It's official. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is now chairman of the Russian energy giant Rosneft's board of directors — an appointment that has caused plenty of controversy here in Germany.
As far as top jobs go, you could do worse. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has reached the Mount Olympus within the Russian energy sector with his appointment to the board of the energy giant Rosneft, which is 70 percent state-controlled. The icing on the cake is his appointment as chairman of the board of directors — a move that triggered incredulity here in Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel described his involvement with Rosneft as "out of order." The world's biggest oil company has been subject to EU sanctions following Russia's unlawful annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula.
Others were even more scathing in their criticism. Andreas Scheuer, the general secretary of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, referred to Schröder, who was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005, as a "Russian mercenary," while Reinhold Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens, described him as a "paid servant of Putin and his policies."
Part of that rhetoric stems from Schröder's perceived bond of trust with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the Social Democrat lost to Merkel in the 2005 election, he joined the Nord Stream pipeline consortium, which is controlled by Russia's Gazprom. He later switched to join an extension of the original pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, and became chairman of the shareholders' committee.
Prior to his appointment to Rosneft, Schröder spoke out vehemently against his critics: "This is about my life, and I decide — not the German press."
The Social Democrats (SPD) have repeatedly begged to differ. Martin Schulz, who ran as chancellor candidate for the SPD this year, went to great lengths to distance himself from Schröder's conduct, stopping just short of breaking off all ties to the party's last chancellor.
Though Schröder defended his involvement with Russia as a "private matter," Schulz maintained that even a "former chancellor can only be a private citizen to a certain extent," especially — as was and is Schröder's wont — if former political leaders continue to meddle in day-to-day politics.
Schröder did just that at a speaking engagement on Wednesday. He questioned whether Schulz's decision not to enter into another grand coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats in the wake of the SPD's election debacle "was sensible." At the same event, he urged an end to penalties for Russia's meddling in Ukraine, saying that it would be wrong to punish the country "indefinitely with sanctions."
On Putin's payroll
Such comments have raised the hackles of many observers. Stefan Meister, an expert on Russian affairs with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Schröder stopped being an honest broker a long time ago. "If he's on the payroll, it rules him out as someone in the Kremlin who could possibly improve ties with Russia," Meister told DW. "All he's doing is representing Russian business interests."
Rather than building bridges, Meister said, Schröder poses a substantial problem for his own party. "The SPD's problem is that they've failed to distance themselves from him and still see Schröder as Putin's main go-to person in Germany," Meister said. "They're ignoring the fact that he's being paid."
Meister also pointed out that, even if Schröder enjoys a close relationship with President Putin, issues such as the conflict over Ukraine could not be solved with the stroke of a pen.
Not surprisingly, Putin's inner circle has a different take on the issue. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told the newspaper Die Welt that Schröder's appointment was a "significant move." Novak said he expected it to have positive effects on the markets and saw it as an important step toward "re-establishing and further developing the ties between Russia and Europe."
Novak had previously said that Schröder would become an "independent board member," which would also benefit Germany: "When such people join such companies, it also helps these companies become more transparent and easier to understand."
It's safe to say that many people here in Germany will find that hard to believe.