At the end of May, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office labeled three German NGOs “undesirable organizations.” It included the Berlin-based Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod).
“This is also aimed at the German government because it has financed our previous cooperation projects with Russian partners,” said Ralf Fücks, co-founder of the independent think tank. He spoke to DW about Moscow’s thinking and the ramifications of the ban for the bilateral research project “Climate Change and Russia’s Economic Modernization.”
DW: Why did the Kremlin ban the Center for Liberal Modernism? Was it revenge for the rejection of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream-2? Was LibMod punished for scientific studies that are supposed to prove that Russia’s current business model has no future because it is based on fossil fuels?
Ralf Fücks: Those reasons certainly played a role, but there were other factors as well. The Center for Liberal Modernity is a very noticeably critical voice in the German debate on Russia, which is about whether cooperation with the Kremlin should continue at all costs or whether we have to defend principles and values when they are violated by Russian policy. This decision is also part of an overall hardening of German-Russian relations, something that became apparent, most recently, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstratively took the side of Alexei Navalny after he was poisoned and refused to accept the Russian narrative that the [Russian secret service] FSB had nothing to do with it. Since then, there has been a sense that the tone has changed, that the Kremlin may no longer be banking on a special German-Russian relationship but is more confrontational.
The poisoning of Alexei Navalny led to a hardening of Russia-Germany ties
However, probably no other German NGO has focused as intensively on the Russian economy and specifically the Russian fossil energy sector as LibMod. In the last six months, five studies on this topic have been published on your website. Why is a Berlin-based NGO so interested in the Russian energy industry?
For our institute, and for me personally, environmental issues play a central role. I have been involved in environmental politics for more than 30 years. Climate change is arguably the key global challenge today, and Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fossil fuels if you take oil, natural gas and coal together. As a result, Russia continues to fuel climate change. It also generates high greenhouse gas emissions at home — it is responsible for about 5% of global CO2 emissions.
In my former capacity as a board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I also worked for many years with environmental initiatives and institutes in Russia. In this respect, it was only logical for us to deal intensively with this topic. From the outset, we took a constructive approach. Our aim was not to put Russia in the dock but to point to alternatives to the current economic model, which is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and to develop scenarios for its successful ecological modernization.
But in Russia, even the intellectual elite is skeptical about decarbonizing the economy, as shown by a study published in May by the Russian opinion research institute Levada Center on behalf of LibMod.
There is obviously a clear discrepancy between international and Russian climate policy discussions. There are still significantly more skeptical voices in Russia, including those who simply deny scientific findings or brand them as a malicious plot against Russia’s economic interests. But I am sure that even Russia will not be able to close its eyes to climate policy insights and consequences in the long run. The country itself will be massively affected by climate change. Just think of the thawing of the permafrost, increasing drought periods in the southern regions of Russia or the gigantic forest fires.
LibMod was planning in June to launch a series of at least six studies with Russian experts on various aspects of Russia’s economic and ecological modernization. What will become of this project now?
We cannot continue this project because any cooperation with LibMod would be a criminal offense for Russian citizens. If Moscow declares us an undesirable foreign organization and, in effect, makes it impossible for us to cooperate with long-standing friends and partners in Russia, then this is also aimed at the German government because it has financed these cooperation projects.
Ralf Fücks co-founded the Center for Liberal Modernity along with his wife, Marieluise Beck
Will LibMod withdraw from issues in Russia and possibly focus on other post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine?
We are very involved in Ukraine already. We see the country as a testing ground for the democratic transformation of post-Soviet societies. But we will certainly not turn our backs on Russia but will focus more on analyses on Russia and on the debate around an appropriate Russia policy for the West. We are not saying goodbye to international expert networks.
Ralf Fücks heads the Center for Liberal Modernity in Berlin, which he founded with his wife, Marieluise Beck, in 2017. Before that, both were among the leading figures in Germany’s Green Party for several decades. LibMod sees itself as an independent and cross-party think tank.
The interview was conducted by Andrey Gurkov and has been translated from German.