Europeans have to define relations with Russia themselves
Ewald König is a political scientist, writer, journalist, and TV host who has been living and working in Germany since 1985. He has written several books (including one about Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel), is the Editor in Chief at korrespondenten.tv, and was a guest at the International Media Conference “It’s Time for Moscow” at the end of July. He shared his thoughts and impressions of the Russian Capital in an interview with Capital Ideas.
Mr. König, we’ve crossed paths in the GDR, in Bonn and Berlin, where you’ve been working for many years. Have you become totally German or have you remained Austrian, a real Vienna man?
Yes, our countries have changed a lot since we met. There is no Soviet Union anymore, Germany is no longer split up, and Austria is part of the European Union. When we met, I was Chair of the Association of Foreign Press in the Federal Republic of Germany (Verein der Ausländischen Presse in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland), which had 550 members from 60 countries. This was an especially interesting time for me, since I was the only correspondent accredited in both the FRG and GDR. I could see historical developments from both sides.
Of course, I don’t feel German, in spite of the fact that I’ve been observing Germans and their country for many years as a correspondent. I still feel like an Austrian, and specifically like a person from Vienna. But I also feel like a European who is disappointed by some developments in the European Union.
And now we meet in Moscow. Was this your first introduction to the Russian capital?
Yes, this was my first time, and it’s about time! I was really curious, because my perception of Moscow was rather grey and antiquated.
And what were your impressions? Is Moscow worth visiting?
I have to admit that my first impression was amazing. Of course, I know that first impressions aren’t everything. You might just see a facade, and not the problems behind it. This goes for other cities as well. I also realize that urban development in Moscow and the development of other places in Russia are vastly different things. And still, there was a lot that surprised me. I also talked to one Western diplomat who was familiar with Moscow at various other stages of development. He confirmed that Moscow has made incredible progress and can’t be compared with the past. Is Moscow worth visiting? Absolutely! It’s a shame that, unlike other destinations, it’s not included in urban tourist highlights.
Have you visited other Russian cities?
A few years ago, my only trip to Russia brought me to Saint Petersburg. There, I was also impressed by the impression this wonderful city makes on visitors.
What other places in Russia would you like to visit?
I have no plans in this regard. We’ll see. I would like to visit the place where my grandfather is buried. I don’t think I’ll be able to do it because I don’t know exactly where it is. My grandfather Adalbert Liener was a cooper in Drasenhofen, at the Austrian-Czech border. He had five small children when he was drafted as a soldier during WWII after refusing to join the local national socialist party. He was a prisoner of war in Russia for many years, and never came back. Times like these with so many millions of victims should never happen again!
Which cities in Austria, Germany, and the rest of the world would you compare Moscow to?
When I saw Moscow City with its glass tower and skyscrapers, when I looked over the entire city from the 360 degree platform on the 89th floor of the Federation Tower, it reminded me of Manhattan in a way. I was also recently on a business trip in Seoul, South Korea – a metropolitan area that’s huge like Moscow. There were a lot of comparisons to be made here in terms of the pace of development. Because you can see all the international brands in Moscow and hotels and restaurants meet the highest international standards, you often forget that you’re in a city that used to be part of the Eastern bloc.
A lot of cities right now are concerned with safety, and during my short stay in Moscow I felt safe. Moreover, like most visitors in Moscow, I really noticed how clean the city is.
And this reminds me of Berlin. Berlin draws people who come there in so much that the city, especially the city’s administration, is under too much pressure. If Moscow can implement even a fraction of all the Smart City plans that we were just introduced to, it will leave Berlin far behind. Berlin is a great city to live in, but not if you have to get an appointment at some kind of institution (get a date and time for a meeting with an official), or secure a spot in a kindergarten. In this sense, the city can be very frustrating. A city like Berlin, which has 3.6 million residents, and definitely Moscow, which is several times its size, need intelligent networks. Moscow may well move ahead faster than Berlin. I don’t think that Moscow’s Smart City presentation was a propaganda show for foreign journalists.
When I travel to a city, I always ask myself whether I could live or work there. And with respect to Moscow, I have to say: yes, I could imagine myself here. But, as a correspondent, you have to leave the capital, travel around the country a lot, and report about life there. I’m sure there are big differences between the city and rural areas.
