Ronald Pofalla, co-chair of the German-Russian forum of civil society organizations of the two countries “Petersburg Dialogue”, spoke in an interview with DW about why the decision was made to dissolve the forum next year, whether there are still prospects for dialogue with Russian civil society, as well as his impression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
DW: Mr. Pofalla, in my professional practice I have rarely seen such a short press release. It didn’t take seven lines to announce that the “Petersburg Dialogue” would end. Does this mean that the meeting in which the decision was made was equally short?
Ronald Pofalla: The general meeting of November 22, on the initiative of the board, has taken a decision with an overwhelming majority of votes after many hours of debate about the dissolution of the “Petersburg Dialogue”. This will happen at an extraordinary general meeting that will be held in the first quarter of 2023. And we have explained the reasons for this step. In view of Russia’s criminal war of aggression against Western democracies, we no longer consider this form of dialogue possible.
– What was discussed during the interview?
– Petersburg Dialogue has been around for more than 20 years. Over the years, very close, also personal relationships have developed between the German and Russian participants. And now tearing everything apart is of course a difficult step. But the long debate was worth it, because in the end more than 80 percent of the members were in favor of dissolving the Petersburg Dialogue. For charter reasons, this can only be formalized in the first quarter of 2023.
– But do you think 20 percent voted against? What were their arguments?
– I would like to focus on the reasons for the dissolution of the organization. The “Petersburg dialogue” had several foundations. There were funds from political parties that supported the “Petersburg Dialogue”. There were NGOs that supported the “Petersburg Dialogue”. The former have now all been forced to leave the Russian Federation and close their offices. NGO, at least some of them have been placed on Russia’s list of undesirable organizations in recent years, falsely labeled as “foreign agents”, and their employees have faced criminal charges in Russia. These are the main reasons, but they are not the only ones. And they make it clear that under the current political regime in Russia, the work of the Petersburg Dialogue, as originally planned, is no longer possible.
– There is an accusation that, at least in the public discussion, the “Petersburg Dialogue” on the German side was, let’s say, contaminated by Putinophiles. Is this right, or is it long gone?
– I have been chairman since 2015 and I can say that I have always very consistently considered all issues in all my negotiations with the Russian government, in the Kremlin and in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2015, I have been critical of the annexation of Crimea, which is in violation of international law, and of the annual conference of the “Petersburg Dialogue”. in 2015 in Potsdam, let’s say, ended almost ingloriously, because the Russian representatives, unable to resist my criticism, almost left the forum. And something similar happened in Moscow in 2016. During my time as chairman, I can say that the “Petersburg Dialogue” really considered all the issues that needed to be considered, including those that needed to be critically examined. I have also repeatedly, and in some cases successfully, spoken out in support of human rights defenders and persecution in Russia.
– I know that there are also people on the German side of the Petersburg Dialogue who say that contacts with Russian civil society should not be broken now. What do you say to that?
– I share this point of view. But one has nothing to do with the other. We need to think and find new forms of cooperation. Petersburg Dialogue, as it was founded more than 20 years ago, had three pillars. Political foundations, NGOs, and he found a format for, say, close dialogue at the government level. Parallel German-Russian government consultations have been held for many years within the framework of our organization’s annual conference. But after the annexation of Crimea, the political part disappeared and NGOs in Russia came under sanctions. After which we suspended work. And then the war began, which finally decided the fate of the “Petersburg Dialogue”. The inevitable consequence of this is that we must try now maintain a dialogue with Russian civil society through other channels.
– Do you currently see opportunities for developing a dialogue with Russian civil society and how do you assess them?
– Political civil society in Russia is suppressed and is threatened. It is difficult to keep in touch with this part of Russian society. But there are certain information channels that are relatively safe and we use them.
In the social sphere in which civil society operates, you can maintain normal contacts, but outside the Petersburg Dialogue.
– I was told that you have been associated with Russia for a long time, since your student days. Is it true that you once hitchhiked through the Soviet Union with a backpack?
– Yes, of course. My father was a prisoner of war in Russia and told of his military experience when I was little. And then, when I was still a minor, my father and I went together for the first time to Moscow, and in later years also to those places where he was imprisoned in the camp as a German prisoner of war. First it was in Minsk. And then he was deported to Siberia. I was also there with my father. And then, while studying in the 1980s, I traveled the country for three months, visiting every corner of the former Soviet Union.
– If we compare the society as it was in the 1980s with today’s Russian society, what do you think happened?
– Frankly, it must be said that economic conditions today are better than in the 1980s. Moscow and St. Petersburg, two major centers, are comparable to the major cities of Western Europe. In rural areas, of course, it is different.
In Russia, the 1990s were a period marked by growing freedoms. But gradually all this was played back. Anything that leads to critical disagreement and what we would call pluralism is now suppressed in Russia. In this respect, Russia has become an authoritarian political regime.
– Is it necessary to understand that you also believe that this is a war of Putin, and not of Russian society?
– At least Putin gave the order and started this ruthless war. I am convinced, based on the conversations I continue to have with the Russians, that many people in Russia do not understand this war at all. Because from their point of view, these are actually two brotherly peoples at war with each other. In Russia and Ukraine, there are many mixed families, marriages between Russians and Ukrainians. So this war is tearing apart Russian society. One can only hope that the time will come in Russia when freedom of expression will be possible again.
– You were the head of the Chancellery under Chancellor Angela Merkel and traveled with her, including in Russia. You also met President Putin in person. What was your impression of him then?
– Well, in my opinion, Putin is a very rational president, contrary to how he is sometimes described in the media. In our opinion he is not rational, because otherwise he would never have started this war. But I find it absurd to believe that Putin started the war on emotions.. He planned everything and then started.
– Does this mean that you consider him a reasonable politician?
– He is not a reasonable politician because he started this war. I just tried to explain that he is a person who is not guided by emotions, but acts rationally, based on his understanding.
– Do you think Vladimir Putin is a partner with whom one can still enter into a dialogue?
– I think this war has clearly shown that Putin cannot ultimately be a negotiating partner for us. On what basis can negotiations now take place between our states? Even if people have completely different views, there is still an opportunity to talk to each other, but Putin has effectively destroyed all the bridges necessary for negotiations.