09.11.2004
Why Schröder Loves Russia
№4 2004 October/December
Alexander Rahr

Alexander Rahr — Research Director, German-Russian Forum.



 

Germany’s
Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder believes that relations
between his country and Russia are now much better than at any time
in the past 100 years. His rapport with President Vladimir Putin
reveals greater friendliness, even mutual trust, in comparison with
his relations with U.S. President George W. Bush. This is a
phenomenon that would have been totally inconceivable just a few
years ago.

 

German
businesses regard the Russian market as second only to China in
terms of its lucrative prospects. The German treasury has received
positive signals from Russia: the government of Vladimir Putin, in
contrast with the former Yeltsin government, is making regular
payments on its foreign debt; Russia’s sovereign debt to Germany
has decreased from EUR 30 billion to about EUR 14 billion since
Putin came to the presidential office. Part of the debt has been
rescheduled. Germany is Russia’s biggest trade partner outside the
Commonwealth of Independent States, and accounts for about 10
percent of Russia’s foreign trade and about 20 percent of all
foreign investment in the Russian economy.

 

In
international relations, Germany, Russia and France put up mild
opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003, thus opening,
albeit cautiously, a new chapter in postwar European history. The
Iraqi crisis is destabilizing the construction of a new world
order, and if the Americans are unable to get the situation in Iraq
under control, their world leadership will be called into question.
In many ways, Berlin and Moscow share similar views of how that new
world order should be built.

 

CRITICISM
AGAINST PUTIN

 

When
Putin, a man whose past professional activity had been linked to
Germany, came to power, new prospects for a bilateral partnership
between Germany and Russia arose. Unfortunately, the opportunities
have not been used to their greatest potential since many people in
Germany and Europe, generally speaking, do not accept certain
aspects of Putin’s policy. For instance, Deputy Chancellor and
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer does not share Schröder’s
same euphoria about Russia – he believes that Russia under Putin is
drifting away from liberal values.

 

Germany’s
mass media has leveled sharp criticism at Schröder for his
rapprochement with “KGB-dominated Russia” and for his reluctance to
use his frequent meetings with Putin as an opportunity for
criticizing human rights violations in Chechnya, the selective –
and hence politicized – persecutions of oligarchs, and
encroachments on the freedom of speech. Journalists and public
figures in Germany so vehemently protested against plans to bestow
on Putin the title of Professor Emeritus of Hamburg University that
the gala ceremony was postponed indefinitely.

 

There is
yet another glaring example of how misunderstandings and
differences between the agendas of the two countries can put the
brakes on important initiatives. This is the St. Petersburg Dialog,
a forum that Putin and Schröder initiated back in 2000. Four
years later, it has failed to become a bridge into 21st century
Europe for Russia. The German participants in the dialog insist on
imposing upon Russia their vision of how to build a civil society
on the basis of the abundant experience that Germany gained after
World War II. However, the Russian participants do not need such
lessons. Rather, they need the dialog to attain pragmatic purposes,
like preserving the commonality of strategic interests in building
Europe’s future structures, the expansion of trade, the
establishment of cooperation in the energy sector and high
technologies (including the aerospace industry), mutual easing of
travel visa regulations, and the recognition of university
diplomas. What is more, the procedures in the format of the St.
Petersburg Dialog are overly bureaucratized, since those forums
bring together well-known policymakers and public figures rather
than ordinary members of civil society.

To sum up,
the “strong arm” policy – the consolidation of authoritarian
tendencies in Russia – hinders the process of rapprochement.
However, Schröder believes that the German news media and
bureaucracy pass overly biased judgments on the situation in Russia
and that their position creates problems. While most European
policymakers grieved about the collapse of liberal ideas at the
presidential and parliamentary elections in Russia, Schröder
was among the first foreign heads of state to visit Moscow and
congratulate Putin on his re-election. At a time when the European
Union is growing increasingly mistrustful of the Russian
president’s “authoritarian modernization” and is beginning to
compete seriously with Russia in a number of areas, the
German-Russian partnership is becoming something of a stabilization
locomotive in Eastern Europe.

 

STAKING ON
STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP

 

When
Schröder’s predecessor Helmut Kohl was still in office,
Germany became the main advocate of Russian interests in Europe
and, generally speaking, across the globe. It offered massive aid
to Russia in the early 1990s, a particularly hard time for the
country when the entire social and economic system was suffering
heavily. The Germans never forgot the role that Mikhail Gorbachev
and Boris Yeltsin played in the reunification of their
land.

 

Analysts
argue that, in 1999, it was German diplomats who successfully
managed to convince Yeltsin – infuriated by NATO’s war against
Serbia – to relinquish support for the Yugoslav dictator Slobodan
Milosevic and join the Western coalition’s peace plan in the
Balkans. On the other hand, Putin succeeded in using the drawn out
tête-à-tête with Schröder to convince him that
the Kremlin’s policy in Chechnya was correct. Following their first
several meetings, the Federal Chancellor was fascinated by Putin’s
concept of modernizing his country; Schröder applauded louder
than others when Putin addressed the Bundestag soon after September
11, 2001. At that time, the Russian president said: “Europe will
earn a solid and enduring reputation of a powerful and truly
independent center of world politics if it pools its own resources
with Russia’s resources – human, territorial, natural, economic,
cultural, and military.”

