Sergey Lagodinsky on the importance of shoring up democratic institutions and civil society in Europe and abroad

In light of Russia’s authoritarian creep, Europe has to “de-Putinise” itself, defend democracy and the Rule of Law and strengthen civil society, both abroad and at home, Sergey Lagodinsky tells The Parliament Magazine
Sergey Lagodinsky | All photos by Jacobia Dahm

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

04 May 2022

It is unsurprising that Sergey Lagodinsky, the Greens/EFA Group spokesperson on Russia, is very busy these days, and The Parliament Magazine had to be lucky to catch him on Monday morning before his entire agenda was filled with political meetings in Berlin. 

Having only been elected to the European Parliament for the first time at the last elections in 2019, he has already left his mark on foreign affairs, in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), as a vice-chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) and as chair of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.  

For his role as the Greens/EFA Group spokesperson on Russia, Lagodinsky is uniquely qualified: he was born in Astrakhan, a former transit hub located where the Volga River meets the Caspian Sea, at a time when the city was part of the Russian Soviet Republic. Growing up in the dying days of the Soviet Union has profoundly informed his politics. Amid his Soviet schooling and participation in the Young Pioneers youth organisation, came the sea change instigated by Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Whereas domestic news coverage had so far only reflected the glorious achievements of the Soviet Union, it now became something excitingly different: 

“I remember reading newspapers, or watching news programmes, and it became a sort of entertainment because of this experience of discovery, this learning experience for everyone across all generations.”

“What I don’t accept is this kind of culturalist approach, which says, ‘Turkey is undemocratic, not because we have [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan or we have this or that, but because it’s a Muslim country’”

The Gorbachev era taught him about the critical quality of political pluralism and debate for society, he says. “I usually say, ‘You know, I’m a perestroika kid,’” he says, referring to the period of political and economic reconstruction in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s. “And I remained a perestroika kid, I kept this experience. I’m still very grateful to Gorbachev, despite all his shortcomings that you can talk about.”    

Lagodinsky emigrated to Germany with his family in 1993, just shy of his 18th birthday. 
For Russia, however, the hope that perestroika once brought has been all but extinguished by the relentless autocracy and corruption of President Vladimir Putin’s regime: “Russia has left the club of last democratic hopes”, as Lagodinsky puts it.   

“Nobody said that Russia is a democracy, but there was always the last hope that the trajectory could be twisted and turn towards democracy, even under this president. But now it is very clear that this government and this system, this society, is not compatible with our humanitarian values.” 

In an article he recently wrote for The Parliament Magazine, Lagodinsky called for Europe to “de-Putinise” itself, both in terms of dependency on fossil fuel imports and attempts to create an illiberal model of society. 

At a time when some claim that Poland, for example, should be spared any retribution for their undermining of the judiciary and the Rule of Law because of the country’s momentous efforts to help Ukraine and welcome unprecedented numbers of refugees, Lagodinsky remains adamant that this is a flawed argument: 

“Yes, we are a geopolitical structure and have to act geopolitically, and yes, we have to close the ranks vis-a-vis the Russian anti-European threat. But at the same time, we have to remain able to discuss issues that concern our values. Geopolitics does not cancel values. Values make your politics more credible, because the new geopolitical struggle is between authoritarianism and liberal democracy.”  

“You can deny this in Budapest”, Lagodinsky adds, “but you cannot deny this when looking at the situation in Kyiv, because in Kyiv you know exactly what it is about.” 

He sees a difference between the two main Member States causing the current Rule of Law crisis in the European Union. With Poland, an “honest and self-critical debate” about the need for an independent judiciary is still possible and desirable in his view, because Warsaw seems more open to the idea that “if we don’t finish Putin in ourselves, we will not be able to resist Putin from outside”.   

On Hungary, however, Lagodinsky is more pessimistic, especially after that country’s parliamentary election at the beginning of April when it became clear that “Hungarian society has been basically sealed by [President Victor] Orbán and his friends, by gerrymandering and the restructuring of the media, with a big corruption issue on top of it”. Equally, Budapest’s ambiguous stance on Russia “with this more or less open admiration for Putin’s line” is something he believes the EU should never accept. 

