15. März 2015


We have not to talk a lot about Russia;
we have to speak with Russians

Mr. Gross! Official state-run media in Russia often give the floor to marginal European politicians who support Russia’s foreign policy. What is the real attitude towards Russia and its actions in Europe? How to distinguish true from false?

First I should say that the level of disinformation and manipulation efforts of the public spheres is everywhere extremely high. There is even a propaganda of war both in Europe and in Russia. So as my first point: I can only suggest to all citizens all over Europe, in the West as well as in the East, to inform themselves in the Internet from many Russian and non-Russian sources, from newspapers like The Guardian, Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, El Pais or La Repubblica and so on. You need to look for foreign information sources about Russia in order to come closer to the truth and the reality you cannot know directly from yourself ...

The second point is that Europe is not united and there are many different political positions. There are marginals, especially right-wing oriented people who support Mr. Putin because they always support authoritarian figures and authoritarian policy-styles.

The big majority of Europeans know that Putin made a big mistake in Ukraine. He undermined the general European political postwar consensus: You do not try to change borders by force anymore. Since the Second World War there were in Europe no examples of annexation-based territorial changes anymore. This is especially important due to the fact that Russia, Ukraine as well as almost all European countries belong to the same organization – the Council of Europe. The United States does not belong to the Council of Europe, so the USA has another kind of international obligations. But the respect of the sovereignty of the Ukraine, which has been signed and guaranteed in 1994 also as a price for non-nuclear status of the country was fundamentally violated. Putin has undermined the collective political consensus of 95 % of Europeans including Russians – a consensus, which was the lesson of the cruelties the Europeans did to each other in the first half of the 20th century.

By doing this, he destroyed all the trusts, which had been carefully built up since the end of the Cold War. Now many European countries are investing in the military budgets again, do not trust Russia a word and we cannot foresee the negative consequences of these mistakes. There is just no reason to justify this. You can only make peace when you respect common agreements. Disrespecting may have incredible consequences.

Europe is now divided in the sense what and how we should respond: In the same way as Putin, using military force, or by other possibilities which would nevertheless prevent a escalation of violence and a real and direct military confrontation? I am convinced that a military confrontation would be stupid because millions of Europeans would suffer from it and Russians the most. A Military logic is apocaliptic, irresponsable logic.

In the interview to the Voice of America in March you’ve said that you are against the potential exclusion of Russia from PACE because the consequences of this action will be very negative. But recently PACE suspended voting rights of Russian delegation. In your opinion, will it cause a complete rupture between Russia and European institutions?

This will be the big question for the future. I'm convinced that at the end of January the majority of the Parliamentary Assembly had made a mistake. The voting was very complicated and I am not sure that all of my colleagues were conscious of what they were doing. The majority in the Parliamentary Assembly effectively prevented PACE’s contribution to the finding of anon-military solution of the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine. We can simply say that the majority of the PACE took the organization out of the game. We are not a factor anymore to contribute to the prevention of the worst.

The problem is that we have lost the possibility of the dialogue. Whenever you are convinced that there’s no military solution, that there is only a civil solution and you know that every civil solution starts by talking, by discussing, by deliberations. And this is exactly why the Council of Europe is so important and so needed and so interesting. And without Russia’s full participation in the PACE we don’t have means to make an effective dialogue. So now, we are like the European Parliament, which speaks a lot about Russia but not with Russians.

I consider this a big mistake and I hope that it will not lead to Russia’s complete exit from the Council of Europe. Because as a result 140 millions of Russians will lose the justice which is secured by the Court for Human Rights in Strassburg, for many Russians very often the vector of the last hope. I'm convinced that Russia should not be excluded and I will contribute what I can in order to prevent this to happen. Russia needs Europe as much as Europe needs Russia; we cannot establish peace in Europe against Russia, we can only do this together with Russia when we include it in all our efforts, treaties and institutions.

Mr. Gross, you are a social democrat by affiliation. Russian ruling elite are centrist and conservative. Their opponents from the opposition mostly concentrate around right liberal platform. And in fact there is no effective moderate left-wing social oriented party in Russia. What is the reason of such a misbalance?