 

Moscow
does not harbor any illusions about its chances of joining the
European Union, as current trends in the development of the EU and
Russia are rooted in different and sometimes completely opposite
civilizational and cultural values. Russia is strengthening its
state structures through a tough centralization of power, while
Germany and other European nations are gradually dropping the idea
of a nation-state and delegating part of their sovereignty to the
pan-European center in Brussels.

 

In a way,
the latter fact explains why Moscow and Berlin are unable to
cooperate as closely in the development of strategies and concepts
as the Germans and French do for the benefit of the whole European
continent. Joint Russian-German activities trigger waves of
apprehensiveness in the new East European allies of the West. The
East Europeans are cautiously watching the progress of relations
between Moscow and Berlin.

 

And yet it
is clear as daylight that Russia and the EU are so tightly linked
to one another that close cooperation between them is predestined.
Russia will need reliable partners and allies in the processes
unfolding on the European continent. It was no accident that Putin
said in a recent speech at the Russian Foreign Ministry that
Germany, France and Italy have a genuine interest in maintaining
friendly relations with Russia. And Germany will definitely play a
leading role in that group.

 

It is true
that Germany speaks out most vigorously among the EU countries on
the issue of easing travel visa regulations for Russians. Germany
is ready to cooperate with Russia in building new pipelines across
the floor of the Baltic Sea that will double the throughput of
Russian crude oil exported to the West. Berlin has convinced its
West European partners to lease Russian transport aircraft for
airlifting European soldiers to hotbeds of tensions in the Middle
East.

 

Russia
responds in the spirit of reciprocity. It has given the Bundeswehr
permission to use Russian territory for the transits of cargoes to
German peacekeeping units deployed in Afghanistan. German companies
have been offered promising investment projects in Russia,
including in the energy sector where U.S. corporations dominated in
the 1990s. Furthermore, at a time when the Russian authorities have
forwarded charges against the oil major YUKOS, Putin said that
Russia was ready to lift restrictions so that German companies may
purchase stakes in the major natural gas producer, Gazprom. That
was good news for the German gas operator E.ON that has 6.5 percent
in the gas giant.

 

The German
business world is pushing Schröder into Putin’s arms. This is
not surprising, since Germany has always had a special business
approach to Russia, unlike other Western countries. Close economic
cooperation between the two countries began back in the mid-1970s,
especially in the energy sector. At that time, both governments
were mutually interested in stronger trade as an instrument of
building up contacts. German businesses received state insurance
coverage (Hermes Company) to protect them from the risks of working
in Russia. Thus, German businessmen working on the Russian market
have grown accustomed to special comforts in the form of protection
by their own government – something that companies from other
countries never enjoyed.

 

Russia is
heeding the opinions of its German partners. Russia agreed to the
advice of German banks, which called for the reform of the Russian
banking system before it joins the World Trade Organization.
Russia’s “bank crisis” of July 2004 cleared away many small lending
institutions that did not, in fact, engage in banking activities.
At the same time, German lending organizations have discovered new
opportunities for their own business on the Russian market. So some
observers are definitely correct in saying that Germany and Russia
enjoy a better relationship on the whole than the EU has with
Russia.

 

GERMAN-RUSSIAN LOCOMOTIVE OF THE 21ST CENTURY

 

Unfortunately, many politicians in the West have become
disenchanted with what is happening in Russia. Their conviction is
that the project of reshaping Russia along European standards, of
which there had been so much hope in the 1990s, has failed or, at
most, is a thing of a distant future. Yet, Schröder’s policy
toward Russia ranks him amongst a group of visionary Western
leaders who understand the importance of a strong, democratic and
stable Russia for Europe in the 21st century. These leaders do not
get discouraged when they find that a plan fails to work as
originally designed. The question of Russia’s place in the future
Europe has as much historic significance as that of the role that
the U.S. will play in the world in the
future.

Moscow is
sending a clear signal to Berlin that Russia stabilizes the
Eurasian continent and can serve as a window of opportunities for
Germany within that region. The Russians trust Germany and cherish
the hope that Berlin’s foreign policy will count Russia as a
strong, reliable, and highly cooperative neighbor of the EU, rather
than as an economically backward nation.

 

German-Russian relations will have good prospects if not
fermented by anti-American sentiment. Were Putin trying to drive a
wedge between the Europeans and Americans, like the Soviet leaders
did in the past, Germany would not be attempting to establish such
close contacts with him. Schröder needs a pro-European, rather
than anti-American, Russia. He realizes that the looming problems
of energy resource imports from the Persian Gulf countries, as well
as the ongoing conflicts with Islamic fundamentalists that the
European countries may become entangled in, will have severe
detriments for the Old Continent. As a result, support will have to
be sought elsewhere, including in Russia with its huge
resources.

No one can
rule out the possibility that Russia may at any given moment
discard its pro-Western orientation. However, with that said, the
profound and encouraging change that swept the country after the
fall of Communism is rather indicative that there is little chance
for any sort of political cataclysm. Actually, it is foreseeable
that the current German-Russian rapprochement will set the scene
for the construction of a powerful ’drive engine,’ similar to the
one built by the Germans and the French in the past. It played a
historic role in the rise of the European Union and in the general
blossoming of West European civilization.