While confessing to a general scepticism about using financial sanctions against EU Member States, Lagodinsky sees no other way but to let “the money start talking” when it comes to Hungary. 

“We tried it all, we tried it with reports, hoping that changes will come, with naming and shaming. They didn’t care. We tried it with going to the European Court of Justice – and I applaud the Commission for doing this. But that didn’t help either.”   

However, sanctions against systemic offenders are just one side of the coin when it comes to supporting and strengthening democracy and the Rule of Law, Lagodinsky believes. He points to what he calls “the positive complementary part of this discussion”, his own initiative report in the JURI committee “with recommendations to the Commission on a statute for European cross-border associations and non-profit organisations”. 

It was adopted in plenary with an overwhelming majority in February 2022 and stresses that national legal provisions for non-profit organisations are patchy and insufficient to build a real pan-European civil society. 

“This is really my passion”, Lagodinsky admits, “because having worked in the Heinrich Böll Foundation [a non-profit organisation that is part of the global green movement] before, and having worked in NGOs, I know exactly how important it is to have a civil society that is free and cross-border.” 

Relying on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s promise before she took office to take on board any reports that have achieved a large majority in the European Parliament, he tells me that discussions with the Commission on how to follow up legislatively on the report are currently ongoing. 

Apart from the introduction of minimum standards for Member States on how to deal with NGOs, and indeed any non-profit organisation, the European Parliament – after 30 years of trying in vain, as Lagodinsky adds – wants to finally achieve for the sector what has been available to for-profit companies for years: a recognised cross-border status. 

“So that it is possible to work together, say, across the German, Polish and Czech border, and have a joint NGO which will not just be a German NGO with some Poles and Czechs, but will be a Brussels-registered European association, working on a European level, and which can migrate headquarters from one country to another without any problems.” 

“It is now very clear that this [Russian] government and this system, this society, is not compatible with our humanitarian values”

Nourishing civil society is a central aspect of another of Lagodinsky’s main political arenas as chair of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.  

“Despite all the pressure that they’re experiencing, Turkey has a very vivid and lively civil society which is worth supporting, and worth fighting for”, he argues, adding that this can be done most effectively within the framework of EU membership talks. 

“I think we should remain on the accession track, frozen maybe, but still accession, because accession allows us to talk very honestly”, Lagodinsky says, citing as the most recent example a meeting of the Joint Parliamentary Committee in March, the first such meeting in almost three years. 

“This was an incredible experience”, he tells me. Unlike Russia, Turkey still has a very strong parliamentary opposition, and his colleagues in the joint committee included lawmakers from all opposition parties, Lagodinsky reports. 

“We were sitting there together, discussing, also the Turkish delegation members among themselves, the issues we criticise” – regarding domestic politics, democracy and human rights – “and we can, and we have the right, to discuss these issues precisely because we still are on the accession track.” 

While Lagodinsky acknowledges the validity of criticising current Turkish government policy, there is one argument sometimes raised in the European Parliament against a Turkish EU membership he cannot abide by: 

“What I don’t accept is this kind of culturalist approach, which says, ‘Turkey is undemocratic, not because we have [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan or we have this or that, but because it’s a Muslim country.’ This the absolutely wrong way to go.” 

Lagodinsky’s unambiguous rejection of culturalist narratives can be traced back to his early political career. Having joined the Social Democrats (SPD) in 2001, at the age of 26, where he co-founded and subsequently led the party’s Jewish Caucus (AJS), he left the SPD a decade later because of the Sarrazin affair and joined the Greens.

Thilo Sarrazin, a high-ranking SPD member, had published a book entitled Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany Is Doing Away With Itself)”, propagating a thinly veiled anti-Muslim “replacement” conspiracy theory, and the party refused to terminate that politician’s membership. 

“The over-arching theme of my life is basically how to build a society that is open and democratic.  That’s the fight we’re fighting.”