Merkel redefining ties with Moscow

Posted in Russia , Europe | 16-Jan-06 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. President George W. Bush, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington Friday, Jan. 13, 2006.
BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel, fresh from a first and very cordial official visit to Washington, travels Monday to Moscow, where she will put her own mark on Germany's long and complex relationship with Russia.

For more than two hours, Merkel, who was raised in Communist East Germany, where Vladimir Putin served as a KGB officer during the 1980s, will meet with the Russian president in the Kremlin. But then, in a break with tradition, Merkel will talk with representatives of human rights' organizations, the media and other associations in a show of support for those groups, which Putin has tried to marginalize.

Her meeting with Putin will have little of the male camaraderie of former times when Putin, a fluent German speaker, had established a close friendship with her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. So close was that friendship that when Schröder and his fourth wife, Doris, decided to adopt a child, they chose a little girl from an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown.

Schröder, Putin and President Jacques Chirac of France established an alliance against the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. It was a move that divided Europe, made it impossible for the European Union to develop a common foreign policy and led to a rift between Germany and the United States.

When Merkel met with President George W. Bush in Washington last week, the two leaders, while still expressing differences over the Iraq war, made it clear they wanted a fresh start.

"There is already a shift in German foreign policy," said Alexander Rahr, Russian expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Under Schröder, from 2000, Russia dominated German diplomacy at the expense of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Merkel wants to rescue the trans-Atlantic relationship by bringing Germany back into the Western picture."

"She also wants to stop the divisions between old and new Europe. This means redefining Germany's relationship with Russia. It will not be easy, because Merkel faces different pressures," he said.

Since 1945, one of the strategic interests of every German chancellor has been to forge a special relationship with the Kremlin. Its first post-war chancellor, the conservative Konrad Adenauer, instigated the policy by visiting Moscow in 1955.

His trip led to the release of the remaining German prisoners of war held by the Soviets and to a gradual thaw in a relationship deeply scarred by World War II but also shaped by mutual envy, respect and alliances over the centuries.

Later, the Social Democratic chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt pursued a policy of Ostpolitik in the belief that better ties with Moscow would ease East-West tension and improve relations between the Germanys.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the conservative who, with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, went further by trying to slowly bring Russia closer to Europe. But Kohl, unlike his successor, Schröder, always tried to balance Germany's relationship with the United States, the EU and Russia, an effort that Merkel wants to re-establish.

Kohl enjoyed a close friendship with Russia's president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, just as Schröder had with Putin. Merkel, however, despite being the first German chancellor to speak fluent Russian, is expected to keep more of a distance. Having grown up in the shadow of Russian occupation of East Germany she attaches particular importance to freedom, as she spelled out in her first parliamentary speech as chancellor.

Klaus Mangold, an adviser to DaimlerChrysler and chairman of the government-backed East-West Committee of German Industry, which deals with Russia, said the visit Monday will mark an important shift in Russian-German relations.

"The relationship will be based on a very different perspective because of Merkel's background," Mangold said. "Freedom is at the center of her political beliefs and, coming from the East, she has a different view of Russia."

"Putin and Merkel will not go to the sauna together, but I believe that Merkel will have no problem in establishing a pragmatic and open relationship," he said.

In her first speech as chancellor to the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, Merkel announced she wanted to establish a strategic partnership with Russia. The term, however, means different things to different groups, with German industry urging greater German and European support for Russia while the new member states of the EU, which gained their independence from Moscow only 15 years ago, want a much tougher European policy toward their former oppressors.

"It is not about integrating Russia fully into the EU," Mangold said. "It is about finding ways to make Russia competitive. This is in Germany's interests. The modernization of Russia should be top of the agenda."

"If Russia wants to be internationally competitive, it must invest and speed up the process. It is happening but not fast enough. German industry has a big role to play in developing Russia," he said.

Russia is one of Germany's most important trading partners. According to estimates from the Federal Bureau of Statistics, overall trade last year will total E37 billion, about $45 billion. Already, there are 4,800 German companies investing in Russia. And those ties will become even closer over the coming decade with the recent deal between German companies and Gazprom, the Russia state-owned gas monopoly, to build a pipeline under the Baltic Sea that will deliver Russian gas directly to Western Europe.

Mangold said Merkel should focus on ways to make Russia a more stable and prosperous neighbor of the EU.

"Germany cannot go it alone," he said. "We need a clear European policy over energy, customs regulations, technological standards and an industrial policy. It has to be a long-term strategy designed to bring Russia closer to Europe."

Even if Merkel wanted to help Russia move closer to the European Union, she would find it almost impossible to create a consensus among the bloc's 25 member countries.

Rahr said the new member states, particularly Poland and the Baltic countries, want the EU to adopt a much tougher policy toward Russia - especially in light of the recent energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Putin temporarily reduced supplies to Ukraine to force that country to pay world market prices for its energy imports.

They also want the EU to be more outspoken about human rights violations in Russia, like the crackdown on the freedom of the press and nongovernmental organizations.

Rahr said the pro-Russian countries in the EU, like France, Italy, Germany and even Britain, are no longer in a position to set the group's agenda. "The new member states have a completely different view of Russia, understandably," he said. "But they, too, have to sooner or later start defining what kind of relationship they want with Russia. This is something Germany has been trying to do since 1945."