The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Germany and Russia: The End of Ostpolitik?
Published on November 13, 2012

Germany’s role in the ongoing Euro crisis is a reminder of its economic superpower status in Europe. But Germany plays another leading role: defining European policy toward Russia. Brussels and other European capitals often follow Germany’s lead when it comes to dealing with Russia. And with the United States distracted with its recent election and other priorities, and with the reset not what it used to be, Germany’s role in defining the “Eastern strategy”—and specifically the agenda toward Russia—is likely to increase (even if Berlin tries to keep a low profile).

Until recently, the German-Russian relationship was viewed as the model of a happy, albeit weird, marriage of incompatible bedfellows. No longer: German public opinion has grown increasingly critical of Vladimir Putin’s regime and its clampdown on human rights and the political opposition. While this shift in public attitude has not had a major impact on the official Berlin line, it has reinforced the push by some Bundestag deputies, especially the German Greens, the only party that has consistently raised the issue of human rights in Russia.

But things have started to change in Berlin. This summer the German special envoy for Russia on behalf of the ruling coalition, Andreas Schockenhoff, prepared a critical motion on Russia (“The Civil Society and Rule of Law in Russia”), which sought to clarify Germany’s position before the high level Russian-German government consultations and annual meeting of the St. Petersburg dialogue in November. According to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, however, the German Foreign Affairs ministry, headed by the Christian Democrats’ partner Free Democrats and its leader, Guido Westerwelle, substantially edited the motion. In fact, the ministry rewrote the key points, significantly altering the main message of the motion. See for yourself. Schockenhoff’s motion started with the following:

The German Bundestag seriously worries that Russia will be facing stagnation instead of progress on its path toward building an open and modern society due to the deficit of rule of law, investments and innovation

The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed that to say that Russia is “the key and essential partner of Germany and Europe . . . the largest state in the world that stretches through two continents . . . and is the crucial energy supplier in Europe.” One might almost think this was rewritten by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not the German one. But there’s more: German diplomats added a line stating that global problems could be solved only with Russia’s participation. The Foreign Ministry also took out the seemingly innocuous phrase that Germany and Russia are “interested in a politically and economically modernized and democratic Russia.” Apparently, the ministry did not like the Parliament’s mention of civic activism in Russia. They also took out the phrase, “After years of managed democracy and apathy a lot of Russians are ready for greater activism in their country,” and erased another assertion that the Russian “authorities view politically active citizens not as partners, but enemies,” broadening the gap between the authorities and the society. While tweaking a Parliamentary motion is not unheard of in German legislative history, in this case the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs turned the intent of the motion completely upside-down. This provoked a mini-scandal in a country where the political elite tries to avoid scandals at any price.

This conflict between Bundestag circles that are critical of the current Russian regime and the part of the German government that wants to maintain the status quo between Moscow and Berlin got even more complicated when the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stuck its nose into the matter, indignantly accusing Schockenhoff of making “slanderous accusations.” The Russian ministry was especially offended by Schockenhoff’s assertion that Russia was losing influence in the Arab world and declared that it was not going to deal with Schockenhoff anymore! This turned out to be too much even for those whose were trying to be accommodating toward Moscow. The Russian ministry’s clumsy and heavy-handed interference escalated emotions in Berlin and simultaneously bolstered those who have been more critical of the Kremlin.

Consequently, it was not only the German Greens who were calling for a much tougher line with respect to the Kremlin; members of the ruling coalition started to distance themselves from their previous softness toward Moscow, a position that the Russian opposition has viewed as “appeasement.” Even the German Social Democrats, known for their more than accommodating attitude toward Putin personally, have started to feel uneasy and are distancing themselves from the views of their leading Russia expert, Gernot Erler, who has spoken about Russia’s being on a path of “Europeanization.”

The position of German President Joachim Gauck is worth keeping an eye on. A highly respected freedom fighter in the GDR, Gauck appears to have no illusions about what is happening in Russia. As a former Stasi “ hunter” and tireless pro-democracy advocate who exposed the crimes of the former communist secret police, Gauck and Putin, the former KGB agent based in the GDR, have nothing in common. That may be why Gauck appears to be in no hurry to meet with Putin on a regular basis, after their only meeting so far ended on a chilly note.

What we are seeing unfold in Germany is without precedent. There is a new mood emerging in the country and among the German political class reflecting changing views toward Putin’s Russia. Before, only the political minority and a handful of marginal politicians had the courage to stand up against the “general course” for partnership with the Kremlin. Now those calling for a more critical line are seeing their ranks expand and become part of the mainstream.

