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Frankfurt (AFP) – Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s close friendship with President Vladimir Putin and lucrative trade relations with Russia were for years grudgingly tolerated in the country.
But as the clouds of war gather over Ukraine and the allies question Germany’s resolve, Schroeder is increasingly seen as a potential liability for the new chancellor and colleague. Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, fueling calls for a clean break with the pro-Kremlin lobbyist.
“Schroeder is a burden on Germany’s foreign policy and on his former party,” writes the weekly Der Spiegel. “He has clear goals. Not for his country, but for himself.”
Schroeder’s recent warning to Ukraine to stop its “saber-braking” sparked widespread disbelief in Germany, even among longtime friends in the center-left SPD party.
Last week’s announcement that the 77-year-old is set to sit on the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom did not calm tempers, as did the revelation that Schroeder held Russia talks with an SPD Interior Ministry official last month.
The controversy comes at a delicate time for Scholz, who will face a major test next week when he travels to Moscow for his first face-to-face talks with Putin since taking office.
Scholz has been accused of being slow to enter the diplomatic fray in the Ukraine crisis and of blurring Germany’s message to be united with allies against the Russian threat.
North Flow 2
After much pressure from the United States and other allies, Scholz recently hardened his stance on possible sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, including shutting down the Gazprom-owned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
It was Schroeder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, who signed the first Nord Stream gas pipeline between Russia and Germany in his last weeks in office, and he currently heads the shareholders’ committee of the Nord Stream company.
He is also chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.
In a TV interview, Scholz denied being influenced by Schroeder before the trip to Moscow.
“I didn’t ask him for advice, he didn’t give me any either,” he said. “There’s only one Chancellor, and that’s me.”
Putin and Schroeder appear to have built “a real friendship, based on trust” during Schroeder’s time in power, political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.
But “it’s problematic when a former chancellor uses his past political activities and contacts to make money,” she said.
The German SPD has always championed close ties with Russia, born out of the “Ostpolitik” policy of rapprochement and dialogue with the then Soviet Union, devised by former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s.
Successive chancellors have continued the policy to varying degrees, including Scholz’s centre-right predecessor, Angela Merkel, who focused on the economic benefits of dealing with Russia – a strategy known as “Wandel durch Handel” in German, or “change through trade”.
But even among German politicians sympathetic to Russia and its longstanding grievance over NATO expansion, patience with Schroeder – who celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in St Petersburg – is running out.
SPD veteran Rudolf Dressler told Spiegel that Schroeder’s behavior was “embarrassing” and urged the party leadership to ask Schroeder to refrain from commenting on political issues in public.
Opposition politicians and those of the SPD’s junior coalition party, the liberal FDP, called on Schroeder to lose his privileges as former chancellor, including an office with staff and a driver.
German taxpayers should no longer “fund Russian lobbying”, conservative CSU MP Volker Ullrich told the Bild newspaper, suggesting that Gazprom pay for Schroeder’s upkeep.
Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund think tank in Berlin, said the latest Schroeder saga was “a distraction” in the Ukraine crisis, but nothing new.
“Everyone knows where Schroeder is, everyone knows where he gets his income from,” she told AFP.
More interesting is how Scholz and the SPD choose to handle relations with Russia in the future, she said.
“Do we understand now that ‘Ostpolitik’ or ‘Wandel durch Handel’ belong to the past? Or will they continue to use the same formula?” she asked.
© 2022 AFP