Values, what values? Backgrounds of the difficult value discourse with Russia

by Malte Clement


In the controversy between Russia and the European Union the discussion about values became more and more a central element over the years. Therefore, the Research Center for Eurasian Studies (EURAS), the Karl Renner Institute and the International Institute for Peace (IIP) organized, on the 24th of September 2018, a forum to exchange opinions on this matter. Moderated by Gerhard Marchl from the Karl-Renner Institut, the participants discussed whether the current conflict is a clash of values or rather a clash of interests and if there are generally applicable rights or a traditional self-reliance of Russian values.

Greg Yudin from the National Research University at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, opened the discussion with the argument that the subject of values became a topic just in recent years. While in the 1990s topcis like development, human rights and freedom were central in the political discourse, aspects of ‘traditional’ Russian values became more popular only recently and they are meant to emphasize the contradiction to the western liberal values. Mr. Yudin explained this swing to a religious and family orientated narrative in values under Vladimir Putin with the need of the Russian people for an individual and independent culture which is different from the West.

The other panelists, Anna Schor-Tschudnowskaja, from the Sigmund Freud University, Alexander Dubowy, from the EURAS, and Hannes Swoboda, from the IIP, largely agreed that the so-called Russian values are essentially constituted by a demarcation towards the so-called European Values and added further to the discussion that the conflict is not really one of values but more of diverging expectations, which different actors have had, since the attempt to integrate Russia into the Western community of states after the fall of the iron curtain. Indeed, value-based controversies were present at that time, for example with respect to the Chechen wars, but were ignored until the events in Crimea in 2014.


The expectation of European states was that Russia will adapt the western model and they interpreted the accession of Russia to the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights as affirmation of the western values. The process of rapprochement was expected to be long and slow but without any alternative and should bring Russia to the brink of complete inclusion. However,  should not really ever cross this line of for example an EU-Membership, because it’s a too big country and too complex in its population composition. Alexander Dubowy used the term ‘Great Poland’ for the European expectations. On the other side Russia expected a full integration in the Euro-Atlantic community and the right for co-determination and -creation, while claiming national sovereignty and respect for their security and economic interests.

This contradiction and the feeling of loss of control in the post-Soviet area by Russia, caused by the ongoing Chechen wars, the situation in Georgia,  the Orange Revolution in Ukraine etc. led to the tightening of rules in public spaces like voting, media and NGOs supported by claims of the Russian Orthodox Church to develop an alternative model of democracy and catalogue of human rights. At this point the panelists argued that the western community should have invoked legal concepts because statutory violations are well-defined unlike the violation of values and the community of the European states should be one bound by law not by values to prevent, for example state arbitrariness.

Here an argument was voiced that European governments took too little interest in Russian human rights activists who demanded help from the European community after restrictive legislation and right violations increased in 2006. Europeans should also be blamed not taking their own “values” too serious and putting economic interests, namely in gas, over the standard in human rights, therefore disguising their real interests. In this cause the panelists identified the lack of communication of political interests as one of the core problems. Russia and Europe have common economic interests and should therefore work together in this field, but this should be clearly articulated. A community of shared values is not what both parties should be looking for, because the understanding on both sides totally mismatch. An example is the Chinese – Russian rapprochement, which is based on mutual economic benefits and not on values.

At the same time, the discussion between Russia and the West should not only be concentrated on values as any talk as such in itself supports only separation. A common language for the dialogue on solidarity and similarities has to be found. Still it has to be possible to address international human rights violations, but to demand these, the European countries have to concentrate first on their own structural problems and make sure these rights are guaranteed in their own societies. At the same time “values” is not the right term because it tends to disguise interests and different moral claims or ideologies. The focus in the discourse should be about rights and interests as well as about solidarity instead.

See the full video in German below.