ISSUE 3-2018
Валентина Люля
Guy Verhofstadt Федор Егоров Олеся Грабова
Роман Темников
Jiří Maňák
Petr Labut

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Guy Verhofstadt | Politician, Belgium | Issue 3, 2018
On October 9th and 10th Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom organized in the premises of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic in Prague third Boris Nemtsov Forum. Key note speech was delivered by Guy Verhofstadt, President of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament, former Prime Minister of Belgium and author of visionary book Europe's Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union.
Mr. Verhofstadt presented in his speech a number of interesting ideas dealing with relationship between European Union and Russia and therefore we asked him for permission to publish his speech in our journal.

Dear Zhanna,

Dear Friends,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

thank you, Deputy Minister, for your introduction and for hosting this year’s Boris Nemtsov Forum in these beautiful premises of the Ministry.

This is an important signal about the support of the Czech government for the Russian civil society and for a vision of Russia, which Boris Nemtsov fought for: a Russia, which respects the human rights of everyone. A Russia whose government is accountable to the people.

And a Russia which is at peace with its neighbours.

I appreciate the Czech diplomacy. It has a strong tradition on human rights. It has the experience to transform a totalitarian system into a democratic state, encouraging similar experience across Eastern Europe, Central Asia and worldwide. Beyond the prosperity you have achieved, your economic successes, your Skoda cars driving across many continents: You carry the legacy of Vatslav Havel, and a realistic view on Russia - this is what distinguishes you across Europe. And I very much hope your new minister will take up this tradition again.

Coming back to Boris Nemtsov and his vision of Russia: I had the pleasure and honour to know Boris Nemtsov for a few years. We cooperated when he drummed up liberal forces against the growing authoritarian tendencies of Vladimir Putin. It was under Boris Nemtsov’s leadership that the Russian democratic opposition joined the family of European liberals, the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe.

And, I am said to say, but in my memory Prague will always carry a stain, as it was here in Prague that I learnt in February 2015 about Boris’ despicable murder.

Sadly, instead of embracing Boris vision of a European, prosperous and democratic Russia, the country steered by Vladimir Putin continues to depart from its European roots - and you know that things are sadly getting worse.

Several of the guests present here today tried to run for the Duma last year and the local elections this year - but could not, as there is no space for free and fair elections in Putin’s Russia.

Many of you present here have a personal experience with getting labelled as foreign agents because of your work, or put under pressure by law enforcement and tax authorities because of your public engagement or even thrown into jail for expressing criticism or participating in demonstrations.

Journalists and opposition activists risk the safety of their families, their personal health and even their life as they fight for democratic accountability of the Putin regime. A regime that enriches a narrow circle of Putin’s friends and impoverishes the broad society, with bad public services and one of the lowest life expectancy across Europe.

And the picture is not better when we look at peace and stability in and around Europe. We have seen a decade of violations of borders, military invasions, attacks against national sovereignty and respected international organisations:

  • Georgia in 2008.
  • Ukraine in 2014. A continuous war in the East of that country with over 10 thousand people koled. The shooting down of MH17.
  • In 2016, massive disinformation efforts in the Brexit referendum.
  • Interference into the US Presidential elections.
  • Cyberattacks against several western institutions, including the German Bundestag and this House, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • The Skripal poisoning. What was nothing else than an attack with chemical weapons on EU territory.
  • And recently the uncovered GRU-operations against international agencies like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The list is long. And the question is: what is and should be the European answer?

In 2014, the EU Member States responded to the war in Ukraine with an unprecedented unity. They imposed economic sanctions as a clear signal that the EU 28 will not look away if Russia uses military force against a neighbouring country. These sanctions continue to be important: they stopped the Russian military offensive and continue to have a deterrent effect.

Since then Member States have coordinated their verbal reactions and have expulsed Russian agents from their territories.

Here, however, the joint EU strategy ends.While formal relations between the EU and Russia are frozen and summits are not taking place, many EU Member States continue to engage in bilateral relations with Moscow and this with a different degree of intensity, as if nothing has happened.

