Former German Chancellor Schroeder’s relations with Russia overshadow Schulz’s trip to Moscow
German Chancellor Olaf Schulz met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday at a critical time for the leader of a Western country still dependent on Russian gas. The position of the new chancellor was not helped by the old chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, whose lucrative business dealings with Russia exasperated the Germans and endangered their leaders.
Earlier this month, during a visit to Washington, DC, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was asked about the former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was nominated in January to join the board of the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Schroeder also sits on the boards of Nord Stream AG and Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, prompting CNN anchor Jake Tapper to ask the new German chancellor if he supports Schroeder “by sitting on all these boards. What message does that send to?” ..”
Schultz immediately burst in, and replied with a narrow smile, “It does not work for the government. It’s not the government. I’m the chancellor now.”
German weekly Der Spiegel met the response a few days before Schulz headed to Moscow for his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as chancellor on Tuesday. “It looked as if there was a need to clarify who the political leader of Germany was. It was an uncomfortable moment,” the magazine noted.
It’s an embarrassing time to be the leader of a NATO member dependent on Russian gas while the Kremlin builds up its forces and carries out menacing military exercises on Ukraine’s borders. Amid growing fears of a Russian invasion, Schultz has been on a diplomatic shuttle in recent days as Russia’s military stranglehold over Ukraine tests the West’s unity and resolve.
At each station, Scholz was pushed on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, which was built but not yet commissioned. In each response, the new chancellor hedged and evaded, evading Washington’s call to “end” the gas junction — and provide fodder for critics and cartoonists.
Activists dressed as Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (right) demonstrate on September 29, 2017, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. AFP – Britta Pedersen Schulz was in Kiev on Monday where he stressed that “no one should doubt the determination and willingness” of Berlin to punish Russia if it attacks its western neighbor. But his host, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, did just that when he publicly warned Shultz that Moscow was using Nord Stream 2 as a “geopolitical weapon.”
‘Embarrassment for the Germans’ Germany’s low-cost international pacifism, combined with its economic self-interest, has long exasperated some of its allies. Discontent turned to derision last month when Germany refused to send arms to Ukraine. Instead, Berlin offered Kiev 5,000 protective helmets, leading the Kiev mayor to question whether the next delivery would be pads.
Having been ridiculed and without the reassuring presence of Angela Merkel to run Putin’s hard games, Germany could have done so by swinging on the soft power podium.
When Schulze took office on December 8, 2021, the Germans knew their new chancellor had a big shoe to fill. But they did not expect that the chancellor who left office more than 15 years ago, a former politician in the 1970s from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), would dominate the headlines.
Earlier this month, Schroeder was nominated to join the board of Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, as tensions mounted over Russia’s military buildup. The nomination came just days after Schroeder, in a podcast published on January 28, accused Ukraine of “rapping swords”. The former chancellor also criticized German Foreign Minister Annalena Barbock for visiting Kiev before Moscow, warning that Russia would view a visit to Ukraine as a “provocation”.
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many Germans. “Gerhard Schroeder is an embarrassment to the Germans,” Paul Hokenos – a Berlin-based journalist and author of several books, including “Berlin Calling” – said in an interview with France 24. He looked at his relations with the private sector and his relations with Russia, Putin, Gazprom and the Russian fossil fuel giants. Now he is being criticized overwhelmingly in the media, and even in his own party, almost everyone has been turning away from him.”
However, the estrangement with Schroeder is still a work in progress for some SPD politicians, depending on their ages and the economic interests of their constituents. What’s more, it may be easier to walk away from Schroeder than to depart from the principles that underscore his embrace of Russia, and it may be an even greater challenge for Schultz on the international stage.
The New Politics of Potenfiester Circles: The Social Democratic Party has historically advocated close relations with Russia, which arose from the policy of rapprochement and dialogue with the then-Soviet Union, established by former SPD adviser Willy Brandt in the 1970s.
The “Brandt policy” is rooted in the Social Democrats. It was a clear balance of Cold War excesses and the aggressive postures of the United States. He did much good to normalize relations with East Germany and was hugely successful in enabling relations between people, especially for families with relatives in the East. It normalized relations with the East, but somehow sold out human rights activists who took a principled stand against Putin’s aggression and repression,” Hokinos said.
More than 50 years after Brandt launched his “Politics of Politics” initiative, it is now being used as a pretext for what Germans call “Puttenfierster” – which literally translates as “Putin’s understanding”. The term is a pejorative reference to politicians, who insist that the Russian leader’s expansionist interests are justified, as well as anti-US critics who resist Washington’s calls for energy security in Germany.
There are extensive networks of money, influence and politics between the SPD and Russia. “They are spending time in the boardrooms of energy companies, trying to build solidarity with Russia while they are content with money,” explains Nick Spicer, a France 24 correspondent in Berlin. “The question is whether Schulz will summon his former SPD colleague.”
It is a question that the German media have been asking with renewed fervor over the past few days. In her scathing article, “Gerhard Schroeder casts a dark shadow over Berlin’s foreign policy,” Der Spiegel noted that in 1999, Merkel “breaked with the hegemony of former chancellor and party chief Helmut Kohl” in an article she wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Zeitung newspaper.
“In doing so, she freed Christian Democrats from the Cole donation scandal,” the weekly noted, referring to the illegal party funding scandal in the 1990s that rocked Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
No “insight” for energy security, but while Merkel broke with the Kohl donations scandal, she never distanced herself from “Ostpolitik” and was a discipline committed to Germany’s “Wandel durch Handel” or “change through trade” strategy.
This policy provided the perfect cover for continued economic engagement with Moscow even as Putin showed no signs of changing his worldview and every indication that his vision of a Russian “sphere of influence” had been snatched from the communist-to-tsarist past.
While younger SPD members criticize Schroeder’s “Puttenferchter” era, the party includes powerful politicians committed to Russian gas. Among them is Manuela Schwesig, governor of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline ends.
With jobs and tax revenues at risk, Schweig continued to defend the controversial pipeline – and so did Schroeder. The governor of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is furious at any suggestion that she is a Schroeder or Putin client, and that maintaining the pipeline is in Germany’s energy interest.
It is an argument that makes Hokinos sigh in despair. Germany has shown absolutely no foresight when it comes to energy security. He explained that what needs to be done is to find alternatives, including sources of gas from other countries, which have expanded since 2014, as well as switch to electrification. “I was against Nord Stream 2 from the start. I kept writing about it, but after a certain point you can’t keep repeating yourself, and then shut up about it.”
However, the recent crisis with Russia has reopened the debate, and patience is running out even among German politicians sympathetic to Moscow.
“The problems he creates for Schulz internationally are unacceptable,” SPD veteran Rudolf Dressler told Der Spiegel newspaper. “Being on Putin’s payroll as an ex-adviser: It doesn’t look good.”