Do Austrian and German newspapers, including KORRESPONDENTEN.TV, report about Russia? Which aspects of Russian life do they talk about and what kinds of topics do they prefer to cover?
Yes, of course there is a lot of information about Russia and Moscow, but for the most part this is related to the sanctions and the alleged Russian influence on the elections, the Ukraine crisis, and interventions in Syria – difficult topics. At the same time, I didn’t understand the coverage of the London attack with the Novichok nerve agent. The West was almost entirely convinced by British Prime Minister Theresa May that Russia should be considered guilty, in spite of the fact that there was no proof. This triggered the expulsion of a lot of Russian diplomats. And Germany, which usually insists on upholding the law, decided to join in. Fortunately, Austria didn’t succumb to British demands and didn’t follow the example set by the US. The fact that Russia also expelled a lot of Western diplomats was to be expected. Otherwise, Russia often plays a role in geopolitical reporting when US President Donald Trump posts tweets about Russia. I can well imagine how President Putin could not believe his luck during his meeting with President Trump in Helsinki, when Trump didn’t act according to plan.
Unfortunately, the Western press features overwhelmingly negative and critical pieces about Russia, although the World Cup changed this for the better. Have we finally reached an epiphany, or are we still far from hitting a turning point?
Unfortunately, we’re still far from reaching a turning point. We’ve hit a dead end. If you’re waiting for an epiphany, each side is waiting for the other side to have one, and that this will pull us out of the dead end. The West thinks that it has to support measures against Russia so long as the annexation of Crimea continues to be a problem in terms of international law, until something changes in eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense to expect that something will change. It’s a typical “frozen conflicts” case. But nobody knows how to drop the sanctions while saving face. Even if people in Moscow don’t notice, the sanctions are hurting Russia, and they’re also hurting the German economy. The German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Der Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft), which has many member companies that took a hit because of the sanctions, is looking for ways to separate trade from politics. But it still has to recognize the primacy of politics.
Relations between Russia and the West leave much to be desired. Do you and your colleagues feel the effects personally? Is it something that comes up in everyday life?
Personally, we haven’t noticed any changes in everyday life due to a downturn in our relations. But a lot of people who work in the economic sector are running into problems because of it: they can do some things, but not others. And where they can do something, they’re interested in ways to bypass specific bans and profit from these transactions.
I also got the impression that there are fewer and fewer Russia experts in the West. It seems that specializing in Russia is no longer a popular trend, and provides fewer opportunities for career growth. This makes producing reports on Russia less lucrative. Some Russia experts can quickly end up with reputations as “Putin sympathizers,” which means their opinions are no longer taken seriously. This also widens the rift between Europe and Russia. But at the same time, they’re neighbors! A flight from Berlin to Moscow isn’t even three hours long! US President Donald Trump’s policies also fuel this tension. The US is putting pressure on Europeans with respect to Russia. Regardless of how important transatlantic relations between Europe and the US are, Europeans have to define their relations with Russia themselves and avoid caving to pressure.
Something that I have a lot of empathy for is the impact on fellow journalists. On the one hand, there are those who are tasked with advocating for Russia in propaganda-oriented media channels, and those whose strange questions at government press conferences in Berlin leave me shaking my head. There are also colleagues who are appreciated for their work, for different reasons.
As we know, the majority German economy representatives have a negative view of the sanctions against Russia. What do journalists think of this?
Journalists also have different opinions. A lot of them are in favor of sticking to tough sanctions, some advocate gradual solutions in which each side retreats step by step, and only a few want to lift the sanctions completely. Overall, German media are consistent with the policies of the federal government. But I think that everybody is in fact pretty confused.
Experts often talk about the wide range of opportunities for doing business in Russia, about the many advantages for investors. Do you see good prospects for foreign companies in Russia?
I’m certain that there are plenty of opportunities that would benefit both sides in both production and sales. The energy sector is a special segment – the EU needs Russian gas and Russia needs European money for this gas. The tourist sector can be expanded as well.
In your opinion, will the Russian market continue to be attractive for foreign companies and investors?
I think so, yes. This will come back. We see that there is progress in terms of anti-corruption, and we’ve also seen that a lot of officials have learned English because of the World Cup and that a lot of signs were in English as well. This indicates that there is some level of openness. Eventually, everything has to stabilize. I’m hoping for this. And then things can only get better. I don’t want to think otherwise.