Until recently, Berlin pursued policy toward Russia that we would define as “close partnership based on common interests and total rejection of the normative approach.” This policy during Gerhard Schroeder’s time acquired the name “Schroederization”, which meant avoiding anything that would annoy the Kremlin; we must be close friends. Angela Merkel’s rise to power had many hoping that Schroederization would end; on her first visit to Russia as Chancellor, she made a big, positive impression when she met with civil society and opposition figures, drawing a stark contrast from her predecessor. But to a large extent, Scroederization turned into “Merkelization”, reflecting more continuity than change.

Why has German policy over the years stubbornly clung to the pursuit of close relations with the Kremlin even as German public opinion has become increasingly critical of developments inside Russia? Is it motivated by commercial and economic interests? Other countries with commercial interests in Russia have escaped the love affair with Putin’s Kremlin, and they don’t call the Russian autocrat in the Kremlin an “impeccable democrat”, as Schroeder did.

The complicated history between Germany and Russia and German feelings of guilt for the Second World War and invasion of the Soviet Union have something to do with it. But these don’t explain why German leaders would side with authoritarian rule in Russia. Perhaps German idealism (or is it romanticism?) that emerged during the early Putin era endures in the hope that Putin could be persuaded to follow a normal European path? Recall that in September 2001, Putin’s speech in the Bundestag provoked a standing ovation as he represented the embodiment of the new and democratic Russia—or so members hoped. But all hopes in the end are delayed disappointments. This is as true in Russia as anywhere else.

Gerd Koenen, in his book, Der Russland-Komplex, published at the beginning of the Merkel period, wrote about German delusions regarding Russia. He described Berlin’s goal as doing everything it could to avoid antagonizing Russia, “even at the expense of raising false expectations.” He admitted that in this way Germany became the object of Russia’s “world ambitions.” Koenen’s thesis begs the question of why such a great European country would conduct itself in such a manner. No less important is the question of why the German ruling elite can’t differentiate between Russia writ large and the Kremlin.

Perhaps the answers to these questions are not so difficult to find. Influential members of the German political and business establishment have been co-opted into the Kremlin’s expanding network. Former Chancellor Schroeder is an obvious example, but several representatives of the German punditry and elite have become loudspeakers for the Kremlin and members of Putin’s business circle, such as Alexander Rahr, who happily compares Putin to Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, and former Stasi like Mattias Warnig, executive director of the North European Gas Pipeline Company, the operator of Gazprom. Indeed, the fact that Putin speaks fluent German and lived for several years in the GDR helped him build his network of German friends. It is doubtful he could have developed such relations elsewhere. Putin knew hot to play to Germany’s ego, saying that “Germany will be the key European distributor of gas” and “Germany will be a motor for investments.”

But even this isn’t sufficient to explain the situation. Indeed, one must go back in history to “Ostpolitik”, formulated by Willy Brandt and his close adviser Egon Bahr on the basis of Bahr’s doctrine of “Change through Rapprochement” in the late 1960s/early 1970s, which was largely continued by Helmut Schmidt in the early 1980s. Its main goal was normalization of the relationship between the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR. “The policy of all or nothing must be ruled out,” Bahr explained in 1963, justifying a new approach of gradual change involving “many steps” through rapprochement. The same strategy was soon applied by West Germany to the Soviet Union.

While easing tensions between global competitors was a positive development, Brandt’s Ostpolitik was based on an idealistic premise: the possibility of provoking positive change inside the Communist system through geopolitical rapprochement, which also included a hope that both systems would converge. One of Bahr and Brandt’s ideas was the creation of a body that would coordinate between NATO and the Warsaw pact. This model of transformation was doomed from the very beginning; the communist system proved to be unreformable. In retrospect, judging by the outcomes of this policy, one can say that it helped prolong the life of the Socialist “Commonwealth” through its dialogue with the West (and especially West Germany). The global Communist system and the Soviet Union did not change gradually under external influence; they eventually collapsed!

Schroederization emerged from Brandt-Bahr’s Ostpolitik. Recall that one of the key elements of Brandt’s policy toward Russia was a “gas for pipelines” deal suggested by Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Anatolii Gromyko during his visit to Hanover in 1969. Leonid Brezhnev energetically supported the idea and even ordered the buildup of a special secret channel of communication between Moscow and West Berlin that allowed the two sides to talk despite the global tensions of those times. Gradually, the Federal Republic of Germany became a trusted partner of the Soviet Union and often lobbied Moscow’s interests within the NATO alliance.

