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Rudiger von Fritsch: There is huge potential in German-Russian relations

28.06.2019 - Interview

Botschafter Rüdiger von Fritsch
Botschafter Rüdiger von Fritsch© Nikita Markov
German Ambassador to Russia Rudiger von Fritsch, who is leaving Moscow after a five-year mission, told Interfax about the state of affairs in bilateral relations, Germany‘s position on the Nord Stream 2 project amidst sanction risks, and assessed prospects for settling the crisis in Ukraine under the new authorities in Kyiv.

Question: You are completing your mission as German ambassador to Russia. It coincided with a complicated period in the history of international relations and Russian-German relations. How would you assess its results given the aforementioned factors? Do you have any feelings of disappointment? How would you assess bilateral relations and their prospects now?

Answer: As diplomats we should rather not have feelings about events or developments but try to assess, understand and work out solutions. Of course, I would have preferred that the central political conflict that divides us – and that is the conflict Ukraine has become victim of – be resolved. It is not resolved and I remain convinced that we will not be able to fully make use of the huge potential that our relations hold if we don‘t resolve it.

Nevertheless, over those years we have undertaken, I think, very serious and intensive efforts to try to contribute to a potential solution, and by we, I mean, particularly our French friends and the German government. Furthermore, something that should not be underestimated, has been trying to ensure that it doesn‘t have further repercussions, further negative consequences.

At the same time, there is a huge potential that our relations have and this is due to traditional closeness in many areas. Very well developed contacts in many areas have been put to good use. This is something that I look upon with satisfaction, not wanting to say that this was necessarily my own success or contribution, because this is something that so many people contribute to. I am speaking about spheres like cultural exchanges, youth exchanges, where figures have grown, scientific cooperation, where we have more agreements on cooperation than we had before, exchanges between civic societies, and many more fields.

And this matters in a situation, as I said, where there are certain complications - because it is the best way to nevertheless keep relations together and ensure that in future we can make use of this full potential.

Q.: What recommendations would you give to your successor to the position of German ambassador to Russia?

A.: If I were to make any recommendations, I would do it one on one.

But let me say something maybe more fundamental as an experience of 35 years in professional life as a diplomat which holds true for I think diplomats working in any country. I think you cannot do good work in another country if you are not only trying to understand - which is a necessity - but also try to develop sympathy, a positive attitude towards that country. If you are able to do that then I think you can work more successfully and also with more personal satisfaction.

Q.: In your opinion, have new possibilities for settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine emerged after the election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president? Moscow believes that there have been no visible changes in Kyiv‘s position on this issue. How do you assess prospects of holding another summit meeting in the Normandy format?

A.: With an impressive vote, in free and democratic elections, the Ukrainian people voted for a new direction in politics and a new president was elected. I would assume this was a fundamental vote on many aspects of politics. That of course did give us hope that a new start would be possible. And we had hoped that this situation would be used by everybody for such a new start.

We do regret that this wasn‘t used by everybody as we would have wished for. I think it would have been useful, if positive gestures that are useful would have been made towards the newly elected president, to the country. Unfortunately just having been elected, he was confronted with a challenging situation, the announcement that Russian passports would be issued to Ukrainian citizens, which immediately he had to deal with.

Nevertheless, we will explore, we already do, all possibilities of how we can potentially resolve this conflict.

And I continue to be convinced that given good will on all sides it is possible. I think good proposals are on the table.

Just as we speak now it became known that there was a withdrawal in Stanitsya Luhanska in Donbass, which would be a step towards the direction that we have agreed upon.

I don‘t want to judge on that because I have just only received the news, but nevertheless we will work hard for what we have agreed upon to try to be implemented. We therefore, are also ready to do on whatever level is deemed to be useful to advance such a solution.

We have continuously had contacts on the working level, a meeting on the level of political advisors of the heads of state or government is envisaged, and if need be I wouldn‘t exclude on higher levels such contacts and meetings could be organized.

Q.: Economic cooperation between Germany and Russia has been damaged after the political atmosphere deteriorated and sanctions were introduced. Nevertheless, it has remained an important factor of interaction amidst a rather unoptimistic political agenda. Is Germany going to actively develop this aspect of relations? Could sanctions that Berlin may face on behalf of the United States influence Germany‘s position on the key project, Nord Stream 2?