It is clear that we lack a global strategy towards Russia. Sanctions alone are not enough. In such a global strategy we first need to recognise the extent of the challenge in front of us. Let’s not be naive. The targeted use of all  possible hybrid means, the implementation of the so-called Gerassimov doctrine, the disinformation and cyber attacks against our democracies - all of this has one clear goal: to weaken the international system, especially to undermine the unity of the West. Moreover, the sole objective is to disrupt the European Union, to weaken our collective power. As in fact the Kremlin is afraid that Russian citizens could see the Union as an example in their fight for another Russia. A Russia with an accountable government. A Russia that abides by the international law. A Russia that puts an end to Putin’s system of capitalism for friends.

The first victim of the Kremlin was Georgia, as it wanted to join the NATO. The second victim was Ukraine as it opted for an Association Agreement with the EU and started to demonstrate that democracy and good governance in a Russian-speaking country are possible.

The third target were the UK and the US, the traditional enemies. Finally, the global attack against all our European societies. Disinformation campaign and support for dubious pro-Kremlin figures and parties are in full swing today - here in the Czech Republic, in France, in Germany, across the whole European continent.

We must not let this happen.

Our counter-strategy needs to be built on 3 pillars:

I. Strengthening the EU, protecting our institutions

We need to make sure that Russia cannot steal the 2019 European Parliament elections as it stole the US Presidential elections in 2016. Therefore, we must make social media accountable for what they share and prevent bots from misusing them.

More in general, we need to strengthen our capacities in short-term debunking of disinformation and our long-term resilience. I know that the Czech diplomacy is among the leading Member States supporting the "East Strat Com Task Force" in Brussels and I applaud your efforts.

But we must also strengthen our cyber defence capabilities. We must urgently complete our energy union. Step up our fight against money laundering. And finally also build an integrated European Defence Community as the European Pillar of NATO.

II. Secondly, we need to develop a pro-active strategy of engagement with the Kremlin. That means two things.

First, to use all available tools to increase the costs for those who violate agreed principles and arrangements. More concretely it is necessary to impose more sanctions, especially personally targeted sanctions, against those people in the Russian government and Russian business community who violate or profit from violations of international law or who pursue attacks against our institutions.

Already in 2014 the European Parliament recommended to the Council to introduce so called Magnitsky sanctions - in other words, personally targeted visa bans and asset freezes against high-ranking individuals involved. And this without broader economic repercussions for the  ordinary Russian citizens. A few Member States have followed these recommendations. But sadly, the Council as a whole did not act.

Unfortunately, people that violate Russian and international law continue to bring their family and money into the Union giving them the safety that our rule of law guarantees.

In paralell to these more restrictive measures we should outline abroader and deeper type of political and economic cooperation with Russia. This would be at the condition that the Kremlin stops its dirty games and starts to abide by the international law, including its human rights obligations. And also works to defreeze the so-called frozen conflicts in Europe.

This political and economic cooperation could include a plan to negotiate a free-trade agreement, open-up investment opportunities, financial assistance and also deeper ties across several sectors, including digital, research and transport.

Let me call it a strategy of “conditional re-engagement”. A process that could start after confidence building measures have been taken - more precisely the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and the start of a serious dialogue between the US and Russia about nuclear arms control.

III. Last but not least, and independent from the progress with the Kremlin, we must urgently upgrade our engagement with the Russian civil society.

We must unilaterally facilitate visas for Russian citizens. We must open our universities and research centers, increase the number of scholarships, and must directly support civil society across Russia, including the plurality of the Russian speaking media.

The Boris Nemtsov Forum has been making a critical contribution to this dialogue between European and Russian citizens, fostering relationships and trying to develop answers to current challenges. It is a great idea to move the forum to different European cities every year - and I hope you will be able to extend your work to Russian cities one day again.

In order to make this happen, we need the EU to remain united and to pursue a pro-active strategy, as I just outlined. Gain the support of the Russian people, win the communication battle in spite of massive disinformation. Be firm, impose clear costs for irresponsible behaviour, but engage the Russian government conditionally. This is the way to turn the currently negative, dangerous tendencies into a positive dynamic in the EU-Russia relationship and to put peace and security in Europe back on the agenda. We have the responsibility to do it now.

I wish you fruitful discussions.

Thank you for your attention.

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