“Gas diplomacy” and the crucial role of Gazprom and Ruhrgas (with financial support from Deutsche Bank) became the foundation of German-Russian relations that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of its successor, Russia. The philosophy of “change through rapprochement” has been repeated with German leaders beginning with Helmut Kohl.

Leading Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier (currently head of the Social Democrat faction in the Bundestag) developed the concept of “growing closer by interweaving” and initiated Germany’s “Partnership for Modernization” that became part of the EU’s agenda for Russia. These are a logical follow-on from the same Ostpolitik. During Willy Brandt’s time, Ostpolitik had a “triad” of outcomes (not necessarily acknowledged by its architects): easing tensions, solving the energy problem for Germany, and helping the Soviet system to survive. Its new reincarnation has dual meaning: it helps to solve the German economic agenda (mainly its energy priorities), while at the same supporting the Russian system of personalized power. “The current German Chancellor,” wrote Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung with bitter irony, “has to, clenching her teeth, give Putin her two cheeks, in order not to damage the energy security of Germany.”

From Brandt’s Ostpolitik emerged in Germany a solid lobbying group that included not only the foreign policy bureaucracy but the commercial and industrial lobby (centered around the Ost-Ausschuss, the East Committee). This group shudders at the prospect of even the slightest chill in relations with the Kremlin and formed the basis for “Schroederization-Merkelezation.”

“The Social Democratic Party has a long tradition of promoting a policy toward Russia that is driven by a deep inclination to understand and accept quickly Russia’s deviation from Western models of democracy, human rights and civil society,” wrote German expert Joerg Himmelreich. Such a policy may not be limited to one party, however.

 “Regardless of who is chancellor, Social Democrat or Christian Democrat, Germany has to have a good relationship with the Russian leader,” explained Gernot Erler in 2005. “It has got to do with our geography, our history, the wars, the rivalries, the sensitiveness. It’s about Germany wanting Russia to be part of Europe.”

The counter to such a view is that Germany should have a good relationship not with the totalitarian or authoritarian Kremlin but with Russian society—and the two are very different. As long as “good relations” are defined as good relations with Russia’s system of personalized power, Russia will never become “part of Europe,” because the very existence of personalized power in Russia means a rejection of European rules and norms. And the effects are not limited inside Russia’s borders. For example, while Germany has succeeded in becoming the key distributor of gas in Europe, it has paid a steep price in corruption scandals.

 Klaus Manhold, chairman of the East Committee, which has been actively promoting business in Russia, likes to say again and again that bringing Russia closer to Europe “has been our long term aim.” In reality, the German efforts have helped in bringing Putin’s Russia closer to Europe by incorporating the corrupted Russian elite into Europe and turning Europe into a laundry machine for Russian money. None of this has helped Russia become more European.

Meanwhile, Germany has become the butt of jokes (at least in Russia) due to certain Germans’ excessive love for Putin. In 2011, the German organization Werkstatt Deutschland decorated Putin with a special prize, “Quadriga”. According to the organizers of the prize, Putin deserved a special chapter in the book of history because, like Peter the Great, he built a path toward the future(!). Among previous winners of the “Quadriga” have been Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Vaclav Havel. The chairman of the selection committee was Lothar de Maizière, a former East German who was a cabinet minister in Kohl’s government but had to resign after coming under suspicion of having connections with the Stasi. At the time of the award announcement, he served as co-chair of the steering commission of the symposium alongside Viktor Zubkov, chairman of Gazprom and a confidant of Putin. Enough said.

Fortunately, the award provoked an outcry in German society, in Russia, and beyond. Several German members of the board of Werkstatt Deutschland, among them one of the leaders of the Green Party, Cem Ozdemir, as well as a prominent history professor from Heidelberg University, Edgar Wolfrum, stepped down from the award’s board of trustees. Havel soon followed them and announced he was returning his prize. Embarrassed, the German group had to cancel the award “in light of the growing and unbearable pressure and the danger of further escalation.” After this, the Kremlin never forgave Havel and did not even express official condolences when he died.

