September 20, 2021

Welcome to Russia’s New Reality

The Russian Duma elections show just how much the country has transformed into an authoritarian state. The new German government will need to adapt and take the future of German-Russian relations more seriously.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting with athletes, participants of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, in Moscow, Russia September 11, 2021.
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The elections to the Russian parliament, the Duma, that concluded on Sunday, September 19, have produced the expected outcome: A victory of the ruling United Russia party. This vote without a choice was the result of the most managed and least competitive election in post-Soviet history. With the most important Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in jail, this Duma election was the expression of the fundamental transformation of the Russian state from a semi-authoritarian to a fully authoritarian state.

This parliamentary election was laying the groundwork for 2024 presidential election, when either President Vladimir Putin will be re-elected, or a hand-picked successor will win in a managed election. What we have observed in Russia in recent years is the suppression of any relevant opposition, the closing of the last independent media, and a systematic policy of repressing civil society. The branding of everybody who receives foreign funding or has foreign contacts as a “foreign agent,” has atomized the Russian civil society. The regime has learned how to manage the Internet, controls social media, locates people who participated in demonstrations, and has rendered any independent election observation nearly impossible.

Civil Society Under Pressure

As a result, until 2024 the space for independent media in Russia will shrink even more, while cooperation and exchange with civil society, academics, and anybody who opposes the regime will become more difficult if not impossible. We can already observe a wave of emigration from Russia to Europe, not only to the Baltic States, Poland, and the United Kingdom but also to Germany and France. Russia is closing itself off and more international organizations that are currently active in the country will leave because they are branded as undesirable organizations.

The latest German examples of this development are the Center for Liberal Modernity in Berlin and the German Russian Exchange, which has been working for decades in Russia in various social spheres. All this shows that we are living in a different world, with a different Russia, one that does not even want to imitate democracy but instead is ruled by a regime that wants to survive at any cost. The recently published national security strategy of Russia shows how vulnerable the regime feels. It is defensive, very much inward looking, and focused on domestic stability. As a result, very few reforms and very little progress are to be expected.

The End of a Special Relationship

Germany as the leading country in the European Union was for decades the key actor in the EU’s Russia policy. The German government always had a special relationship with the Kremlin and concepts like “partnership for modernization” have shaped Europe’s approach toward Russia. But this has changed in the past few years and to the Kremlin, Germany is no longer a partner but an enemy, becoming the main target of Russian disinformation campaigns in Europe. The era of Chancellor Angela Merkel marks the most fundamental alienation in the German-Russian relations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Germany is not the bridge for Russia into Europe anymore, but the country to be weakened if you want to undermine the EU and the liberal democratic order.

In this context, the aim of Nord Stream 2 seems to be less to increase gas supply for Germany and the EU than to divide Europe and damage transatlantic relations while undermining Germany’s credibility. This is a major shift in German-Russian relations and requires a fundamental rethink of Germany’s Russia policy. Interdependence has become vulnerability and Germany, with its close economic, social, and political ties to Russia, seems to be one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to Russian interference.

After the federal elections in Germany on September 26 the new chancellor and Bundestag will have to deal with a different, more repressive and closed Russia. Despite all the difficulties, German elites are searching for areas to engage with Russia. The most discussed issues at the moment are common challenges like climate change, green transformation, and security topics like Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. The most developed area of engagement is civil society exchange. But this is exactly the area in which the Russian leadership wants to cut any foreign interference and recent attacks on German political foundations show that even this area is under pressure. The Petersburg Dialog is blocked because representatives of the board along with their organizations are now named as undesirable persons in Russia. This goes to the very heart of German-Russian relations, which is represented by a huge network of municipal partnerships, social projects, youth exchanges, academic and cultural cooperation.

No Partner for Cooperation

As a result, the room for maneuver for any new German chancellor will be limited. There is not much space for engagement with Russia because there is no partner on the other side. The mindset of the Russian elites is completely different to that of their German counterparts. Just to take the example of climate change cooperation, Germany is abandoning the carbon age and even its car industry has to adapt and will end the era of combustion engines. Meanwhile, the Russian leadership still argues that there are benefits to global warming such as an ice-free Northern See Route and new opportunities for the agricultural sector. There are no signs that the export of oil, gas, and coal will play a less important role for the Russian economy and budget in the coming years.

Looking to the German election, the performance of the Green party, and how much of their program will be included in any coalition agreement, will play an important role in Russian-German relations. The Greens are the most outspoken critics of the Putin regime, Nord Stream 2, and human rights violations in Russia. But even if the Social Democrat, Olaf Scholz, becomes chancellor and wants to engage with the Russian leadership, there is no trust anymore and no space to build cooperative relations.

This Russian Duma election is the expression of a new era in Russian politics, with the country now becoming more closed and looking more like the Soviet Union. Most of the German elites still think in terms of the past and need to adapt to this new reality. If they don’t, Germany’s impact on Russia will decline further. It is important that any new German government takes the Russia challenge more seriously, is less open to informal ties, and tackles Germany’s vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, none of the current “candidates for chancellor” really have the will and mindset to lead Europe when it comes to Russia. If the German elites do not adapt to the new situation in Russia and the EU’s neighborhood, the country’s ability to impact developments in the neighborhood and worldwide will further decline. With this denial of reality, Germany and the EU will lose those people in Russia who are striving for a different, more democratic Russia. If that happens, then the cynicism of the “Putin system” will win.

Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia and the post-Soviet space, heads the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) program on international order and democracy.

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