Analysis: Germans enter new phase in relations with Russia

Posted in Europe , Russia | 22-May-07 | Author: Mark Landler| Source: International Herald Tribune

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin at the Russia-EU Summit last Friday.

FRANKFURT: Germany's relations with Russia were never likely to be as cozy under Chancellor Angela Merkel as under her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who adopted a 3-year-old Russian girl and invited President Vladimir Putin to his private home to toast his 60th birthday.

But Merkel's tense exchanges with Putin over human rights and other contentious issues at a Europe-Russia summit meeting last week underscore how much has changed - at least in tone.

"Our talks today showed that we are not cooperating very intensively," said Merkel, who was there as the current holder of the rotating presidency of the European Union. She also scolded Putin for barring anti-government demonstrators from the meeting, in the southeastern Russian city of Samara.

Moscow, Putin replied frostily, planned to defend its interests "in the same professional way as our partners do."

What is less clear is how Germany and Russia will navigate this new phase in their relationship - one of the most sensitive, strategically important and historically fraught in the diplomatic world.

The hiccups between Berlin and Moscow are dominating political debate here, fueling almost as much anxiety as the impasse between Germany and the United States four years ago over the Iraq war.

Part of the problem, analysts say, is that Germany's grand coalition government is divided about how to handle a Moscow that is using its mineral wealth to project its authority. Merkel's Christian Democrats favor a cordial but more distant relationship, while Schröder's Social Democrats are eager to build on the ties he forged while in office.

Even in retirement, Schröder casts a long shadow. His former chief of staff, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is the foreign minister, and has formulated a policy toward Russia deliberately reminiscent of Ostpolitik, the eastward-facing policy pioneered by Willy Brandt in the early 1970s.

Schröder is also the chairman of a German-Russian project to build a $5 billion gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea - a lucrative post that critics say effectively places him on Putin's payroll. It also reminds Germans of their heavy dependence on Russia for imported fuel.

A leading Social Democratic politician, Peter Struck, said recently in an interview that Germany should keep the United States and Russia at "an equal distance." That draws criticism from some of Merkel's advisers, who prefer to focus on rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship.

"We have to make it clear there is no reasonable doubt about which camp we are in," said Eckart von Klaeden, a foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democrats in the German Parliament, who advises Merkel. "We are in NATO; we are in the European Union."

Von Klaeden characterized Russia as a nation of "shrinking democracy and civil rights," and said that while good relations were important, "we should not accept behavior that is not reasonable."

Despite her blunt criticism of Putin in Samara last week, analysts said Merkel had generally walked a middle line between the pro-American and pro-Russian camps in Berlin.

A physicist who speaks Russian and grew up in the former East Germany, she has put stronger relations between the European Union and Russia high on her list of priorities. But she has refused to gloss over Russia's tattered human-rights record, as Schröder often did.

"Germany is still trying to salvage some kind of a strategic partnership with Russia, while a majority of European countries question whether that even makes sense anymore," said Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

"We have a long tradition of quarrels within the German political elite about how to handle Russia," Rahr said. But this, he said, is not as big a problem as Russia's relations with other members of the European Union. Poland and Estonia have clashed bitterly with Russia over issues like a ban on Polish meat and the removal of a Soviet-era statue in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

With France and Britain making the transition to new leaders - Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown - who are viewed as more trans-Atlantic, and less European, in orientation than their predecessors, analysts say Merkel is likely to remain Russia's main European interlocutor.

German domestic politics, however, may make it increasingly difficult for her to maintain a balance between East and West. Already, analysts say, the Social Democrats are using Russia policy as a way to set themselves apart from their coalition partners, the Christian Democrats.

"We have to think about what stage Russia is in now, and from this point of view, to offer new possibilities to Russia," said Gert Weisskirchen, a foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats. "If you listen to Eckart von Klaeden, he's not thinking in terms of history."

The Social Democrats recently awarded a safe parliamentary constituency to Steinmeier, a career civil servant, setting him up as a potential challenger to Merkel in the next election.

Germany's delicate relationship with Russia can be seen in its ambivalent reaction to the Bush administration's plan to deploy a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia has harshly criticized the plan, saying it would jeopardize its strategic defenses. Putin even threatened to pull out of a treaty on conventional forces in Europe as retaliation.

Merkel urged the United States to engage in a broader consultation about the system with its allies, while Steinmeier publicly fretted that it would kick off a new arms race in Europe.

Some analysts fault the United States for failing to articulate a clear rationale for the missile defense system. This, they say, has aggravated the suspicion of Washington in some quarters of Berlin, and has, in turn, deepened the gulf between the pro-American and pro-Russian camps.

"All the various differences within Germany are coalescing around Germany's relationship with Russia," said John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany who now works as a banker in Berlin. "The question is," he said, "will Germany try to do what it has always done: perform a balancing act?"