To help us understand the changing moods in Germany toward Russia, we turned to one of the country’s most thoughtful political analysts, Heinrich Vogel. Here is what he said:

No, it’s no love-affair between Berlin and Moscow, it never has been. . . . The vast majority of Germans always were skeptical about instant success of “market-democracy”, the alleged destiny of mankind in the nineties. They knew first-hand having to integrate the former GDR.

The Christian Democrats in Berlin are caught in a true dilemma. Over the last twenty years, the Russian market with its undeniable potential attracted sizeable real investments from German big and even middle sized businesses who are key to winning the next elections to the Bundestag in 2013. This group is worrying about corruption in Russia and lack of predictability when they turn to Russian courts. They want a clear perspective for their engagement but so far Putin2 blew it. It’s not a happy partnership.

But these people are also worried about what they call “politicization” of economic relations, i.e. German politicians annoying the Kremlin by speaking out against the obvious course of Russian politics, forward towards the past.…Obviously politicians in Germany on whatever side of the aisle will not stop Mr. Putin from driving his country against the next wall by yelling at him. Asking questions, however, when and how he intends to make Russia a leading industrial state again (as he has promised) will cause additional heat on those in charge as the Russian people will continue calling for answers. Modernization only comes in a package with rule of the law, responsibility and a spirit of freedom.

As Vogel’s astute analysis reveals, Germans have started to ask questions. On November 9, representatives of all key parties in the German Bundestag (with the exception of the representative of the Left Party, Wolfgang Gehrcke) voiced sharp criticism of political developments in Russia. During the debate, Andreas Schockenhoff did not mince words, saying when “democratic freedoms are limited, when the principles of the rule of law are undermined, when the repressive tendencies are deepening, this . . . creates our deepest concern.” He blasted the Kremlin notion of “modernization”, repeating that “all modernization projects in Russia could be implemented only with the support of the population.” Instead, we see capital flight and “the creative class leaving Russia.”

During the debate, the most critical were the Greens. Their representative, Marieluise Beck, received applause when she pointed out that German companies were paying bribes for getting juicy contracts from the Kremlin, mentioning Siemens and Daimler in particular. Those who are behaving in such a way in Russia, she said, “can’t raise their voice in defense of the foundations of the rule of law state.”

Even usually accommodating Social Democrats were forced to change their tone. Their representative, Gernot Erler, admitted that the Russian leader had “disappointed many who had hopes” and “scared the opposition on all levels of the Russian society.” But at the same time, in a sign that old habits die hard, representatives of the Social Democrats urged Germany “not to teach” Russia and continue the “equal exchange of views.”

On November 9, the Bundestag resolution mentioned in detail Kremlin actions that constitute a crackdown on human rights and concluded:

The Bundestag notes with particular concern that since President Vladimir Putin’s return to office, legislative and judicial measures have been taken which collectively exert increased control over politically active citizens, increasingly criminalise critical engagement and set the government on a confrontational course with its critics.The Bundestag, in other words, unequivocally concluded that Putin’s abuses may limit the possibilities of the bilateral relationship.

In the end, the resolution that emerged was the result of compromise, and the most critical German deputies were not satisfied. Nonetheless, the very fact that the debate took place at all is of great significance and marks a shift in Germany’s Russia policy. No votes against the resolution were cast, meaning that the German political establishment across the political spectrum is increasingly worried about the direction in which Putin is taking Russia. This marks the first serious attempt to free Germany from the suffocating relationship with the Kremlin and may restore respect for the German government and leadership not only among its own civil society, but among Russian civil society and opposition, too. As Marieluise Beck noted, “The guys from the former KGB sitting in the Kremlin . . . have to be sensitive to our criticism.”

In mid-November, delegations from Germany and Russia will meet again for discussion of their cooperation. Will Berlin be ready to formulate a new policy based not only on interests but values, too? Is the German elite ready to go beyond thinking about a short-term tactical agenda? Time will tell, but one thing is apparent: the leadership can’t ignore German society’s growing frustration with its policy toward Putin’s Russia. Indeed, this rising frustration is not limited to Germany; elsewhere in Europe there is a sense that connivance with Putin’s regime must end, as reflected in recent resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly of Europe criticizing the Kremlin’s actions, growing support for sanctions legislation, and sharp criticism by the European media of the cozy relationship among many European leaders with Putin. All this will have an impact on Germany. Indeed, a new policy toward Russia could not only become a test of Germany’s ability to adopt a normative dimension but also a new model of German leadership.

Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. David J. Kramer, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is president of Freedom House in Washington, DC.