A.: Let me start by saying that the sanctions were not something we thought up out of the blue, but a reaction to what politically happened then. In retrospect, we furthermore see, that the downturn in trade turnover between our countries in 2014 following was not so much the effect of political tensions or of other actions taken - but as we can assess today it was rather due to, as Russian economic experts put it, certain structural challenges of the Russian economy. This is demonstrated by the fact that the downturn was very similar after 2014 also with such partners with whom these political tensions maybe were not running so high. This overall effect was also reflected in the recession of the Russian economy.

Russia has successfully overcome it and Russian macroeconomic factors are very positive. As an effect, our economic relations have improved substantially. Trade has been growing, and 2018 saw the highest figure in new German investments into Russia for many, many years. In 2018 we had 3.8 billion euro direct German investments in the Russian economy. The bilateral trade turnover was 59.6 billion euro. This is yet another bridge - I already spoke of others, culture and science, civic society, etc. - which links our two countries, and it links them very closely. I appreciate very much the feedback I get from businesspeople, on both sides, that they continue to appreciate highly the specific cooperation they maintain one with the other, saying, we understand each other easily, we have trust in each other. This is not forgetting that specific technical and other challenges to investments into Russia continue to be there. That is something we discuss also with our partners in the Russian government.

On your second question: I think, it is not leading us anyway to speculate about hypothetical constellations, situations, decisions taken elsewhere in the future. As for the present situation, the position of my government remains unchanged: Nord Stream 2 – in which companies from several Western European countries are involved - as all other projects of energy supply are undertakings of economic nature. We, Europeans, have decided that the energy supply to our countries is a business matter; it is organized by companies whatever source of energy is being used and wherever it comes from. Nevertheless, Nord Stream 2 of course takes place under specific political circumstances which should be taken into consideration.

One of the concerns voiced in this context, was that the transit of gas through Ukraine, which has been existing so far, could be closed down. Therefore we have raised that issue also in discussions with Russian partners.

And we are happy to see that a trilateral format has come into existence in which the specific issue is being discussed of how a future transit of gas through Ukraine could be safeguarded. Participants in that trilateral format are Ukraine, Russia plus respective companies in these countries and the European Commission. We try to make sure that this will be organized in a successful manner and that those concerns that have been raised in the context of Nord Stream 2 are addressed.

Q.: You have been German ambassador to Russia for five years. What is your attitude to Russia? Has it changed in the light of political circumstances? And since you have spent the major part of your mission in Moscow, how do you view changes that have taken place there in recent years? What do you like? Is there anything you dislike?

A.: What greatly helped me, when I came here, was that I fundamentally had a positive attitude towards Russia. This may have to do with the fact that I have family roots in old Russia. And also in difficult times of the Cold War when I grew up, a difference was made between political differences with a country and its people or culture.

So I always had great sympathy for the Russian culture, for the Russian people, for the beauty of the Russian language and a great respect for Russia‘s difficult history in which Germany has played a big role.

All that accompanied me when I came here. If it has changed - then in the sense that it has deepened. Contributed to this has the fact, that my wife, who had not been to Russia before and who didn‘t speak Russian, has taken the same liking in Russia. We have extensively travelled the country and grew very fond of Russia. Therefore, we feel a certain sadness that we leave.

As for Moscow, it is a great city to live in, all challenges of all great cities in terms of noise and light and rapidity of life and everything that there is aside. Moscow has changed over the years we have been here. Great impact have made the preparations for the World Cup in soccer which was a huge success, the way it was organized. It therefore it is a city we very much like to live in.

What do we like and what do we dislike? This is more broadly about Russia: I continue to appreciate wonderful Russian culture, and meeting with Russian people. We have also tried to do so when we travelled the country and it was not necessarily known that we have an official position. Then it was great to meet people. We appreciated that.

If there is something I dislike? Что за последние 5 лет у меня не было достаточно времени, чтобы учить лучше великолепный русский язык (говорит по-русски - ИФ).

Q.: So has your attitude towards Russia changed over the past five years?

A.: Like I said, if it has changed then only in that sense that the positive attitude has been deepened, all political differences that we may have set aside. And hopefully, I know Russia somewhat better than I did before.


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