This year's Petersburg Dialogue in Wolfsburg and Hanover was as
ill-starred as in previous years. It seems as if there is an
unfortunate rule that the "Meeting of German and Russian Civilian
Societies," not an easy undertaking in the first place, will always be
overshadowed by current events: in 2006, for instance, Russian
journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered just before the Petersburg
Dialogue began. In 2008, the Russian-Georgian war led to a crisis in
German-Russian relations, and in 2009, human rights activist Natalia
Estemirova was killed in the North Caucasus.
This year's quarrels centered on the planned Quadriga award for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a saga that climaxed a day ahead of the Petersburg Dialogue with the cancellation of the award ceremony.
It's no wonder that the decision miffed official Russian representatives, in particular Deputy Prime Minister Victor Subkov - who is also the Russian head of the Petersburg Dialogue's executive committee - and Russian ambassador Vladimir Grinin.
They criticized what they saw as chaos on the board of the association that awards the Quadriga prize - and rightly so. But they also went on to declare that the scandal would not affect German-Russian ties. The message was clear: Moscow was annoyed, but Russia's foreign policies are driven by pragmatism and realism, and the scandal won't change that.
Disagreement on policies toward Russia
But the Quadriga saga has revealed something the Russian side is sure to have noted with some delight. Germany's political and intellectual classes are completely divided over how to perceive present-day Russia and what Germany's policies toward the country should be. This was noticeable ahead of the Petersburg Dialogue, and even more evident during its discussions and lectures.
One part of Germany's political leaders want a quiet, diplomatic, thoughtful dialogue with the Russian leadership, avoiding open conflict. They want to tone down criticism and work toward pragmatic goals, in line with Russia's desire to be accepted as it is. While the injustices in Russia aren't denied, they are compared with aberrations in France or Italy, and therefore qualified.
The side of Germany's intellectual community is also interested in good relations with Russia, but seeks more articulate criticism of the country's human rights abuses and flaws in its democratic system.
"The meek" versus "the Russia-bashers"
There have always been differing opinions in Germany's policies toward Russia, and of course that is the essence of a lively and free civilian society. But this division seems to have become deeper in recent years: there have been demands for structural reforms, further funding for the Petersburg Dialogue is called into question, and opponents are denounced as "the meek" or "the Russia-bashers" respectively.
This division is very harmful to Germany's interests in its relationship with Moscow: in a best-case scenario, the rift among Germany's leaders just turns into an embarrassing row, as with the Quadriga award.
But at worst, some Germans will give the impression that they are prepared to give democratic principles a lower priority - or call into question the Euro-Atlantic partnership for closer security ties with Russia. None of this can be in the interest of German policies, especially at a time when Germany is under pressure to pursue clearer policies in Europe.
Ingo Mannteufel is the Head of Russian and Eurasian Service at Deutsche Welle. Republished from Deutsche Welle with permission.