How to deal with Russia today-the EU perspective

Speech by minister Timmermans. 5e Van Bylandtlezing van het Nederlands Genootschap voor Internationale Zaken, Clingendael

Professor Van Staden, thank you for this wonderful opportunity, and thanks to all of you for attending this meeting. You honour me by your presence. First of all I think that congratulations are in order. In the first row I recognise my dear friend, the Spanish ambassador, whom we should congratulate on the glorious victory of the Spanish team. I’m not sure if he made any personal contribution to this victory, but he deserves to be recognised as a representative of Spain. I can’t stress enough the importance of football in diplomacy these days.

About ten days ago I was standing in line at the European Council, waiting for the ‘family photo’, which is an integral part of every European Council and something we all look forward to. Everybody has his or her assigned spot, and I was standing there in mine. This was at the time between the quarter finals and the semi-finals. I asked, ‘So who’s going to be European champion?’ And immediately a row started, with all the heads of state and government saying, ‘ We will! No, we will!’ This is today’s Europe. In football, we have a sport that warm’s people’s hearts and gets people excited, that stimulates national pride in a way that is playful and positive. Football is an outlet for chauvinism that in earlier days found outlets that were far less innocent. This brings me to the essence of what I want to talk about today.

If you look at the European Union and its 27 member states, the relationship is governed by a central motto: security and prosperity through interdependence. By contrast, Russia seeks to achieve security and prosperity through independence, independence from external influences. This is fully understandable, given Russia’s history. I would like to see us develop the partnership between Russia and the EU in a way that emphasises the benefits of interdependence for security and prosperity. This is what I want to talk about in my lecture today. At the outset, I should say that we’re still a long way from this ideal, but we can get there. I will also be talking about the conditions that are necessary to bring us to that point.

But before doing so I want to take you back to 19 August 1991, when I was working at the Dutch embassy in Moscow. I woke up that morning as usual, at 7:00, to the sounds of the BBC World Service – standard diplomatic behaviour. I heard that the Soviet president, Gorbachev, had apparently fallen ill at his residence in Crimea, and that power was now in the hands of an emergency committee. At five past seven the chargé at the Dutch Embassy, Jaap Ramaker, called me and said, ‘We seem to have a situation.’ Some people saw this coming, others did not, but we knew that something had been brewing in Moscow for the last several months. And we wondered what to do. First of all, we wanted to make sure we could get to the embassy. So I got dressed and drove to the embassy. It was a perfectly quiet Monday morning in August. Some people were waiting for the bus. Not many, because a lot of Muscovites were staying at their dachas that time of year. Nothing was unusual. I arrived at the embassy. I waited for some cables, got in touch with some people. No news. The Hague was asleep of course. I don’t mean to suggest anything by that: it was 6:00 in the morning there. At some point I began to wonder where the action would be. In a situation like this, you would expect a lot of turmoil. If anything was going to happen, it was probably going to be at the White House, the home of the Russian parliament and its then-president, Yeltsin. I decided to drive there, and I took our deputy military attaché along.

We drove all the way up to the White House, past the entrance. There were no guards there, and so we just drove right in. We actually walked up and rang the doorbell. Someone opened up. They told us that President Yeltsin would be making a statement at nine. We were allowed to wait till then. So we stood outside until the time came. Then we were ushered into the press room, and President Yeltsin came in. Before that, I had seen several of his people: very nervous, sweaty, using words like ‘coup d’état’. It was certainly a clumsy coup because the plotters didn’t have control of the regions. Apparently, they simply expected people to accept that the leadership had been replaced. At nine, Boris Nikolayevich came in and read out a statement saying, ‘This is a coup d’état. I don’t accept it. We will resist it. We want the president to be brought back and order to be restored.’ He said this, and he looked into the room, where he saw the four of us and four or five other people, and he was slightly angered that so few people were apparently interested in his press conference. So he marched off and came back an hour later.

