April 29 (Bloomberg) -- Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s 70th-birthday bash in St. Petersburg with President Vladimir Putin says more about splits in Germany over attitudes to Russia than his choice of friends.
Schroeder, who has had close ties to the Russian leader since his time as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was pictured in a bear hug with Putin yesterday hours after the U.S. and the European Union announced a new round of sanctions against Russia over its aggression toward Ukraine.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government moved today to distance itself from the encounter, Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party, now in coalition with Merkel, was less keen to criticize its former leader. Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the SPD parliamentary group, said he thought Schroeder might have been seeking to win the release of Organization for Security and Cooperation observers, including German nationals, who are being held by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
“There are big tensions in the SPD on Russia-Ukraine,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. German SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier “wants a balanced approach, but many party rank and file want the old line of understanding, engagement and no difficulties with Russia.”
Schroeder, who once called Putin “a flawless democrat,” was appointed chairman of Nord Stream AG, which built and operates the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany, within three months of leaving office. He has adopted two children from Russia with his wife, Doris, and makes no secret of his friendship with Putin, a fluent German speaker who was a KGB agent in former East Germany.
Schroeder’s personal ties to Putin’s homeland are a microcosm of Germany’s economic relations with Russia. Germany gets about a third of its gas from Russia and is Russia’s biggest European trading partner. About 6,000 German companies do business in Russia, while the jobs of 350,000 German workers depend on Russian trade, according to the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, an organization representing Germany’s main business lobbies.
The birthday party, to which 100 guests were invited yesterday at the Yusupov Palace, was hosted by Nord Stream, according to a report in Germany’s Bild newspaper. Nord Stream is 51 percent owned by OAO Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopoly and the nation’s biggest company.
Bild published photos of Schroeder waiting outside the palace for Putin to arrive and then flashing a broad grin as he hugged the Russian leader as he emerged from his car. The palace was where Grigory Rasputin, a Russian mystic and adviser to the family of the last czar, was murdered in 1916.
Also at the party was another SPD politician, Prime Minister Erwin Sellering of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the northern German state where the 1,224-kilometer (760-mile) Nord Stream pipeline comes onto land at Lubmin after running under the Baltic Sea from Vyborg, Russia.
“Sellering’s presence is more tricky than that of Schroeder, who’s no longer in power,” Forbrig said. “Having a leading SPD politician there begs the question for Merkel of what the German line is.”
A German government official, speaking to reporters in Berlin today on condition of anonymity, said that Schroeder wasn’t working in the name of Merkel’s government and stressed that he has clearly left active politics.
The SPD’s Oppermann told reporters that didn’t know what Schroeder discussed in his “private meeting” with Putin, “but I’m quite sure that he has made it clear to the Russian president that he actively has to do something for the release of the hostages and the end of the destabilization of eastern Ukraine.”
Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Merkel’s caucus, told the same news briefing that “we’ll have to reassess the hugging image” in light of Oppermann’s suggestion.
“As it stands, I can’t see it as useful, but if good news comes in the coming days, then there would have been something positive to come from this image,” Kauder said.
The SPD’s divisions regarding Russia were evident in two contributions in this week’s Der Spiegel magazine.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier said in an interview that Putin is “playing a dangerous game with potentially dramatic consequences, especially for Russia itself.”
In contrast, Erhard Eppler, a former minister under SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt, who pushed the Ostpolitik of normalizing Cold War ties via a series of treaties with the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, said he thinks Putin can best be compared to Merkel because he does what his voters expect him to do. Eppler, in a two-page essay, said it’s crucial to keep in mind that the crisis started in Kiev.
“What then came out, nobody knows how, was a transitional government and staunchly anti-Russian team who first had to be taught they couldn’t immediately eliminate Russian as an official language and join NATO,” said Eppler. “A Russian president who simply stood by and watched would have sooner or later been chased out of office.”
Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and speaks Russian, initially urged engagement with Russia to help resolve the Ukraine standoff before voicing growing exasperation with Putin. A poll today suggested that her handling of the Ukraine crisis is helping to buoy her support before she travels to Washington on May 1 for talks with President Barack Obama.
Merkel’s personal approval rating rose two percentage points to 58 percent in the weekly Forsa poll. That compared to 14 percent for her SPD Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.
“Merkel’s popularity is unbroken,” Manfred Guellner, the Forsa chief, was cited as saying in a statement. Just as she did throughout the euro crisis, during the Ukraine conflict Merkel “gives the impression that she’s taking care of things,” exuding a “presidential” style, he said.
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