It was never what it was supposed to be: a discussion forum for civil society in Germany and Russia.

Now the Petersburg Dialogue has decided to dissolve.

"In view of the criminal war of aggression and the front line against western democracies, a dialogue in this format is no longer possible," the board said after a general meeting.

Markus Wehner

Political correspondent in Berlin.

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A minority of seven members spoke out against the dissolution, including Russia lobbyist Alexander Rahr and Kerstin Kaiser from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which is close to the Left Party.

But an overwhelming majority of members, more than 80 percent, voted in favor of the proposal from the board led by former Chancellor Ronald Pofalla.

In the first quarter of next year, an extraordinary general meeting is to officially decide on the dissolution.

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the “Petersburg Dialogue” in 2001 as part of their friendship initiation.

However, the institution suffered from a birth defect.

Both sides were able to determine their members and their own executive committee independently of one another.

On the Russian side there were only loyal supporters of the Putin regime, critics of the Kremlin or even members of the opposition were not admitted.

On the German side, pro-Kremlin politicians and representatives of the same kind from the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations initially dominated.

This was also due to the long-standing chairman on the German side, the CDU politician Lothar de Maizière.

The last prime minister of the GDR, whose spokeswoman was Angela Merkel at the time of reunification, was characterized by a particularly uncritical attitude towards the Kremlin.

He received the Russian Order of Friendship in 2010.

Criticism of the German leadership of the forum

Because of the annexation of Crimea and Russia's war in the Donbass, five foundations and associations that represented the civil society part of the dialogue on the German side declared in October 2014 in a letter to Chancellor Merkel (CDU) and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) that they would not attend further meetings of the dialogue.

On the Russian side, the Petersburg Dialogue was an event staged and controlled by the Kremlin right from the start.

The German leadership of the forum was also criticized.

It is dominated by people "who, for political and economic reasons, tend to view criticism of the course taken by the Russian leadership as a disruption to German-Russian friendship."

Criticism of human rights violations is demonized as "Cold War rhetoric".

Critics from civil society are only a tolerated minority, giving the event "the appearance of pluralism and open discussion".

At the time, the Russian side had issued an ultimatum for the dialogue to continue, and Steinmeier had argued that the thread of the talks should not be cut off.

After the protest, Merkel replaced Chairwoman de Maizière with her former head of the Chancellery, Pofalla.

Under him, the number of members critical of Putin's regime increased significantly.

Pofalla also campaigned several times for persecuted human rights activists in Russia.

However, it became even more difficult for the dialogue due to the further hardening of domestic politics under Putin.

In 2018, the Berlin-based European Platform for Democratic Elections, which was a member of the Petersburg Dialogue on the German side, was banned from Russia as an “undesirable foreign organization”.

At the end of May 2021, two other German organizations were affected: the Zentrum Liberale Moderne and the German-Russian Exchange.

Doris Schröder-Köpf on the board

The board of directors of the Petersburg Dialogue then decided to suspend all bilateral events and the meetings of the last ten working groups.

"It is absurd that such a format, with members handpicked by the Kremlin, could continue to exist after 2014, when Russia was already at war in Ukraine," said Russia expert Stefan Meister from the German Society for Foreign Relations (DGAP) of the FAZ

The Petersburg Dialogue was closely linked to the German-Russian Forum.

Both clubs shared a managing director for many years, the Russia lobbyist Martin Hoffmann.

Most recently, Matthias Platzeck, who also served on the board of the “Petersburg Dialogue”, chaired the forum.

He had always campaigned for the abolition of sanctions against Russia and called for the annexation of Crimea to be regulated under international law.

He resigned after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Pastor Petra Schwermann was elected as the new chairwoman.

The manager of the diaconal work of the Schwalm-Eder church district is largely unknown among Germans who know Russia.

However, Martin Hoffmann is still active as Executive Director.

Doris Schröder-Köpf, the former wife of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was also re-elected to the board of directors.