By then, the room was full. He simply reread the same text. Then he turned to his advisers and asked, ‘What now?’ They decided to go outside. By this time, a tank had come over the bridge and parked in front of the White House. Inside it was a very young soldier, looking around, with no idea of what to do. I followed Yeltsin and his people outside. (They were used to me by now because I’d been there for a while.)

You have to understand that at that time few people in the diplomatic corps had any interest in the Russian Federation, its parliament, or its politicians. Everybody knew every light switch at the offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but nobody ever paid any attention to these other guys. But as a small country, the Netherlands was never let into the CPSU, and so we concentrated on the parliament, where we had a foot in the door. Sometimes being small has its advantages.

So this little group of us walked outside, and Yeltsin said, ‘I want to read my statement again.’ And we thought, ‘Oh God, not again.’ We’d heard it about three or four times by then. But where could he deliver the message? The security man said, ‘Why don’t you get up on that tank?’ And that’s exactly what happened. With a little help, Yeltsin got up on the tank. The young soldier looked at him, thinking, What’s going to happen? They shook hands. The young soldier didn’t know what to do. Yeltsin read the same text again, twice, maybe three times. Surrounding the tank there were perhaps 50 people, certainty no more than that, and a couple of cameras. We’re talking about one of the most iconic images of modern history, and it was all so simple. It wasn’t the least bit impressive. This is just to give you an example of how events that come across as banal can become iconic. My point is this: if this man, who was never held in high regard in the West, hadn’t said at that stage, ‘I don’t accept this,’ the members of the emergency committee would have been the new leaders of the Soviet Union, and everybody else would have just folded.

I wanted to make this short tribute to Yeltsin because he deserves a better image in the West. Here, we all adore Gorbachev but think little of his successor. On any number of occasions he could have said, ‘Okay, let’s do away with democracy.’ He made some very serious mistakes when he attacked parliament. He made some very serious mistakes when he – if I may be blunt – influenced the outcome of the elections by making a deal with the media bosses and enabled them to appropriate a big chunk of the Russian economy in return. He made some mistakes, but at the end of the day, democracy would not have had a chance in Russia without him. The banality of the events says nothing about the greatness of the man at that moment. It would have been so easy to accept the situation. May I remind you that the French president Mitterrand, whom I admire, sent a telegram saying, in effect, ‘Okay, we’ll accept it.’ We got a telegram at the embassy asking us to analyse the situation: maybe it was true after all that Gorbachev was ill and someone needed to take over. If Yeltsin had not taken a stand, we might have had a different situation.

Since then, many things have changed. At the time and for a few years after that, the relationship between the EU and the Soviet Union/Russia was a one-way street: ‘You give us money, and we’ll provide stability.’ In short, Germany financed Russian stability. For Russia the only relationship of any strategic consequence was with the United States, not Europe. Europe was an easy paymaster and that was it, at that stage.

My final anecdote on this issue. This was a couple of days after order was restored following the attempted coup. The Netherlands held the Presidency of the EU, and so we were invited to be present for the return of President Gorbachev to the Kremlin. I was there as well, also as an interpreter. Later we were invited to celebrate the end of the coup on the Manege Square (which is no longer a square but a shopping mall). My ambassador was asked to speak on behalf of the European Union. The Americans had been quick to send a new ambassador: Strauss, who had very little international experience but who had been a great campaigner for the Democrats. Of course he was invited to speak as well. First, the American ambassador would speak and then the Dutch ambassador on behalf of the EU. We got near the rostrum and I was very nervous because I would have to interpret in front of 200,000 or 300,000 people. We stood up to go to the rostrum. Strauss was speaking about the US and Russia. Then we were told that it was our turn. We wanted to walk up there, but there was this huge security guard standing in our way. He asked us where we were going and I indicated that we wanted to take the stage to speak to the people. ‘Why?’ ‘Because we represent the European Union.’ ‘And who are you?’ ‘The ambassador of the Netherlands.’ ‘ The ambassador of what?’ ‘The Netherlands.’ His only reaction was [dismissive snort]. And he turned his back to us, and we never got there to translate the ambassador’s speech to the people.

