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Germany

Schröder Calls Pipeline Job "an Honor"

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has deflected criticism over his new job Tuesday as calls continue to mount for a code of conduct for government officials once they leave office.

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Schröder doesn't understand what all the fuzz is about

Following a firestorm this weekend over his acceptance of a top job on a Russian and German pipeline project, Schröder denied that he was already thinking of a future post while setting up a deal.

"A lot of silly things are being spread in the political community and in the media," he told Süddeutsche Zeitu n g in his first public comments on the issue. "In the past, I supported this project politically because I thought it made sense. I'm only 61 years old and I want to work --I don't want to get in my wife's way at home. Besides, it is an honor."

He said that talk over his compensation -- reportedly up to one million euros ($1.19 million) -- was "pure invention" since the topic has not yet been broached. He noted that he was only offered the job on Friday and accepted it after consulting German companies involved in the project. And he added that he was considering legal action.

Need code of co n duct

Some German politicians believe Schröder is crossing the fine line separating politics from business, and have criticized him for choosing to work in such a controversial area.

"I would never have imagined that a German head of government could act ... with such a lack of instinct," said parliament president and CDU member Norbert Lammert.

Even politicians from Schröder's own Social Democratic Party were skeptical.

NATO-Verteidigungsminister in Brüssel Peter Struck

Struck is not defending Schröder

"I would not have done it," said Peter Struck, who served as defense minister in the coalition government led by Schröder. "But Gerhard Schröder is a private individual and can do what he wants."

Meanwhile, criticism of the chancellor's actions has led to a call for a new code of conduct that would limit government officials' employment in the private sector after leaving office. Chancellor Angela Merkel is open to such an initiative, officials said.

Christian Wulff, a leading member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, said he should not take the position.

"With his behavior, Gerhard Schröder has inflicted heavy damage to the image of politics in Germany," Wulff, Schröder's successor as premier of the state of Lower Saxony, told Bild newspaper.

Pipeli n e n ecessary

The issue began after Russian energy giant Gazprom announced on Friday that Schröder would head the supervisory board of the consortium building the North European Gas Pipeline. Schröder left office on Nov. 22 when Angela Merkel was sworn in, and he gave up his parliamentary seat the day after.

Putin Schröder

Putin and Schröder during the signing ceremony for the pipeline

The four-billion euro agreement to construct the pipeline was signed on Sept. 8, just 10 days before the German general election, in a high-profile ceremony attended by Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pipeline will link the massive Russian gas fields with Germany under the Baltic Sea and has enraged Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and other countries which will miss out on lucrative fees paid when pipelines cross their territory.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that the consortium is led by Matthias Warnig, a former high-ranking officer of the infamous East German secret police, the Stasi. Schröder has argued that the pipeline is an essential piece of Germany's future energy strategy.

The pipeline will help meet the country's growing gas needs -- about half of all German homes are heated by gas and three-quarters of new homes have gas heating.

Close relatio n ship

The press in Poland, already extremely critical of the project, was furious on Monday.

"The fact that he is taking a job in a company led by a former Stasi agent and with Russian President Vladimir Putin as one of the big bosses, 15 days after vacating the chancellery, is compromising to Schroeder the statesman," wrote the center-left Gazeta Wyborcza.

While in office, Schröder had a close political and personal relationship with Putin, who speaks fluent German.

Stretching for 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) under the Baltic Sea from Vyborg near St. Petersburg to Greifswald on the northeastern coast of Germany, the pipeline is scheduled to go into operation in 2010, initially delivering 27.5 billion cubic meters a year which will rise to 55 billion.

Gazprom will control 51 percent of the venture while EON, the leading German energy group, and BASF, the world's biggest chemicals maker, will hold 24.5 percent each.

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