Gernot Erler is Germany's new Russian affairs coordinator. The Social Democratic Party lawmaker's appointment signals a new approach to the relationship, experts say.
Germany's new Russian affairs coordinator, experts say, will likely tone down criticism of Moscow in the future - at least in public. The Social Democratic Party member of parliament Gernot Erler speaks Russian and is regarded as an expert on Eastern Europe. Erler also served as minister of state in the Foreign Ministry from 2005 to 2009, during the first grand coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and SPD.
The 69-year-old succeeds Andreas Schockenhoff as Berlin's point man on Russia. The CDU lawmaker's fierce public criticism of domestic developments in Russia resulted in his fall from grace with the government in Moscow. German observers are divided in their assessment of Schockenhoff's record. Green lawmaker Marieluise Beck is sad to see Schockenhoff go. She told DW he "was very active on behalf of Russia's civil society."
Peter Schulze, however, believes Schockenhoff's approach failed. The professor for political science and Russian studies at the University of Göttingen hopes Erler will tie in with the first grand coalition's Russia policies, which in essence means focussing on "partnership in all its forms."
A difficult task awaits Erler, Schulze says, because like the US, Russia won't tolerate being told off. It's important to be in "permanent dialogue with such countries" Schulze says. A crucial move would be for Erler to suggest to Moscow that "slightly different policies" are in Russia's own best interest.
He will not criticize Russia less than his predecessor did, Erler told DW, but he pointed out the importance of trying to "understand the position of the other side in view of political developments and the past."
Hans-Henning Schröder, of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), cautions observers against overrating Erler's nomination to the post. Schröder expects a more guarded approach, but no radical changes, because ultimately Merkel is the one who determines German foreign policies.
Alexander Rahr, research director at the German-Russian Forum, disagrees. The nomination, he says, give the Social Democrats the opportunity to "implement their view of Germany's Russia politics."
Rahr expects Berlin to take a "pragmatic" approach, pointing out a passage in the coalition treaty that mentions "common interests and not just values." It's all in the context of the SPD's historic "Ostpolitik" eastern policies, research director Rahr says: "Change through rapprochement."
While experts in Moscow welcomed Erler's nomination, they were not too upbeat. "Erler is no less critical," says Vladislav Below, head of the Center for German Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. But Erler will most likely "tone down his criticism somewhat," Below adds.
Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Russia's Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, believes Erler may be in a position to rekindle the currently tepid German-Russian relations. Criticism will likely be voiced in a less public manner, he says - an approach that could be "more successful."
Erler has said he sees his task as holding "constructive dialogue" with Russia, while at the same time leaving Moscow "room for saving face."