A woman despised by the Kremlin
An interview with Marieluise Beck, German politician and member of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska.
AGNIESZKA PIKULICKA-WILCZEWSKA: Some time ago, Der Spiegel called you “a woman despised by the Kremlin”. What is it like to have such a label?
MARIELUISE BECK: I think it’s a little unbalanced, because I would never claim that one single parliamentarian would be able to fight the Kremlin. I always try to introduce facts into our politics, such as in the German Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and I think what is most important is that we are aware of the huge disinformation campaign being carried out by Russia with a lot of money involved. From what I see, especially in Germany, many people struggle to understand this. Once in a while this disinformation campaign produces absolutely unbelievable stories, and we just fail to see that they simply cannot be true.
Can you give an example of such a story?
A very obvious example was when the Kremlin claimed that not a single Russian soldier was involved in taking over Crimea. The high-ranking advisory board of the German Public Broadcaster, ARD, said publicly that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea besides the troops that were already stationed there. We now know the end of the story: a few weeks later, President Vladimir Putin himself congratulated the brave Russian soldiers who managed to take over Crimea without one single shot being fired.
Do you think the Ukraine conflict has changed the view of the German elite on Russia?
Partially it has. However, I am always surprised how little of a debate we have in Germany about the fact that there is still a war going on in Europe. If you look at the reporting on German public television, we see news on Syria, Iraq and the refugee crisis, but almost no coverage of soldiers and civilians being killed every day in eastern Ukraine. So to a certain extent, it is absent from our public debate today while it was still quite present a few months ago.
What do you think about the fact that Gerhard Schroeder, with whom you used to work, has taken up the position of chairman on Nord Stream’s board?
Gerhard Schroeder, shortly after leaving office, was hired by a company and publicly represents that company’s interest. In some countries, that would not be possible according to the law. Or at least there would be a much more vibrant public debate about it.
How do you assess the changes that have taken place in Ukraine since the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution?
I think expectations in Ukraine as well as in western countries have been too high. Given that this is the second time the people of Ukraine have taken to the streets to fight against corruption and for the rule of law and functioning democratic institutions, we must remember that it takes a very long time to achieve such goals. At the moment, you can still see oligarchs trying to cling onto power. But there is a very vibrant civil society, and I think that after the relatively short time of two years we should not say that things have not changed. Instead, we should support everyone working in the media covering stories of corruption, the NGOs fighting corruption, and those within the parliament who are standing for pro-European rule of law.
There have been changes, and one of the most substantial ones has been the reform of the police force, which used to be an everyday obstacle to living freely in Ukraine. Police corruption was immense: they were trying to top up their low salaries by taking money from the people. This has obviously changed. Nowadays, there is a Rada with independent, pro-European parliamentarians. They are not the majority, but they exist. If you look at the last LGBT demonstration that was protected by around 6,000 police, you can see that things are improving. The problem is that Ukraine was already practically bankrupt under Viktor Yanukovych. There has been no modernisation of industry, in addition to a number of problems: the energy crisis and rise in fuel prices, which have been subsidised by the state to match the real costs, and of course the war, which affects Ukraine’s ability to build up the economy.
It is often claimed that the conflict in Ukraine and the migration crisis have resulted in a gradual return to geopolitics. Do you think that democratic values still have a role to play in politics today?
Of course they do. If we give up on the standards we have developed, we will lose the long and wonderful tradition of liberal democratic thinking. What you can see at the moment is that right-wing populist movements in particular seem to exploit the uncertainties people have to live with – especially those people who are not on the winning side of modern societies. You see this when Donald Trump in the United States tells white men that they can go back to a superior position in a seemingly patriotic society. Or when President Putin uses the Orthodox Church to fight freedom of sexual identity. Or when people in France fight multiculturalism alongside Marine Le Pen. All of these movements are fighting against modern life itself, which is becoming increasingly globalised and which means the freedom of the individual.
How do you see the future of the post-Soviet space? What is your biggest concern?
We are learning now that the destruction of civil societies that started with the Bolshevik revolution has been deeper than we have realised, which makes democratising these states very challenging. In the case of the former Soviet Union, there is no democratic experience to draw upon. The reforms that started in the 1990s in Russia have been accompanied by such turbulence that Putin managed to reinstall an authoritarian system, and for some time people thought it was good for them. At the moment nearly everything that has been achieved during the 1990s is disappearing; liberal thinking is disappearing, and we have Putin directing massive propaganda not only at the people of Russia, but at European societies as well.
Marieluise Beck is a member of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and a substitute member of the Committee on the affairs of the EU. She is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe.
*This interview has been conducted as a part of a series marking the 25th anniversary of the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighbourship, within the framework of “Neighbourhood with a view to the future” project.