29th Mar 2023


The end of unrealism

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I have been working for the past 20 years to support democracies around the world. Last Thursday (24 February) it felt as though a blister had burst.

A blister that had formed not over weeks, but over more than a decade. And the content of the ugly liquid pouring out of the blister? Political extremism, nationalism, authoritarianism, corruption and greed.

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  • 'While all democracies trade with dictatorships, Germany did so with one of the most dangerous for European security'

Russia´s assault on Ukraine was a powerful reminder to the world, that democracy is the best form of government, imperfect as it is.

No democratic government with checks and balances could have dreamed up the atrocity that is now being visited upon Ukraine.

What happened on 24 February was not due to Nato or anything the West has done. Sure, mistakes have been made and much could have been done differently.

But thinking that Putin is just a product of the West's actions is a form of imperialist thinking: He is not a puppet on strings that moves this or that way, depending on what the West does.

No, Putin always had agency. He was a KGB agent shocked by the fall of the Soviet Union, and who enriched himself in the Russian privatisation Wild West bonanza of the 1990s.

First, Grozny

His first act as president? Destroying the city of Grozny. He ended the dysfunctional and chaotic pluralism of the Russian 1990s — to create an authoritarian regime.

His two decades in power are littered with opportunities to build a constructive relationship with Ukraine that would have taken account of Russian security interests. He did not take them, because he lives in a one-dimensional world, the dimension of coercive power, in which the only options are dominance or submission.

But 24 February goes far beyond Vladimir Putin.

The blister that burst has been developing around the world for more than a decade. The disdain for rules at home or abroad. The lack of checks and balances. The blurring of lines between democratic opinions and extremism. The silent violence of political repression.

And Putin burst another bubble on 24 February.

The pervasive delusions of Western democracies. Delusion is not ignorance. Many are now saying that "Putin has dropped his mask." However, the mask was never firmly attached to his face. We saw his true face in Grozny, in Aleppo, in Crimea, in the Donbass, in the poisoning and killing of dissidents and in the suppression of protests.

All this was known.

For far too long many people thought these issues were concerns for human rights groups and democracy organisations, but not for them. That they could be addressed by human rights departments in government ministries, but not affect our core security interests.

German blindness

Nowhere was this lack of realism more visible than in Germany. With our left hand we philanthropically funded conflict-prevention and human rights work, learning from our history. With our right hand, we allowed business to feed a dictator's war machine. And the right hand was a lot more generous than the left.

And while all democracies trade with dictatorships, Germany did so with one of the most dangerous for European security.

We could have opened our eyes to reality in 2008 when Putin invaded a part of Georgia. We could have woken up when he destroyed Aleppo and Homs. We could have stirred when he occupied Crimea. We did not.

Most German decision-makers, and the broader public, preferred not to notice. Thinking that smart diplomacy had frozen the Donbass conflict and now one could get back to business.

The Minsk agreement would have been useful only for one thing: to prepare better for the Russian war against Ukraine that was bound to continue.

Last year Putin published a text on Russia that was a declaration of war, thinly-camouflaged as a historic essay. We discussed it in academic circles, but the world barely took note.

We think we learned from our history — but didn´t Adolf Hitler write everything down in Mein Kampf? Did we not care what a nuclear-armed dictator in our neighborhood was writing? Dictators don't write fiction, so you better take them seriously.

So, what is this crisis doing to us in the EU?

Within a day Putin has given us a renewed sense of mission, drawing us back to the original vision, born in the aftermath the Second World War. We want Europe to be based on rules, conflicts to be resolved in negotiations, and borders to be left in place. That is the European order.

The European order also has a strong internal dimension. It is built on democracy and the rule of law.

There is a big risk that we will now repeat the mistake of wilful ignorance.

What of Poland and Hungary?

Poland, together with other Eastern members, has taken an impressive leadership role in this crisis.

The Polish government is a key player and should be supported as much as possible. But this should not become an argument to go softer on the Polish government´s long-running destruction of its judiciary and undermining of its democracy. On the contrary.

There is a way to deal with this situation, by adapting an old adage of Yitzhak Rabin: The rule of law crisis should be fought as if there is no Russia, and Russia should be fought as if there is no rule of law crisis.

Concretely, the EU should work with the Poland closely on Russia but be even tougher on the rule of law crisis. The Polish government should stop dividing its own people, stop spending its political energy on prosecuting judges and subjugating the judicial system. Nobody needs that now.

As for Hungary, it is clear that Victor Orban and his Fidesz party have been on the wrong side of history on every possible issue.

Framing Brussels as the oppressor while praising Russia as the future. Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which can be activated in cases of serious problems with democracy and the rule of law in a member state, should have been activated a long time ago.

They should do so now and strip the Hungarian government of its voting powers in the European Council.

We are facing a hard political reality. We need to stop wishing it away and, instead, see how we can best stick to values and principles. The opposite of realism is not idealism. The opposite of realism is not seeing the world as it is.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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