Is Germany hardly interested in Russia and Eastern Europe?

Since February 24, the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the eyes of the world have been on Eastern Europe. Since then, week after week on talk shows, experts have been explaining how the war arose and how things would continue in Russia and Ukraine.

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German experience in Russia and Eastern Europe looks great, and the bare numbers show the opposite: in 2020, there were only six university professors in political science with a clear Eastern European determination. This is illustrated by an assessment by scientists Alexander Lippmann and Niklas Platzer. Accordingly, things do not look better in any other subjects: in economics, cultural studies and linguistics, the number of professors in Eastern Europe decreased between 2011 and 2020.

Volker Wichtsell is a political scientist and editor of the journal “Osteuropa” published by the German Association for Eastern European Studies, the largest German-speaking scholarly organization in the region. He sees a serious crisis of East European experts in Germany. But where does the lack of experts dealing with Russia and Eastern Europe come from?

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Society is not interested

Weichsel lists a whole host of reasons, but first of all it has nothing to do with science itself: “German society is hardly interested in Russia and Eastern Europe. If the Germans do not deal with these countries, it makes it very difficult for science. “

Thus, there is a shortage of young people in universities, and at the same time jobs are cut off, which in turn leads to poor career prospects. A vicious cycle, according to Witchell. And he sees another reason in the general scientific trend: “In the time of globalization, country studies were considered outdated.” The number of professorships continued to decline. Witchell also points out that a professorship that says “Eastern Europe” does not always include Eastern Europe. “Even the proven Eastern European experts could or just wanted to devote themselves to such positions in the region on the sidelines.”

This development is also reflected outside universities: until 2000, the Federal Institute for Eastern European and International Studies (BIOst), as the federal authority under the Ministry of the Interior, conducted research in the Eastern European region and Russia in order to inform and advise the Federal Government and the Bundestag. Then it was resolved without replacement. After settlement, about a third of the more than 100 scientists continued their work at another consulting organization: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). Weichsel certifies that the institution has “excellent experience in Eastern Europe and Russia” – but there is simply not enough to cover all aspects.

The “fear of knowledge” and the established routine

When experts advise on issues of Eastern Europe and Russia, this must also be heard in politics. Andreas Heinemann-Grueder has researched post-Soviet space for more than three decades, has personally advised government institutions and is a senior researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). In an interview with the RND, he diagnosed a “real fear of knowing” in German foreign policy.

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Since the 1960s, the role of bridge building has evolved in Germany. When science conducted research on war scenarios, there were concerns that these might become self-fulfilling prophecies. Politicians did not want to talk about the war, as this would call into question the role model and the routines behind it. Finland, South Korea, and Canada are leading by miles.

Expression of unprofessionalism

Heinemann Göder suspects that this also led to a miscalculation of German foreign policy just before the war in Ukraine. Nine days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Schultz welcomed the alleged withdrawal of Russian forces after talks with President Vladimir Putin. He refuses to describe the situation as “hopeless”. Even SPD leader Saskia Eskin was tempted Tweet And she praised the “influential crisis diplomacy of the traffic light government.” The impending war seemed averted to many.

“The German intelligence services, whose assessments play a decisive role in assessing the situation in the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry, either do not have reliable sources or make false assumptions. This is an expression of a lack of professionalism,” says Heinemann Gröder about Schulz’s miscalculation. In addition, the latent hostility to America contributed to the fact that the warnings issued by the US intelligence services before the start of the war were dismissed as the rattling of swords.

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There is a lack of inside knowledge from experts, from Germany there was only remote diagnostics.

Andreas Heinemann Gröder,

Political scientist and senior researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC)

After Schultz was unable to prevent the war with his trip to Moscow, many expected Russia to win quickly. Heinemann-Grüder admits that there is nothing so speculative as to speculate on the course and outcome of wars. But the forecast was also miscalculated because much attention was paid to the nominal strength of the Russian army, but not to its structures and operational capabilities. “There is a lack of inside knowledge from experts, in fact there was only remote diagnosis from Germany.”

What does the new institute do?

Volker Wechsell explains that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, there was a will to expand Germany’s expertise in Eastern Europe and Russia. For example, the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) has been established, which is financially supported by the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, Weichsel and Heinemann-Grüder agree that ZOiS can currently only help to a limited extent in guiding it. “The focus of work there is not on difficult political issues, such as the performance and stability of the Russian economy, or the resources, strategies, and legitimacy of the military,” Witchell says. The approach is often more cultural – scientific, research projects on literature and identity, for example, have the task of setting long-term trends.

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Gwendolyn Sasse, Scientific Director of ZOiS, rejects this view in an interview with RND: “To me, hard and soft topics are not scientific categories. What is subtle about political situations and identities? Current developments demonstrate the importance of these topics.” ZOiS was intentionally interdisciplinary. Comparing it with other research institutions also offers something new, such as collecting empirical data on societies in Eastern Europe.SAS stresses that ZOiS does not provide direct policy advice like think tanks, but scientific communication.Both are important, but with their own approaches, their scholars can freely design their research program Larger.

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Weichsel points out an alternative proposal: “In Sweden, a different approach was taken when creating a center for Eastern Europe in 2021. The head of the center is a former diplomat, and his activities are more focused on political issues. Both approaches are justified, but also have consequences.” In terms of In principle, scientific research and practical application in the diplomatic corps are more separate in Germany than in many other countries.

War migration as an opportunity

Witchell wants to see Russia’s war against Ukraine and lack of experience as an opportunity: “A lot of people come to Germany from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine who had to leave their country because of political repression or because of the war. They are excellently trained, and they bring with them a lot of experience and new perspectives.” On the one hand, these are scholars, but on the other hand, they are also human rights activists or journalists familiar with the legal systems and landscape media of their countries of origin. “We have to quickly give these people residence permits and job opportunities with us,” Witchell demands.

The lack of funding is afloat at the moment.

Alina Ebivanova,

Researcher at the German Association for Foreign Relations (DGAP)

Alena Epifanova agrees to this request. The young scientist came to Germany from Russia eleven years ago, initially to learn the language. She is now doing research for the German Association for Foreign Relations (DGAP). Epifanova also believes that “the lack of support for Eastern European expertise is now on our feet.” There is a great need for experts from the same region. As Russia threatens to become a “black box” due to increased censorship, the number of unfiltered ratings is decreasing. In order to push all this forward, Ebivanova sees politics as having a duty: “It should no longer react only to crises and conflicts, but in the long run it should take care of the countries of the region.”

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