Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff on democracy

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Nikolaus von der Wenge Graf Lambsdorff’s comments on what he learned about democracy around the world – and what he sees in Hong Kong. He has seen the establishment of electoral systems in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova and Estonia. (Photo Credit: Chris Lusher)


A little background Graf Lambsdorff grew up in the crucible of politics. When he left for America, his father had recently been elected to the Bundestag. A great-great uncle, Wladimir Nikolajewitsch Graf Lambsdorff, had been the Foreign Minister in Russia under Tsar Nicholas the II. Uncle Hagen von der Wenge Graf Lambsdorff was the Ambassador to the Czech Republic and Latvia. A younger relative, Alexander Sebastian Léonce von der Wenge Graf Lambsdorff, is a diplomat and elected member of the European Parliament for the past 10 years. He has overseen EU observations of elections in countries as diverse as Kenya, Libya, Bangladesh and Guinea. One can only imagine the family reunions.

Early in his career, he went to Estonia. “This is the first lesson I learned [in democracy].” These were the first elections of the post-Soviet era. “But they really go after each other… This is, actually, what you expect in a living and working democracy.”

Hong Kong’s Graf Lambsdorff has not been shy to jump into some hot spots. From a comfortable posting in Washington, he accepted a posting to the obscure, and dangerous town of BrČko in the former Yugoslavia, immediately after the war. “After 3 1/2 years in Washington, I was beginning to look for something else. After a while, in our profession… you have it in your blood!”

Establishing peace was of paramount importance in this dangerous hotspot. Eventually, the peacekeeping forces of NATO and the EU established security that allowed people to return and democracy to be restored.

“And I learned, back in Bosnia, that elections are not so important. Which of course sounds undemocratic, but that’s  one of the lessons learned from these crises, prevention and crisis management exercises. The right order is safety and security; and then elections. Maybe even some economic success before you have, then, well-prepared elections.”

“But if you think as the Americans – (he catches himself) as we all did in Bosnia – once you have democratically well-organised elections, then you have democracy – think again.” The way he says it makes Diplomat think this was an education learned the hard way.

His time in Moldova taught him that German style coalition building could work in other jurisdictions.

Hong Kong and catching Berlin’s attention

Graf Lambsdorff explains that Hong Kong is unique among German consulates for not only being allowed to conduct political reporting, but being also required to. No other consulate is allowed to do so – it is normally and strictly an embassy prerogative.

So what makes the reports? “I could easily bore people to tears in Berlin with reports on universal suffrage in Hong Kong. I tend to write not too much on something which is of course very important for the people of Hong Kong – but of lesser interest to the rest of the world. That’s the way it is.”

Graf Lambsdorff is a seasoned professional and a realist. His realism means he knows what he can – and should do. He has ideas about how to get Hong Kong on the radar – and what makes it special.

“Just the fact that here you have an open society including free media [in Hong Kong] gives you access like nowhere else. It happens that, not we, but others organise conferences in Hong Kong. They invite people from Beijing and all of a sudden these people talk completely different to the way they usually behave in Beijing. So that there are lots of  interesting people to talk to here in Hong Kong.”

“Everybody has heard me saying this all the time, but “Why did Edward Snowden come to Hong Kong? Simply because of that. Someone had told him ‘Hong Kong is safe. The rest of China probably is not.’”

He does struggle, as many diplomats in Hong Kong do, to keep the political issues on the radar for politicians back home – including universal suffrage.

Universal suffrage – it matters

“I do care about the issue of universal suffrage because it is important. I believe it is for us, a little bit more important than people back home realise. Not only because we are for universal suffrage, no matter where, worldwide, but also because it links into the basis which is ‘One country, two systems’ – which is being forgotten in Europe.”

“My own people back in Berlin ask me, ‘What do you mean, one country, two systems? What’s that?’ Again, universal suffrage is more than just a catchword – this is what it is all about. This is the difference.”

“To me, the discussion on how to get to universal suffrage is not so important… The result is all decisive. The result is universal suffrage. People, one man, one woman can vote.”

“In German, we make a difference between active voting and passive voting. Passive voting means you can stand for election. With universal suffrage, our understanding is everybody has a vote and everybody can run.”

“That’s the real issue here.”