Last week, the German Parliament passed a resolution that asked Chancellor Angela Merkel to needle Russian President Vladimir Putin about the resurgence of repressive, antidemocratic tendencies in Russia. It did not go unnoticed at the Kremlin. And it paved the way, so to speak, for her trip to Moscow on Friday—to re-cement their “strategic partnership.”
Complaints about the resolution filtered back to the point where Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, just before departing for Moscow, warned his countrymen not to overdo their criticism of Russia. It’s in the interests of Germany, he mused, to expand the “strategic partnership”; Russia was needed as a geopolitical and economic partner.
Indeed. Merkel arrived in Moscow with her entourage that included eight ministers and corporate chieftains by the planeload—she doesn’t leave home without them. With Merkel and Putin looking on, these chieftains and their Russian counterparts signed contracts for billions of euros, a ritual that German chancellors have to perform when abroad. It’s part of Germany’s mercantilist foreign policy. Siemens CEO Peter Löscher bagged perhaps the biggest deal, a declaration of intent to deliver 695 electric locomotives for €2.5 billion ($3.2 billion) to Russian Railways (RZD), an elephantine state-owned company with 950,000 employees.
That’s what really mattered. Criticism of Russia—carefully calibrated and range-bound—would be for consumption at home, where anti-Russian sentiment has been rising. With elections coming up next year, Merkel, the consummate political animal, is treading a fine line: deliver a bland rebuke that would barely satisfy voters in Germany and help arrange deals that would fully satisfy German industry.
The initial meeting was at the concluding session of the annual Petersburg Dialogue, a four-day forum, this year titled ominously, “Russia and Germany: the Information Society Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century.” So the first question from the audience was posed by a Russian participant: what about the recent deterioration in the Russian-German relationship—a reference to the resolution—and its consequences on economic cooperation?
A government had to be able to digest criticism, Merkel said in response. Yes, some of the recent laws the State Duma had passed “irritated” her. “I cannot see that they further freedom,” she said. “We ask ourselves if that is good for the development of Russian society or not.” But that didn’t change the intense relationship between both countries. “If I were offended every time I opened the paper at home, I couldn’t be chancellor for three days,” she said. Putin smiled.
It kicked off a bizarre tangle of questions and answers, comments, attacks, and counterattacks, fact-based or not, that carried over into a panel discussion and press conference. Putin claimed that Germany had been criticized by human rights groups because some of its states didn’t have laws for the protection of information. Which baffled attendees. And about Merkel’s statement—incomprehensible, given current conditions—that Europe always tried to speak with one voice, Putin retorted: “That’s called a cartel.” Even the Pussy Riot case came up.
A representative from Gazprom, the giant state-owned Russian natural gas company without which no German-Russian meeting is complete, and on which Germany depends for much of its natural gas, complained about the “gloomy atmosphere” in the relations between both countries that was hindering making deals.
The meeting was a far cry from when Gerhard Schröder was still Chancellor. He’d raised the “strategic partnership” to new heights through his close personal and political relationship with Putin. For example in November 2004, he described Putin as a “flawless democrat,” which stirred up a ruckus even in Germany. He also championed the Nord Stream gas pipeline that would pump gas from Russia directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, without crossing other countries, a very costly project. Gazprom controlled the Nord Stream consortium. A deal was signed in October 2005. It included a loan guarantee by the German government of €1 billion. That’s how close German-Russians relations were.
On November 22, 2005, Schröder got kicked out of office. Days later, Gazprom appointed him Chairman of Nord Stream AG, causing another ruckus in Germany; it was clear what his intentions had been all along, now that he was on the lavish payroll of the Russian government. Turns out, the Baltic pipeline would allow Russia to cut off gas to countries its other pipelines crossed on their way to Germany, while still supplying Germany—a powerful political weapon against those countries. The “strategic partnership” had made it possible.
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