Tuesday

16th Apr 2024

Column

The end of unrealism

Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • '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.

Disclaimer

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

Why Orbán won't really change his spots

Viktor Orbán will never admit in his upcoming election campaign that his Russia-policy over the past 12 years has been a huge, strategic mistake.

Fortress Europe should lower drawbridge — for all

Racist statements by European politicians have already shocked and hurt many, and they have reinforced perceptions of Europe as inherently wedded to bigoted, Eurocentric and Orientalist narratives.

Vladimir Putin – the man who just united Europe

We are witnessing the emergence of the EU as a military power. We see Finland and Sweden consider joining Nato. We see Germany increasing its defence spend. We see Hungary, long Putin's puppet-state in the EU, breaking with its master.

How Hungary's teachers are taking on Viktor Orban

Orban and his administration are pursuing a strategy of running-down public education in Hungary. They have been explicit in their aims and how their assault on 'non-Christian' teachers is a small price to pay for the cultural shift they want.

Column

What do we actually mean by EU 'competitiveness'?

Enrico Letta and Mario Draghi are coming up with reports on the EU's single market and competitiveness — but although 'competitiveness' has become a buzzword, there's no consensus on a definition for what it actually means.

Private fears of fairtrade activist for EU election campaign

I am not sleeping well, tossing and turning at night because I am obsessed about the EU election campaign, worried by geopolitical tensions, a far-right next parliament, and a backlash against the Green Deal, writes Sophie Aujean of Fairtrade International.

Column

What do we actually mean by EU 'competitiveness'?

Enrico Letta and Mario Draghi are coming up with reports on the EU's single market and competitiveness — but although 'competitiveness' has become a buzzword, there's no consensus on a definition for what it actually means.

Private fears of fairtrade activist for EU election campaign

I am not sleeping well, tossing and turning at night because I am obsessed about the EU election campaign, worried by geopolitical tensions, a far-right next parliament, and a backlash against the Green Deal, writes Sophie Aujean of Fairtrade International.

Latest News

  1. EU leaders mull ways to arrest bloc's economic decline
  2. Police ordered to end far-right 'Nat-Con' Brussels conference
  3. How Hungary's teachers are taking on Viktor Orban
  4. What do we actually mean by EU 'competitiveness'?
  5. New EU envoy Markus Pieper quits before taking up post
  6. EU puts Sudan war and famine-risk back in spotlight
  7. EU to blacklist Israeli settlers, after new sanctions on Hamas
  8. Private fears of fairtrade activist for EU election campaign

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us