The point is that the Russian political system enormously lacks pluralism. There is no real separation of powers, the Parliament is not very autonomous and the freedom of the big Press and the TV not existing. The freedom to organize, to speak, to gather in assemblies in a way that you are really heard is very limited in Russia. All the parties in State Duma had to accept more or less Putin’s system.

There is a party «Just Russia» who would like to be social-democratic. At least they like to be close to the social democrats. However, I was observing all the elections in Russia in the last 15 years and I should say that all parties and politicians, who disagreed fundamentally with Putin's system, were excluded from the participation in the election. I do respect «Just Russia», but in order to be able to defend the social-democratic values they have to defend democracy in Russia better and more effectively.

Putin’s Russia did not accept yet a pluralistic spectrum of parties. And that’s why, for example, you don’t have liberal conservatives in the sense of the British, no radical-democrats in the sense of the Swiss, no liberals in the sense of the French in the Duma – although these people and such voters you would find in Russia. And that’s why the so-called left forces are very authoritarian, centralistic and state-capitalist dominated too. In addition, that is why the Communist party is the only so-called opposition although in fact it also supports the foreign policy of the Kremlin Basic critics of Putin were prevented to be candidates in the election. That’s always a mistake, because without real fundamental critics you do not learn enough yourself.

However, the real point is that you have to accept diversity and you have to accept disagreement because only when you have organized disagreement and organized opposition, you can learn not to make mistakes. The annexation of Crimea happened so easily, largely because too few people too easily made too big decisions too quickly without having real struggle with the opposition and with people who disagreed.

So the main reason is in the lack of pluralism?

The key of democracy building is the acceptance of a political diversity, in acceptance of all parties, which will disagree totally with governmental policy. For example, Yabloko, RPR Parnas and so on. And democracy has no chance without separation of powers especially the judiciary, a strong independent parliament, a free public TV and a respect for the freedom of speech, demonstration and organization. -- You can be right wing oriented, you can be left wing oriented, this is not so important. Important is that you should also be able to be a candidate with realistic chances as a party or as a single person even when you totally disagree with Mr. Putin.

Mr. Gross, you have just mentioned Yabloko. It is known that there is a social-democratic fraction inside it but the party itself remains mostly liberal. How close are social democracy and liberalism?

I am a social democrat but I am not against liberalism. For me social democracy is more than liberalism, but not less. Liberalism is respect of individual freedom with a limited role for the state and this is absolutely ok.

Are there real possibilities for social democratic forces in Russia to build the serious and effective political force?

The point is that when you have survived 70 years of communism and 15 years of Putinism, you have to be liberal. Because you need to strengthen and individual freedoms and the individual responsibilities as well as the mutual social responsibilities which have been totally neglected and underestimated. But there is an absolute potential to build an intelligent social democratic movement which contributes to overcome the authoritarian mono-party system, frees the society but also establishes legal benchmarks which allow the Russians to develop the mutual respect and the cooperation they need to modernize their country in the interest of each and all.

May be the reason is also in the fact that people who lived in the Soviet Union for decades consider «left» as something which is connected to Communism which fatally discredited social democratic ideals?

Absolutely. This is true. From the history we know that the Men’sheviks represented moderate social democratic movement in Russia before 1917. The notion left has been discrediting everything, which is on the left side. But this is a matter of social learning and discussing, which is never possible without the basic freedoms. And this is a phenomenon which you can see in the whole former communist Europe. In almost all Eastern European countries, social democrats are very weak because people associate them with the traditional, authoritarian communist left, which has been totally discredited.

Mr. Gross, politicians often use the term federalization when they talk about the future reintegration of the Donbass into the Ukraine. You are from Switzerland, which is known as the very rare existing example of confederative state …

First of all I should mention that Canada, USA, Mexico, India, South Africa and some other countries are also known as confederations. Confederation is a system where regions have the highest level of autonomy and the unity of the state is based on diversity and the societal diversity is protected. But the actual degree of autonomy is different in different confederations. Switzerland is unique in the sense that no other confederation gives so much autonomy to the subnational level. Federation unite diversity, centralism destroys it. But I think not only Ukraine needs since many years federalism in order to maintain its diversity – Russia needs this too!

But regarding the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine and recent Minsk peace agreements – what are your expectations about Ukraine’s future as a federal state?

