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German-Russian partnership

September 30, 2010

Since German reunification, Berlin and Moscow have built a strategic partnership based on common economic interests. As a result, Germany has faced accusations that it neglects human rights and democracy in Russia.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
German and Russian leaders have cultivated friendships since ReunificationImage: AP

Germany's reunification laid the foundation for a new era in its relationship with Russia. Berlin and Moscow have forged a strategic partnership based on deepening economic cooperation through a history of close personal ties between their political leaders.

Germany has become Russia's top trade partner and receives a third of its natural gas from Russia. But as economic cooperation between these European heavyweights has increased, Moscow's commitment to democracy and human rights has waned. The war in Georgia, the assassination of journalists, and the Kremlin's centralization of state power have raised concern in Western capitals.

In the wake of the global economic crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Dmitry Medvedev recommitted their two countries to a strategic economic partnership. Yet Berlin has faced criticism that it is placing economic interests above human rights and democratic reform.

Strategic partnership through personal friendship

During the negotiations on German reunification, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev cultivated a close personal relationship that paved the way for an emerging strategic partnership. Gorbachev agreed to Germany's full sovereignty and its continued membership in NATO, while Kohl approved billions in loans to help keep Russia's crumbling economy afloat.

In November of 1990, Gorbachev visited the newly reunited Germany for the first time to sign the Treaty on Good Community, Partnership and Cooperation. The Soviet Union traded its political influence in Central Europe for a powerful new economic partnership with Germany. Kohl envisioned a treaty that would "intensify relations in all areas" and not simply "remain paper."

Workers inspect piece of North Stream Pipeline
Construction of the Nord Stream pipeline began in AprilImage: picture alliance/dpa

When Gorbachev left office in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, Kohl delivered on his promise and cultivated close personal ties with Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation's first president. The German Chancellor remained largely uncritical even as Moscow waged war in the breakaway province of Chechnya.

German-Russian relations deepened as the governments changed hands in Berlin and Moscow. Gerhard Schroeder - who followed Kohl as chancellor - led the Social Democrats, the party that had forged closer ties with the Eastern Block under Willy Brandt. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent stationed in East Germany, spoke fluent German.

The two leaders forged a personal friendship that bore economic fruit for both countries. Schroeder approved the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline, which will deliver Russian gas directly to Germany across the Baltic Sea. And German firms are favored by the Kremlin in its drive to modernize Russia's economy. Siemens, for example, is helping to strengthen Russian wind energy and rail infrastructure.

Turning a blind eye?

Berlin has faced accusations that its strategic partnership with Moscow has come at the expense of democracy and human rights in Russia. When Putin came to power, he began unraveling the democratic reforms of the 1990s by consolidating political power in the hands of the Kremlin and restricting press freedom. Meanwhile, Schroeder called the Russian president a flawless democrat, provoking criticism from Amnesty International.

Bulgarien protesting Vladimir Putin's visit.
Critics say Berlin has puts its economic interests above human rightsImage: AP

Berlin took a new tack toward Moscow when Angela Merkel - who grew up in East Germany and speaks Russian - became Chancellor in 2005. Merkel distanced her government from Russia, openly criticizing the democratic deficits under Putin and raising concern over a string of assassinations targeting regime critics.

However, the global economic crisis has put economic cooperation at the forefront of German-Russian relations once again. Last July, Merkel visited Russia to secure deals for German exporters. Berlin and Moscow committed themselves to working in the high-tech field, and President Dmitry Medvedev asked German firms to participate in his country's modernization.

"[There are today] very close economic relations with Russia, a good political cooperation and collaboration within the G8 and G20," Merkel said.

Russians, however, seem to be more optimistic than Germans about bilateral ties. According to a representative poll taken by the German-Russian Forum, three-fourths of Russians characterize relations with Germany as "good" or "very good." In Germany, a little more than half of those asked characterized relations with Russia in the same way.

Despite the discrepancy, the German-Russian strategic partnership will likely remain a cornerstone of the two countries' foreign policies due to overlapping economic interests.

"Twenty years of German unity have not only changed life in Germany and the European Union," Medvedev said. "They have also put Germany's relationship to the world's important actors on a whole new footing."

Author: Roman Goncharenko, Spencer Kimball
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn