Opinion: Merkel′s Chance for Change in Russia | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 05.12.2005
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Opinion: Merkel's Chance for Change in Russia

With a new government in Berlin, will the status quo continue in German-Russian relations? Perhaps -- but Merkel needs to smooth out some of the edges on her foreign policy, DW's Cornelia Rabitz says.


The boys'-club atmosphere may change -- but will the politics?

Following the visit of Germany's foreign minister to Moscow, anyone who feared new Chancellor Angela Merkel would be changing the basic course of Germany's Russia policy can rest at ease. And anyone who hoped for a new direction in that policy is no doubt disappointed.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier -- who was received in the Russian capital on Saturday with the highest level of diplomatic attention -- is the personification of a guarantee that the current good bilateral relations will continue. In Moscow, Steinmeier is anything but an unknown entity: He was chief of staff under Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder, and is therefore well versed in Germany's Russia policy. Some say he is even one of the architects of that policy.

Change in tone?

That said, it stands to reason there will be no basic alterations in the new German government's agenda when it comes to Russia. But in the end, it is the chancellor who will determine the basic direction of Germany's Russia policy. And she needs time to feel out her relationship with Moscow.

Schröder und Putin die dicksten Freunde

Schröder and Putin: backslappin' buddies

The chummy, boys'-club style relations that were the norm between previous Chancellor Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin are no longer the order of the day. With Angela Merkel in office, bilateral relations are unlikely to retain their backslapping atmosphere -- not only due to her gender, but as a general question of style. Yet it is unclear as to whether any change will remain on the surface, or if it will also extend to political nuances.

A few sore points

The Kremlin clearly saw Steinmeier's visit as a sign that relations will continue in the same positive vein. But a few important things remain to be seen. Will the new government continue to be as generous in terms of granting goodwill and whitewashing political misdeeds as the last one? Will it accept Schröder's positive assessment of the Russian leadership, and its "flawless democrat" Vladimir Putin? Will it, like its precursor, continue to treat Russia's authoritarian tendencies, constitutional deficiencies, questionable relations with the media, and the bloody conflict in Chechnya as topics to be regarded solely as the delicate subjects of confidential diplomatic talks?

Erdgas-Pipeline durch die Ostsee, Merkel, Putin

Merkel met Putin during oil pipeline talks in September

Surely it is too early to make a final judgement. But one may certainly hope for a more open attitude toward criticism.

Pressure from pipeline

For its part, the Kremlin is stressing continuity and the willingness to stick to tried-and-true mechanisms. It isn't hard to guess what form that will take: Russia delivers gas and petroleum, while Germany takes its deliveries and refrains from making any political judgements. Controversial topics are discussed behind closed doors, if at all. And both sides keep their hold on the Russian-German gas pipeline that runs through the Baltic Sea -- a nuisance for Poland and the Baltics.

Will Merkel's Christian Democrats hold to their election promises: to put an end to the axis of exclusivity between Berlin and Moscow, and stop duping the small EU states that lie at Russia's door? Will the new government improve its relations with Warsaw and Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius?

It seems Merkel herself, on a visit to Warsaw at the end of last week, gave a sign of what is to come: She tried to lessen the indignation. A committee has been charged with figuring out whether and how "third parties" can take part in the oil-pipeline project. If this turns out to be more than just a sop to smooth ruffled feathers, then it was the right direction to take in terms of foreign policy. But that still doesn't change the fact that in a few days, building is set to get underway on the pipeline, with accompanying pomp and ceremony.

Truth is welcome

No one seriously wants to resurrect the old status of conflict between Germany and Russia. No one is questioning the many interwoven contacts, the matured political and business relationships. And yet: The opposition in Russia -- human rights groups, non-governmental organizations (which are under considerable political pressure), and critical journalists, to name a few -- would be glad for more courage and the occasional truthful disclosure.

Meanwhile politics -- upended by the elections and change in government in Germany -- are returning to business as usual. Now, the timetable has been fixed. In the middle of January, Chancellor Merkel is traveling to Moscow. And in March, the delayed government consultations are finally taking place in the Russian city of Tomsk.

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