I wanted to share these stories with you by way of illustrating how much has changed. Of course, there are many things that still need to change. There are many things happening in Russia that we as Western Europeans, as EU members, do not agree with. But we also need to understand the depth of change that has taken place in this relatively short period of time. To some extent, Western Europeans understand the depth of the need for security and stability that people might have. If you look at the ‘old member states’ in particular and the political situation in the Netherlands, in Italy, in France and elsewhere, lack of security is the strongest driver in politics today. Providing people with security is one of the main tasks facing politicians, wherever they may be. Those of us who have seen the chaos and lack of security in Russia throughout the 1990s should understand the Russian people’s craving for stability and security and therefore the strong mandate for a politician like Putin who provided that security and stability, regardless of the side effects. Another important thing Putin did, from a European perspective, is change the mindset that the Soviet Union/Russia should only have one partner of equal status, i.e. the United States. He introduced the idea that Russia could and should be a strategic partner of Europe. This is an important element of change in Russian foreign policy, an element that is sometimes undervalued and underappreciated in the EU.

Having said all this, I would like to turn to some of the problematic side effects of our relationship with Russia. First of all, we heard complaints that Russia plays off one EU member state against the other. I don’t think we can blame Russia for that. I think this has been part and parcel of European diplomacy for centuries. All European nations have done this when the opportunity arose. The fact that Russia plays off one member state against another is the EU’s fault, not Russia’s. That is my first point. If you want the EU to take a strong position in its relationship with Russia, the EU needs to be united. We can’t have a situation where individual member states choose their own positions. Another widespread belief, which I disagree with, is the notion that since Russia is a provider of energy and we are its customers, dependency only goes one way. We depend on their energy, and therefore they call the shots. This is simply untrue. Look at the facts. Yes, it is true that they provide the energy; yes, it is true that we are the customers. Yet given the nature of their energy sector and the nature of the energy they provide, customers like the European Union can dictate a lot of the behaviour of the supplier country. In other words, Russia’s dependency on its European customers is equal to the Europeans’ dependency on Russian energy.

This factor will allow us to take Russia to a place where it sees its future in interdependency rather than independence. I would call that reinforced sovereignty. For the Kremlin, Russian sovereignty spills beyond national borders into the so-called near abroad. Security, the argument goes, can only be maintained if Russia has a measure of control over its neighbours. We need to provide stability and security at the continental level that will eliminate the feeling in Moscow that this conception of sovereignty is necessary in the long run.

The biggest challenge in the years ahead will be to increase investment in the energy sector. Investment, to be sure, from Russia itself, with its huge financial resources. But hopefully also on an international scale, with international companies and international partners. According to reports prepared by the International Energy Agency, energy deliveries from Russia will be at risk sometime over the next five years, if we do not invest more in developing new technology and new energy fields in Russia. If Russia is unable to fulfil its contracts, the stability that has been the basis of its energy distribution could be shaken. Don’t forget: Russia is an extremely reliable supplier, as long as you don’t get on their bad side on certain ‘political’ issues. In reality these issues are very often economic in nature: disputes about prices and the like. For European countries to drop their reservations about investing, we need a level playing field. We need protection for investments. We need the energy charter. We should put all our efforts into persuading the Duma to ratify the energy charter because it provides the stability that is necessary for investment. Once again, the energy field offers the best opportunity for creating this interdependency that has done such wonders for the rest of Europe, including Russia.

One of the big mistakes that EU countries have made in their dealings with Russia is to be tough in their rhetoric while being soft in substance. This is exactly the opposite of what we need. Russia deserves to be treated with the respect and fairness owed to a great nation. In the last 15 years it was often not treated that way. At the same time, respect also means sticking to your guns when you think Russia is being unreasonable or is failing to abide by the obligations it entered into. There can be no compromise, for instance, on the court cases now before the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. There can be no compromise on the freedom of the press, which is under threat. There can be no compromise about property laws that discriminate on the basis of nationality. All these things should be dealt with in a straightforward way. Unfortunately, we talk tough in our own parliaments, but we don’t follow up on our words. My experience in talking to Russian colleagues over the years is that they respect you if you are candid with them, even if you don’t share their opinion, as long as you remain respectful and mindful of their position. We need to be respectful in our language and form but very firm in our policies.

