Germany worries about Merkel’s legacy: Did she give Putin too much power? | Germany

After the war in Ukraine led German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to pivot dramatically on his country’s post-war faith beliefs last week, attention turns to his predecessors, who led Germany down a strategic path. towards Russia which has become a dead end.

The conflict in the east has caused a seismic change in Germany, where Scholz has flip-flopped on a restrictive stance on arms exports, announced huge increases in military spending and pledged to wean the country Russian gas.

Since then, all eyes have been on Gerhard Schröder, the unrepentant ex-chancellor who, in his final weeks in office, shook hands with Vladimir Putin to ratify the Nord Stream gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea. A few weeks later, Schröder slipped effortlessly through the revolving door to become chairman of Nord Stream. The resulting increase in Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, politicians in Berlin now admit, may have led Putin to believe that Germany would be too crippled to support sanctions. concerted economics.

As a paid lobbyist for energy giant Gazprom, Schröder’s motivation is transparent: On Friday, Scholz called on his party colleague and former boss to sever ties with Russian state-owned companies.

What is less clear is why Schröder’s course of expanding economic ties with Russia was largely pursued by his successor, Angela Merkel, and whether she did so out of sheer passivity or for political advantage.

When Merkel ended her 16-year term in December, political obituaries praised her relationship with Putin: her support for economic sanctions against the Crimean occupation, as well as the rescue effort that she launched to get poisoned dissident Alexei Navalny treated at a Berlin hospital, spoke of anything but naivety in her interactions with the Kremlin.

But since last week, voices have grown louder in criticism of her sidelining foreign policy and security experts who have warned her against viewing Russia as a reliable trading partner. “A sober assessment of the German government’s errors of judgment in its dealings with Russia over the past 16 years is now expected,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU politician and former Bundeswehr officer.

“To NATO’s surprise, France and Germany blocked an action plan for Georgia’s membership in 2008, warning that Russia would interpret it as an existential threat. But four months later, Russia invaded Georgia anyway. In 2014-2015, when the United States wanted to arm Ukraine in the face of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Merkel and [then French president François] Hollande opposed such a strategy, investing instead in diplomatic efforts,” Kiesewetter told the Observer.

“But in the shadow of such apparent diplomatic successes, Russia has continued to build its military threat.”

There are also new questions about Merkel’s unwavering support for the Nord Stream project, the first gas pipeline of which she officially unveiled in 2011 as a commercial project,” Kiesewetter said. “Germany has never addressed the European and security dimension of the project.”

Alexei Navalny in 2020 in Moscow; Merkel initiated steps to treat him in a German hospital after his poisoning. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

During Merkel’s first term in office, a certain naivety towards the pipeline project could still be explained by her power-sharing agreement with a Social Democratic Party (SPD) still modeled on the image of Schröder and the first center-left ministers with openly pro-Russian sympathies in the northeastern states of Germany, especially in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

“In his home state and in his constituency, Nord Stream has always been a hugely popular business,” said Claudia Müller, a Green delegate from the same region. “As far as Russia is concerned, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has effectively run its own shadow diplomacy.”

Even after her re-election in 2009, Merkel supported the continuation and expansion of a pipeline, insisting for years that it was a “purely economic project”, although she later conceded. that certain “political factors” could not be ignored.

“Economic pragmatism in relations with Russia was not only a feature of the romanticism of the Social Democrats,” said Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Merkel, too, believed that through trade you could bind Russia into a multilateral system, and therefore a rules-based order. Even after 2014-2015, when alarm bells were ringing, she compartmentalized the problem. She just didn’t make it a political issue.

Research from Policy Network Analytics, a non-profit data intelligence network that connects policy decisions to strategic economic investments, suggests Nord Stream’s political dimension may have been more apparent to it than it seems. suggests. Merkel grew up in northeastern Germany, where she won a direct mandate in a constituency covering the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. In the federalized political system, parliamentarians are not meant to be the amplifiers of their own regional concerns, let alone the chancellor.

Yet in the summer of 2009, his home state crashed onto the national agenda: shipbuilding company Wadan Yards in Schwerin and Rostock filed for insolvency. With national elections looming three months later, Merkel has faced a humiliating loss of 2,700 jobs on her home turf.

Six weeks before the country goes to the polls, Merkel’s press office announced a breakthrough: “The rescue of the Wadan yards is in sight.” At a meeting in Sochi, Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev brokered a deal that the shipyards would be bought by Vitaly Yusufov, saving half the company’s jobs. Until then, Yusufov, 29, worked as the head of the Moscow office of a certain Russian gas pipeline company: Nord Stream AG. His father, Igor, served as energy minister during Putin’s first term and coordinated Russia’s energy cooperation at the time as a special envoy.

“There was considerable political pressure for Wadan Yards to be saved, and it is questionable whether the deal would have been done so quickly without it,” said Klaus-Peter Schmidt-Deguelle, a communications adviser who was part of the company advisory board at the time. .

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder ratified the Nord Stream agreement and later became its chairman. Photography: Kay Nietfeld/AP

Even then there were rumors that the shipyards insolvent former owner, Russian investor Andrei Burlakov, had been a front man for a money laundering plot by the mafia, an allegation also made by a Spanish prosecutor investigating Russian criminals. activities in Spain. (A criminal investigation into money laundering was dropped by the public prosecutor of Schwerin in 2012, due to lack of cooperation from the Russian side).

“If Burlakov was a straw man, he stopped playing that role at some point, otherwise he would still be alive,” Schmidt-Deguelle told the newspaper. Observer. In September 2011, the Russian investor was shot dead by a hitman in a restaurant in Moscow.

According to the German statement on the Sochi meeting, Merkel and Medvedev not only discussed a bailout deal for the Wadan yards, but also a potential Russian investment in struggling German automaker Opel and microchip maker. Infineon. None of these plans ever materialized, much to Moscow’s annoyance. Russian media, however, reported that the two leaders were also to discuss “energy cooperation”.

According to Nord Stream AG, planning for the second pipeline was initiated two years later, although its exact origins were never openly disclosed.

Asked by the Observer by e-mail if the energy cooperation discussed in Sochi was the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and if the economic cooperations discussed depended on each other, Merkel’s office declined to give an answer, referring instead to the only statement public she has made since the start of the war in Ukraine.

“There is no justification for this flagrant violation of international law,” Merkel said four days after the Russian invasion began. “This war of aggression by Russia marks a profound turning point in the history of Europe after the end of the Cold War.”

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