Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is unlikely to be punished for his Russian dealings, as Ukraine would like. But he's still coming under fire across the political spectrum in Germany.
Spokesman Steffen Seibert didn't waste many words at the German government's Monday press conference when asked about calls by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin for sanctions on former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Angela Merkel, Seibert said, saw "no reasons" to punish Schröder, who has held a variety of top posts with Russian companies and was recently described by the Wall Street Journal as "Putin's most important oligarch."
Ukraine is outraged that people in Russian-annexed Crimea were allowed to vote in Sunday's national election, which saw Vladimir Putin handed a fourth term as Russian president. After Seibert's statement, Klimkin said he was widening his appeal for sanctions against the former chancellor.
"The EU — both nationally and at the EU level — should act against such persons because they keep driving projects, Russian projects, which are supported by Russian companies, which are under EU sanctions and which are used now as a tool in the sense of Russian meddling into the European Union," Klimkin told Deutsche Welle in Brussels. "So on lobbyists like Gerhard Schröder, there should be a clear understanding (of) what is their role, and there should be a clear understanding what is the way forward."
Klimkin is in Brussels for consultations with EU foreign ministers as part of "Ukraine + Group of Friends of Ukraine in the EU" format.
"It’s the only way forward," Klimkin added, referring to sanctions on lobbyists. "Otherwise Moscow will come and simply try to meddle with the whole way in which the democratic institutions here in the European Union, in the whole civilized world, function. And Russia has been already doing that. Tolerating that would mean Putin could do something else any other day."
Playing Putin's game?
It is unclear what, if any, sanctions either Germany or the EU could impose on Schröder, who was German chancellor from 1998 to 2005 and has worked for a number of Russian energy companies. In particular, he has been blasted for joining Nord Stream, the company that runs a major gas pipeline between Russian and Germany, immediately after leaving office. As chancellor, Schröder worked closely with Putin to promote the pipeline. That's earned him, in some quarters, a reputation as a Putin stooge.
"Personally, I regret his decision because he's lost his credibility on foreign policy," conservative Member of the European Parliament David McAllister said in Brussels. "If you're on a payroll from the one side, it's very difficult to be considered as 100 percent neutral. It's his personal decision. He's now retired. I just personally hope that other chancellors, once they have retired in many years to come, won't do the same mistake. And I'm pretty sure the current chancellor won't."
Schröder has also been taken to task by a prominent member of the Green Party, Schröder's junior coalition partners during his time as chancellor.
"I would agree with what the Wall Street Journal has written recently," Green Bundestag deputy Omid Nouripour told DW in Berlin. "We don't need sanctions against Schröder. He didn't violate any laws. But we need to create awareness of what's going on. There are a lot of people who are very well-known, like former Chancellor Schröder, who are playing Putin's game in this country. This is dangerous."
A blast from a Ukrainian lobbyist
Another figure to blast Schröder was former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"It's his decision, but politically it's a disaster," said Rasmussen in Brussels. "I think the best way to proceed will be to really block the Nord Stream 2 project."
Rasmussen is an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and a vocal supporter of Ukrainian causes, so his words should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.
Despite a request for a statement, Germany's Social Democratic Party has thus far not taken an official position on the calls to sanction the former SPD chancellor. Schröder himself has insisted on numerous occasions that there is nothing illegal about his work for Russian companies.
'Cooling off' ex-politicians
The anti-influence-peddling NGO Lobby Control in Berlin said that it could not comment on a foreign-policy issue such as whether Schröder should be punished. But a spokesman added that the former chancellor should not be given special treatment because of his past.
"We do view Schröder's activities very critically," Lobby Control's Timo Lange told DW. "From our perspective, it's important that the German government and the SPD show that Schröder doesn't enjoy any special privileges or access because he was once the chancellor and the head of the party."
Lange echoed Nouripour's call for greater awareness in Germany of former politicians' lobbying activities and said that a 2015 law prohibiting the highest-level politicians from immediately accepting lobbying jobs after they leave office should be beefed up.
"We would favor extending the so-called 'cooling-off period' from the current maximum of 18 months," Lange said. "It remains to be seen how this rule will be enforced now, since it's the first time we've had a change of government."
Lange added that Germany should institute a registry for all lobbyists. Legislation to create one was put forward by the Greens and the Left Party during the last legislative period, but was shot down by the conservative-SPD government.
Reporting from Brussels by Teri Schultz.