Some of our EU partners have very painful memories of their time in the Soviet Union or under Soviet occupation. These partners should never doubt the solidarity we feel and the obligation we have to guarantee their freedom, their independence and their partnership in the EU and various transatlantic stru ctures.

Another element I want to stress has to do with the possibility of further economic development. The potential for trade with Russia is huge, and the Netherlands is one of the leading investors in Russia. We see the opportunities generated by these investments as a long-term commitment to the development of the Russian market and the purchasing power of a highly educated citizenry. At the same time we are facing some of the same demographic challenges. Russia is losing a million people a year. For our part we’ve reached the pinnacle of our demographic development, and we’ve also begun to decline. The demographic challenge for the EU and Russia is more or less the same, and we should try to find common solutions to that problem.

At the end of the day, for European attitudes to change, the EU needs to accept that Russia should not be treated as a country in transition – for the simple reasons that it isn’t one. It is foolish, for instance, to see Russia as a slightly bigger version of Poland or the Czech Republic. It is foolish to believe that Russia is a country like the Central European states that emerged from a Communist system and developed into a Western European-style market economy based on a certain relationship between employers and employees, involving negotiated settlements, etc. That is not the path Russia is taking. Russia should be seen as a country transforming itself, but not as a country in transition from A to B, along the lines of Central and Eastern European states. In my view Russia is changing and will continue to do so, but it will always remain a different animal from the present members of the European Union. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. It is a problem not to recognise this, however. It’s a problem to cling to incorrect assumptions about Russia’s development. Yet it’s a great opportunity to regard Russia’s transformation as a way to integrate Russia into a continental security and economic structure that will provide security and prosperity to people across the European continent.

Finally, let me say this. If you look at how things are developing within Russia and between Russia and its neighbours, I think that with all that we can do of partnership, open hand, we need to form a space of mutual interest. There is one thing we need to be very clear about: the EU has a responsibility for stability on the European continent that also obliges us to say ‘no’ to Russia if it starts interfering in other countries in Europe. Stability in the Caucasus – in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – is essential to European security. I also believe that Ukraine should be allowed to make its own choices on the basis of its own analyses of its position in Europe, on the basis of its partnership with both the EU and Russia. It should not be forced to choose one over the other, as a result of external pressure or even external intervention. The EU has a duty to make that case. This is an example of being correct in form and hard in content.

Ladies and gentleman,

I’d be more than happy to field your questions. I’d be glad to talk for another half hour on Russia because it’s a subject I feel passionate about. It’ s a country that is close to my heart. You should also appreciate the personal history I have. As a soldier I was trained to interrogate potential Russian POWs at a time that we still thought – correctly, as it later turned out – that the Soviet Union might try to overwhelm us, at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s. This was a time when I could only see Russians as our enemies, as dangerous, enigmatic. I love Pushkin, I love Dostoyevsky, but Russians were dangerous. We’ve now come to a point where my own oldest children, 21 and 19, who lived in Russia for some time and have Russian friends, see Russia as simply another European country to visit. This is something that the present generation has achieved. This is something we should be grateful for. But we should also be grateful for people like Yeltsin, and in a way for a man like Vladimir Putin. For all his faults, he has brought the necessary stability that will allow Russia to develop into a democracy based on giving people the chance to work for their own prosperity. We as Europeans should avoid being naïve about Russia. Russia will go in different directions, and we should be clear that some of those directions run contrary to our interests. But we should not be obsessed with Russia. In foreign policy one should find a middle ground between obsession and naïveté that is profitable to all parties. My firm belief is that if we look for areas of mutual interest and develop them, Russia will be a constructive partner. And on this basis we can provide security and stability for this continent and also prosperity for its inhabitants.

Thank you