Now the West blames Russia for rejecting European values and principles, mostly ignoring the historical, cultural and civilizational factors that unite both sides. How can you explain this European perception of Russia nowadays? What steps should be undertaken to reduce this gap of misunderstanding?

Walter Schwimmer: Maybe the expectations after the collapse of the USSR were too high on one hand, and maybe they were also wrong. What can be applied to Europe cannot necessarily be applicable to Russia, namely to have a very certain kind of model of democracy.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the majority of the Europeans did not consider that Russia has to find its own way, and did not take into account that the development of democracy in Western European countries was a long one and a difficult one.

In my view, the main shortcoming of Russian democracy is the absence of real grassroots parties. It will take time and it will come, I am sure. A growing middle class will develop such a political movement or change the existing into the grassroots movement.

But there is not anymore a question of Russia being part of Europe or turning to Asia – you can do both.

RD: Yes, but that is exactly the problem. Nowadays the West claims that Russia violates European principles and values and, hence, it cannot be a part of the European family by acting as it acts.

W.S.: I would not underline that. As the most recent example, the declaration of Minsk signed on Feb. 12 by four leaders, [French President François] Hollande, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, confirms that the leaders remain committed to the vision of a joint humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And I am convinced that there is no Europe without Russia and no Russia without Europe. So, why not to find a common ground for cooperation between the new Eurasian Union and the European Union?

RD: There are certain reasons why this cooperation is not feasible now.

W.S.: Why not? First of all I see the Eurasian Union as built on the example of the EU. Why reinvent the wheel? Many parts of acquis communautaire of the EU can be taken over by the Eurasian Union and then you can build a common market.

RD: Do you see there are still a lot of division lines between Europe and Russia that are a heritage of the Cold War?

W.S.: If we talk about the heritage of the Cold War, there are many more division lines between the United States and Russia.

RD: Then how can you explain that the EU is following the example of American pressure on Russia? Doesn’t the U.S. dominance push the EU to adopt the same policy towards Russia.

W.S.: Right, sometimes things happen which you cannot explain. This is the reason why there were so many mistakes at the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, mistakes of the EU and mistakes of Russia.

Firstly, there was the misinterpretation of the Maidan, which was originally a civil society movement against corruption and had nothing to do with pro-European or anti-Russian choice. However, it was seen by Russia as a coup d’état and by the EU as a kind of strategic decision of Ukraine to go not with Russia but with Europe – nonsense.

The second mistake was not to take into consideration by the EU that Ukraine has two big neighbors, the EU itself and Russia. And if you want to live in peace and prosperity, you have to maintain good relations with all your neighbors. Moreover, there is an economic interdependence. The EU did not stop crazy announcements of the Ukrainian government to view the agreement with Russia on the Sevastopol Black Sea naval base as illegal. It made the Russian military concerned about the possibility of losing the naval base in Sevastopol. But it was not seen this way in the EU and it should have been seen that way in NATO.

NATO should have given Russia a guarantee that she would keep the naval base in Sevastopol. Not to do so was a mistake. And now Russia and the EU are trapped. Russia will not retreat from Crimea and the EU cannot acknowledge its annexation, since it was against international law. And now Russia and the EU are trapped in this escalation of sanctions that are leading to nothing.

RD: Then the natural question becomes: How to emerge out of such a trap?

W.S.: The key is in Ukraine itself. Following the Minsk agreement, there is a clear policy on both sides: Russia should tell the separatists in Donbas that, with no doubt, she sticks to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Donbas cannot separate from Ukraine; and the EU should send the message to Kiev – you have to enter dialogue with these people in Eastern Ukraine, you have to apply European standards of protection and promotion of national minorities, and then find a way of economic recovery of the region. That gives the EU and Russia an opportunity to say: Ok, Ukraine has proved it is able to solve its own internal conflict.

You find comprise only if you take into account the interest of both sides and the most important is to look at the most urgent interest. In this case it is very clear that Russia wants to keep Crimea, Ukraine wants to be compensated.

RD: What are the common, indisputable values and principles between Europe and Russia that cannot be revised, eroded or ignored?

W.S.: These are the main values and principles of the Council of Europe, where Russia is a member: human rights, rule of law, pluralist democracy. And here again we are talking about the suspicion of the Western public and media about Russia with regard to the treatment of opponents and of critical journalists. The main narrative is that freedom of expression is not fully guaranteed in Russia. I do not say it is true, but it is a view.

RD: Living now in a globalizing and fast-changing world, how would you define sovereignty in its current form? Is the notion of sovereignty changing?

W.S.: Of course, it is changing. There is less national sovereignty as a clear consequence of the development of international cooperation. Being part of a regional organization, being a part of the United Nations, being a part of international agreements means to give up for good reasons a part of the national sovereignty.

For me today the main question is: What kind of sovereignty do we have in the case of global financial markets? There has never been sovereignty, but there should be some sovereignty of the international community to regulate financial markets, to avoid tax evasion.

RD: How can you describe the change of European conscience that has certainly happened within the last 25 years? What values have changed and what haven’t? 

W.S.: I am not sure that changes really happened. Because, for example, as I said it several times in the lecture in Vienna two weeks ago when I had discussion with Russian Ambassador Anvar Azimov: I do not see any strategy of the European Union towards Russia.

RD: Like many experts and analysts are saying that the U.S. does not have a strategy as well?

W.S.: No, they have. I think the U.S. has a very clear goal – to keep Russia as weak as possible.

RD: Ok, but it is only a goal. It does not mean the U.S. has a strategy on how to reach it.

