Has Germany been Finlandised (and has Britain)?

Has Germany been Finlandised (and has Britain)?

21 December 2006

Has Germany been Finlandised (and has Britain)?

by Charles Grant

During the Cold War, Finland was a prosperous, liberal democracy. But its leaders felt unable to criticise the Soviet Union, particularly on questions of foreign policy. They were scared of what their big neighbour might do to them, especially since it had invaded them in the Second World War. People living further from the Soviet Union, in comfortable Western Europe, sneered about ‘Finlandisation’ – the inability of a small and relatively weak country to criticise a big and potentially hostile neighbour. But maybe the Finns were the best judge of how to handle the Soviets.

Under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, German foreign policy became very pro-Russian. Schröder is proud of his friendship with President Vladimir Putin, and has refused to criticise the roll-back of democratic freedoms in Russia during the past few years. Chancellor Angela Merkel, from the CDU party, takes a slightly different line: when she has met Putin, she has made a point of raising concerns over human rights in Russia. But overall German policy remains very pro-Russian. The SPD-controlled foreign ministry, in particular, is very reluctant to criticise Russia.

Germany has good reasons for wanting close relations with the Russian government. Much of its gas comes from Russia, which is also an important export market. Germany’s big businesses lobby hard, and effectively, to deter the government from becoming too critical of the Putin regime. And of course, given the Second World War, and the many millions of Germans and Russians who died fighting each other, there will always be a special relationship between these two countries. There are very many reasons why Germany and Russia should be friends, and co-operate together on dealing with a whole host of common problems.

But a strange event earlier this month suggests that the ‘Finlandisation’ of Germany may be going too far. Sabine Christiansen presents the most influential television programme in Germany, and has interviewed everybody from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair to George Bush. In one recent programme she interviewed half a dozen studio guests about the situation in Russia, in the light of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and other recent news. She had invited Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, and now a leader of the liberal opposition in Russia, to take part. Then the invitation was withdrawn at the last minute. The reason, according to the Financial Times of December 16th, was that the Russian ambassador to Germany said that he would not take part in the show if Kasparov was there. According to the FT piece, two people who work on the Sabine Christiansen programme confirmed the story. However, both the presenter herself and the Russian embassy in Berlin deny that Kasparov was cancelled because of Russian government pressure.

If the FT piece is true, it is alarming that an influential TV programme seems so unwilling to annoy the Russian government. But Germany may not be the only country to be have been Finlandised. Britain has not been so uncritical of events in Russia as has Germany. However, the British government is very nervous about what happens in Russia, mainly because of the massive investments made by Shell and BP. If British-Russian relations took a major turn for the worse – and with the Litvinenko affair, they have already deteriorated in recent months – the security of those investments would be called into question. That is why the British government has handled the Litvinenko affair with kid gloves. Ministers are loath to suggest that anyone linked to the Russian state could be involved in the murder of Litvinenko. They wish the affair would just go away.

Smaller EU countries tend to be more outspoken on human rights questions in places like Russia and China. It is easier for them to be outspoken, for they often have fewer commercial interests at stake. Foreign policy is inevitably a messy business, in which principles have to be balanced against the national interest. So if a government refrains from criticising malpractice in countries such as Russia or China, it may be understandable. But if a top television programme in a leading EU country tries to limit debate on a controversial current affairs topic, for fear of annoying a foreign government, it is surely unacceptable.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.