Although the term federalization is correct, Mr. Putin’s discourse of federalization, which comes from Russian Federation (which in fact is not a federation but a very centralistic country), discredits the term federalism. -- True federalism does not mean the beginning of a separation. Federalism is the integration of diversity by giving a big level of autonomy to the parts. The biggest mistake of all the Ukrainian system between 1991 and 2014 was exactly that it was too centralized – just like Russia. And the Donbass (although some PMs and presidents of Ukraine came from this region) was feeling forgotten. Because they were communists, because they all were from the Soviet Union, the leaders of the independent Ukraine were not able to integrate diversity by decentralizing power and by respecting the Rule of law, a independent judiciary, a independent TV and a strong, non-oligarchic, but really representative parliament.

And this created the feeling that after the Revolution of 2014 the Donbass didn’t know what to do. There were also mistakes with the language law. When the central government tried to change it, the Donbass felt totally lost totally ignored and discriminated. After the first Ukrainian revolution in 2004, I said to the revolutionaries: «You have to accept the two languages as a kind of integration measure». But they didn’t want to do this. This is a big responsibility of former president Mr. Yushchenko and former PM Mrs. Timoshenko too. But the point is that today the trust is so much destroyed that even if Putin says the truth, nobody believes him. Nobody trusts him. That’s why we need another language; we need other people who will suggest good propositions. But it is clear that only by an intelligent decentralization of powers you can reintegrate the Donbass region. But I am not sure if the damage is already too big and if this is really still possible.

Some experts consider Minsk peace agreements as short-term ceasefire documents with minimum of effective political instruments. What do you think about the long-term political impact of these agreements?

We do not know this yet. I am convinced that those who made Minsk agreements did not had a military priority. But before the political solutions can take a grip, the hostilities should stop and the heavy weapons should be retired. But now (25 Feb) this is not happening. Since then the signs to encourage some hope, but we cannot be sure yet.

In order to be able to find a political decision, you need to stop all military struggles. And we are now in the face when this should happen and we see that the retirement of the heavy weapons is starting. I do not know the rebel forces good enough. It is possible that even Russian government has not enough power on rebel forces because, as I have already said, the damage to the whole Ukrainian regime was too serious? Nobody knows how much influence on the rebel forces Russia really has. But this is one of the things we should find out. This is what we've proposed in the Council of Europe – that Russian, Ukrainian people as well as Council of Europe parliamentarians – have to go together. We have to study the reality.

Mr. Gross, is there any chance for Russia to return to the European path? Will Russia return to the big European family? Nowadays Russia’s geopolitical rhetoric is based primarily on the so-called Eurasian fundament.

Yes, of course. But the point is that you don’t have to repeat the mistake that the EU made with Ukraine. That was the biggest mistake to suggest to Ukraine that it had to decide between east and west. You should never decide between your left leg and right leg. You need both. And Russia also needs both. But the point is that Putin was afraid that such a revolution could also happen in Moscow. And he was afraid of a more democratic Ukraine because it could be an example, a suggestion for Russia too. And he is afraid that he can’t keep his system.

But Russia should not be afraid of more democracy and more democracy means an integration of the diversity. Russia is a very diverse country. Russia is both East and West but it is definitely compatible with the European re-integration. Political diversity in Russia should at least be like its geographical diversity. I think Russia’s European choice is absolutely possible but the big question is whether Mr. Putin is ready to make this turn because then he should accept more real democracy, more real pluralism, more real diversity and more real decentralization in Russia. And this is the big question if he is ready to do this or if he is afraid because he could lose power. But there is no doubt that he should serve for the prosperity of his country, but not serve only to keep his power.

You talk about high-ranked politicians. And what about society – are Russian people really ready to be a part of Europe?

Absolutely. Russian people were much more part of the European culture than they perhaps has been aware. And the Russian people are ready to get more responsibility to do more for themselves. Proof of this are the events that took place 3 years ago. That was a people’s reaction on the privatization of power between Medvedev and Putin. But this is exactly what Putin and some people around him are afraid.

I think that there is a strong possibility and absolute potential for democratic changes in Russia. I sincerely hope that this will happen without violence because when it happens with violence, thousands of innocent people can become the victims of these changes.

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