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Germany's ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder under attack

August 8, 2022

The once-popular former German chancellor has lost sympathy with his party and the public over his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gerhard Schröder
The EU parliament's call for sanctions follows a decision by Berlin to cut back Schröder's special rights as an ex-chancellorImage: localpic/imago images

Since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine in February Gerhard Schröder has been under fire for his close ties to the Kremlin and for his reluctance to cut his business ties with Russia.

The former German chancellor has seen friends and former political companions turn their backs on him, and the former chancellor is increasingly isolated.

The center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — now heading the coalition government under Olaf Scholz —  has been trying for months to get Gerhard Schröder to give up his membership. Without success.

There were more than a dozen applications for party expulsion in the SPD. But the procedure is complicated and dragged on.

Protesters holding up anti-Schröder placard in Berlin (March 6, 2022)
Protesters against the war in Ukraine has called for Gerhard Schröder to be put on the sanctions listImage: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP

Cutting privileges, mulling sanctions

Schröder, who headed the SPD from 1999 to 2004, took on jobs with Russian energy giants after he lost the 2005 election. He became chairman of the supervisory board of the Russian-German company Nord Stream AG, which is majority-owned by Russian state energy company Gazprom.

In 2017, Schröder was named chairman of the supervisory board for the Russian state energy company Rosneft — a position Schröder finally gave up in May bowing to pressure at home.

The German parliament voted to cut back Schröder's special rightsand privileges as a former chancellor, stripping him of his taxpayer-funded office and staff.

These are part of the privileges allowing former chancellors to continue political work. "The budgetary committee observes that former Chancellor Schröder no longer carries out any duties that result from his former office," the proposal read.

At the time, Finance Minister Christian Lindner from the FDP told Welt-TV that it was unthinkable that a former chancellor who is now "openly doing lobby work for the criminal rule of Vladimir Putin is still given an office by taxpayers."

However, most of Schröder's office staff had long resigned or been transferred to other posts in parliamentary business. Even his longtime office manager and speechwriter, Albrecht Funk, who worked with Schröder for two decades, turned his back on him in March.

The 78-year-old former chancellor is however not likely to lose his pension, which equates to an annual salary in the region of €100,000 (roughly $105,000).

In May, the European Parliament also passed a resolution urging sanctions on Schröder and other EU political figures with financial ties to Russia.

graffiti at Berlin's East Side Gallery in Berlin of Schröder and Putin embracing, the slogan reads in German and Russian 'Dear God, help me to survive this love'
In Berlin, a new graffiti shows Schröder and Putin embracing. 'Dear God, help me to survive this deadly love' is the text in German and Russian.Image: Anne Barth/REUTERS

Humble beginnings

Schröder was born in the small town of Blomberg in 1944. His father was killed in action in World War II and he and his brother were raised by his mother, an agricultural laborer. Schröder later worked as a sales clerk and as an unskilled construction worker while studying at night school to get his qualification for university entrance. He went on to study law and worked as a lawyer until 1990.

Schröder joined the Social Democratic Party in 1963. From 1978 he headed the party's youth organization. In 1980, Schröder was elected to the federal parliament, the Bundestag.

He headed the government of his home state of Lower Saxony from 1990 to 1998 before becoming chancellor in 1998. He lost the 2005 federal election and was succeeded by Angela Merkel of the center-right Christian Democratic Union.

As chancellor, Schröder worked hard to build Germany's economic ties with Russia via the "change through trade" policy. Which was in line with his party's policies towards the former communist state.

Gerhard Schröder and Soyeon Schröder-Kim laughing and dancing at the annual press ball in Berlin in 2019
Gerhard Schröder and his fifth wife, Soyeon Schröder-Kim, used to enjoy celebrity status Image: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

Changed personality

In an interview with the New York Times, Schröder explicitly defended Putin against accusations about the massacre of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Schröder claimed that the orders had not come from Putin himself, but rather from military commanders on the ground. The former chancellor seemed unaware that Putin personally awarded medals to the soldiers who were on duty in Bucha.

The media have also been speculating about the former chancellor's alcohol consumption after the New York Times article said Schröder had consumed copious amounts of white wine in the interview while sneering at his critics.

"Schröder's position on Putin's war is characterized by false solidarity and weakness," Saxony's former Justice Minister Christian Pfeiffer told the RND media network in May. Pfeiffer is a longtime party friend of the ex-chancellor and sees Schröder's statements as indications of a personality change that worries him: "The man we're witnessing now is no longer the Gerhard Schröder we know from his time as chancellor."

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