This interview originally appeared in German in Die Welt: „Moskau will zeigen, dass alles käuflich ist“.
Migration researcher and rule of law expert Gerald Knaus calls for Russia to be expelled from the Council of Europe over Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment if the opposition leader is not released. In an interview, he explains what Europe must do in its dealings with Russia.
Gerald Knaus is best known as the “architect” of the refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey. However, the chairman of the Berlin think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI) has for years also been writing about deficits in the rule of law in Eastern Europe, for example in Poland and Hungary. For him, Russia is an extreme case of the departure from democratic values that can also be observed in other European countries. He calls for “drawing a red line” in dealing with Russia in order to stand up for the credibility of the European Convention on Human Rights’ values.
WELT: Mr Knaus, Russia has massed its troops on the Ukrainian border, put opposition activist Alexei Navalny in a penal colony, and denied him medical treatment. Washington has threatened Moscow with consequences, but Brussels and European capitals have contented themselves with admonitions. These excesses on their own doorstep seem to interest Europeans little. Why is that?
Gerald Knaus: The EU is divided. Some governments see Russian threats to their European neighbours as too unimportant to affect their own interests. So threats are played down, even the massing of troops to intimidate a neighbour. Other EU governments perceive themselves as powerless. This alleged powerlessness is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are responsible options for action, even now.
WELT: There are already EU sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine War. You suggest threatening Moscow with expulsion from the Council of Europe because of the Navalny affair. Do you think Putin will be impressed by that?
Knaus: The first priority is to try saving Navalny’s life. In addition, no other European has turned to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg as often as he has, 20 times in ten years. The court has also repeatedly condemned Russia, but the effect of these judgements has been damning. Moscow systematically ignored them. Those who think the Council of Europe is pointless may accept that. But those who believe in the idea behind the oldest human rights organisation in Europe cannot want it to become a European UN, where even North Korea remains a member, no matter how it behaves.
WELT: That seems to be Moscow’s view of things. Wouldn’t a possible expulsion be more than a symbolic step?
Knaus: First of all, the Council of Europe should now make clear that if Navalny is not released within days, as the Court demanded, Russia’s membership will be suspended. Yes, this is also about symbols like those that once inspired dissidents like Sakharov and Havel, who repeatedly pointed out the gap between the human rights rhetoric of their regimes and their reality.
That is precisely what Russia wants to prevent in the Council of Europe. Moscow wants to show that these values, to which one could appeal, do not exist at all, that everything is for sale. For example, the Russian state has paid Navalny around 120,000 euros in compensation after ECHR rulings, but has not changed its policy. So, as a state, can you buy your way out of constant violations of fundamental rights, up to and including the assassination attempt by the secret service last summer? Or is there any behaviour where the credibility of the Council of Europe, the Human Rights Court, and the values behind it are at stake?
WELT: You rightly said that Europe is divided in its relationship with Russia. How can you convince Russia-friendly countries like Hungary or Austria to become more critical with Moscow?
Knaus: The EU can and will always have economic relations with states like Russia, Egypt, or China, and cooperate on foreign policy where there are common interests. But the Council of Europe is about fundamental values, not economic relations. According to its statutes, it is a club of democracies that remember their human rights obligations. Why are we allowing this institution to be destroyed by authoritarian countries exerting illegitimate influence there? Little Azerbaijan is doing it, as the recent affair of some in the CDU shows. We have to protect our institutions, show that we take their rules seriously. Otherwise we show that we are ready to sell our souls.
WELT: What do you think should happen with Nord Stream 2? This often criticised project defended by Germany is the prime example of the separation of the economy and human rights.
Knaus: Months ago, I pleaded with members of the Bundestag to use the pipeline to put pressure on Russia in consultation with neighbours like Poland or the Baltic states. For example, to say that the almost completed pipeline will only be finished if Moscow is prepared to join the EU in pressing for new elections in Belarus. But perhaps it is already too late for that. However, the idea of simply continuing to build the pipeline in view of the Kremlin’s actions in Belarus and now in Ukraine, as if nothing had happened, is another fatal signal from Berlin.
WELT: Russia keeps complaining that they want to build the common European home from Lisbon to Vladivostok, only the Europeans are opposed to it. How credible are such accusations?
Knaus: Of course Russia is a European country. Italy under Mussolini, Spain under Franco were also European but they would not have been admitted to the Council of Europe. There are states in Europe today that suspend human rights, the rights of minorities, the political opposition, the right to demonstrate. In the 1950s, however, there was no question of fascist Spain or the GDR joining the Council of Europe. It was known that elections in a democracy could not be equated with elections in the Soviet Union. Today, Russia in particular is trying to blur these differences. A strong Council of Europe with its court would stand in the way. Even the Soviet Union could join today’s Council of Europe.
WELT: What needs to happen for relations between Russia and Europe to improve?
Gerald Knaus: The first prerequisite is that Russia renounces foreign policy aggression. To this end, we must never give up the hope that great dissidents like Andrei Sakharov had even in the Soviet Union: that their country too will one day respect the values of the 1950 Human Rights Convention. For this to happen, however, we must protect the Convention now.