W.S.: With many little steps. Even perhaps being not unhappy about the Ukrainian crisis, because they are isolating Russia, and as a result – this is keeping Russia weak. The EU has not even a goal.

RD: Nowadays the EU is the main trade partner for Russia and Russia is a strategic partner for the EU in terms of energy security…

W.S.: But keeping good economic relations, having secure energy supplies and at the same time trying to find other sources of the energy, not to be as dependent on Russia, does not mean the EU has a strategy. In the long run, I do not see a strategy. And Russia itself does not want to be a part of it, which is very clear, because Russia does not want to be patronized by the EU.

RD: Isn’t it a mutual approach? The EU also does not want Russia to be a part of it.

W.S.: No one really thought about it. I am quite sure. There are maybe personal opinions, if you ask me I do not expect that Russia wants to be a part of the EU. Having been the Soviet Union, a global player, Russia wants to be at least a regional player, at least, if not again a global player. Although Russia would be the largest member country, it would be in the minority towards all the other countries. Now we are on the very dangerous field called suspicion, which is something very familiar in Russia.

RD: And what about suspicion in Europe towards Russia?

W.S.: It depends. There are countries that used to be a part of the Soviet bloc where there is still a very big fear of Russia. Russia is seen as the USSR and Poland and the Baltic countries in particular, are afraid of Russian imperialistic ambitions. I do not think Russia has imperialistic ambitions, but these are still very difficult relations. It is easier for France or for Great Britain, but then they are all under the influence of the U.S.

RD: So, what is the role of the U.S. in EU-Russia relations? How does the U.S. influence these relations and to what extent does it affect European policy towards Russia?

W.S.: I think they always try. There is certainly an influence of the U.S. and it is obvious in the Ukrainian crisis. This is their strategy of keeping Russia as weak as possible. Without going into a war with Russia, let the Europeans fight with their economies until they spend their last Euro cent.

RD: This is quite a perspective. Another crucial topic to discuss is the rise of Euroskepticism. Last year elections in European Parliament showed the rise of rightist groups and Euro-sceptics. Do you see it as an indicator of the overall flawed EU policy?

W.S.: It has some flaws. But it is not wrong. It became too bureaucratic, too technical. It is the Western vision that holds Europe together. It was created as a peace project and it is still successful as a peace project. But if you look at my sons, who are 41 and 45 years old, they take peace for granted. They were not born during the war like me. For them, World War II is like the Napoleonic wars or the Thirty Years War, which happened long ago and fortunately did not repeat in our time. Maybe this is the only good aspect of the Ukrainian crisis: Do not take peace for granted. You have to work on peace again and again in each generation.

RD: How do you see the EU’s fate? Is it moving towards decentralization?

W.S.: The question within the EU is subsidiarity: What can be done satisfactorily at the local, at the regional, at the national level should be done there and must not be done by Brussels. But when you need cooperation, when you need a common policy it has to be done in Brussels. And here you have some paradoxical situations, because the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) can be done only at the Union level. But it depends on the agreement of all the members. And without agreement of all the members, the CFSP is not working.

RD: As it does not work basically for the last several years, because at the time of crises the EU members cannot agree on a common policy. Germany acts in one way, France in another, Italy, Denmark and Spain in their own ways.

W.S.: And there is a fight between the central institutions and the member governments. Why did Merkel and Hollande go to Minsk but not [the President of the European Commission] Jean Claude Junker?

RD: Isn’t it an indicator that only two strongmen within the EU, Merkel and Hollande, have an important say in the decisions about the EU policy?

W.S.: I would not go that far, but there is some truth in it and this is still deficiency of the Union. Imagine that the foreign policy of the U.S. would be defined not by the President and by the Secretary of State, but by the Governors of Texas and California.

RD: Do you think that business connections can improve EU-Russia relations to a certain extent?

W.S.: Of course. I think many players within the EU - particularly many economic and business leaders - are asking: How could we come out of this, out of these crazy sanctions? And look at the Austrian example. The sanctions hit not only directly but indirectly as well. Because of the weak ruble, we had one-third less Russian tourists during the winter season, because people cannot afford it anymore to go skiing to Austria. (But, fortunately, this was compensated by the people who cannot go to Switzerland anymore, so they go to Austria now.)

RD: Isn’t the decision of the EU to impose sanctions on Russia sort of sacrificing the economic interests of the European business elites in order to follow the U.S. pattern?

W.S.: The main explanation is solidarity.

RD: Solidarity should not be paid for by the economic losses of the EU members and their businesses, given that the EU has not overcome yet its economic difficulties. It is simply not pragmatic.

W.S.: This is exactly what I described as a trap where the EU and Russia are together.

RD: What is your assumption about how long the EU sanctions will last?

W.S.: It depends on how far the parties in Ukraine come closer to a solution.

RD: But there is already an indication of improvement, the Minsk agreement signed on Feb. 12. The ceasefire is largely maintained, the process of heavy weapons withdrawal is almost completed. Do not you think it should be sort of tit for tat? If something improves on one front, another thing should be improved on the other front. But with the recent Minsk agreement, there was not even a partial lift of sanctions.

W.S.: Do not forget that the main argument for the sanctions was not Donbas, the main argument for sanctions was Crimea.

RD: You already mentioned that there is an understanding in the EU that Russia is not going to return Crimea.

W.S.: It is not the official policy of the EU. This is the opinion of European analysts and experts. But nevertheless, if there is more progress than the ceasefire, if there is a chance of agreement between Kiev and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, it can be taken as justification for going back from sanctions.