Putin and Schröder: A special German-Russian friendship under attack | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.10.2020
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Putin and Schröder: A special German-Russian friendship under attack

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has described the former German chancellor as an "errand boy" who is "paid" by the Russian president. DW takes a look at the two men's close and enduring relationship.

The close friendship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Schröder, often described as a "bromance," is seen by many critics as providing a vindication for Putin's increasingly autocratic control over Russian politics.

The friendship goes back a long way. Many in Germany still remember a 2004 interview in which Schröder was asked whether Putin was a "flawless democrat," to which the former chancellor responded: "Yes, I'm convinced that he is." His answer was, of course, dynamite.

Read more: Politicians in Germany warn ex-Chancellor Schröder to quit Russian posts

Back in March 2004, the "flawless democrat" had just won 71% of the vote in Russia's presidential election, taken control of most key state institutions, made it more difficult to set up new political parties and clamped down on the activities of non-governmental organizations.

But it is clearly a different Putin that Schröder has in mind: the Vladimir Putin with whom he shares an intimate friendship. The Vladimir Putin who takes him on a Christmas sleigh ride in Moscow. And the Vladimir Putin who visited Schröder's home in Hanover to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin walking together (Imago/Itar-Tass)

Schröder and Putin, seen here in St. Petersburg in 2005, go back a long way

Buddies with a shared blind spot

As early as 2004, Schröder was willing to leap to Putin's defense and, in essence, that is the way it has stayed.

But why is the former German chancellor so willing to side with an autocrat? Gernot Erler — Russia expert and, like Schröder, a member of Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — believes he has the answer to that question.

"We will never hear any criticism of Putin's actions coming from Gerhard Schröder," he said. "And that is precisely because of their long-lasting friendship. For Schröder this means that no matter what the facts are: they stand by each other at all cost."

Read more: Schröder accuses Merkel of 'fatal mistakes' over CDU power struggle

In 2005, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his SPD party lost a snap election by a narrow margin. He gave up his seat in parliament and announced that his political career was over.

At Putin's request, Schröder was swiftly appointed chairman of the offshore natural gas pipeline Nord Stream. Less than a month after leaving the chancellery, he had allowed the Russian president to convince him of the "European dimension of the project."

European dimension? Poland and the Baltic republics have vehemently criticized Schröder's backing for Nord Stream. And in Germany, too, there have been loud rumblings. Schröder's political opponents were quick to label him a "shameless turncoat" and his new post "indecent." After all, he had given massive backing to the pipeline project while he was, so very recently, still in office.  

Partying in St. Petersburg, war in Ukraine 

In 2014, Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday in style: in St. Petersburg — at the invitation of Nord Stream. He greeted his special guest, Putin, with a big hug and described him as an extremely reliable friend with whom he had developed a relationship based on mutual trust. "Call it a friendship," Schröder said. But, he insisted, the two friends did not "talk politics."

Schröder hugging Putin as he gets out of his car (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Maltsev)

In 2014, Schröder was widely criticized for hugging his friend Putin, who had just recently ordered the invasion of Crimea

At that time Russia had just recently violated international law by annexing the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that officially belonged to Ukraine. And in the east of Ukraine, a civil war had just broken outbetween Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Extravagant birthday celebrations were underway in St. Petersburg while, just a thousand kilometers to the south, there was war. For many in Berlin, this amounted to an unacceptable provocation.

Schröder's seemingly "uncritical" friendship with Putin regularly makes news in Germany. In 2016, Schröder pointed to history for an explanation of the profound relationship. "Both of our families suffered terribly during World War II. I lost my father. Putin's brother died during the German siege of Leningrad," said Schröder. "And," he continued, Putin had "kept every promise that he has made, as I have, too."

Read more: Who are the allies of Putin and Russia in Germany?

Schröder goes on the offensive

A year later, in 2017, the Russian government proposed Schröder as chairman of the board of directors at Rosneft. This was shocking for many observers, given that the state-owned oil giant was on the European Union's sanction list for its involvement in the annexation of Crimea.

"It's my life and it's me who decides what to do with it, and not the German press," Schröder said defiantly in his defense.

Schröder sitting in front a backdrop reading Rosneft (Reuters/O. Astakhova)

In 2017, Schröder became chairman of the board of directors at Rosneft

In the same year, in the middle of a general election campaign in Germany, Schröder went out of his way to criticize the stationing of German Bundeswehr forces in Lithuania, close to the Russian border. "That sends completely the wrong signal," said the former chancellor. Germany's NATO allies were outraged.

In an interview with Die Zeit newspaper, Schröder then applauded the Russian leader for his "rational behavior," and added, "Compared with the US president, we should be glad to have Putin."

Two years later, Schröder was again celebrating his birthday — this time his 75th. And Putin took the occasion to praise the former chancellor's "high level of international authority and his central personal role in promoting German-Russian relations."

Schröder is still clearly determined to defend these relations. And in his interview podcast at the end of September, he insisted there were "no proven facts" that Russia was behind the recent poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny —although Germany's military laboratory had announced that thesamples taken from his blood confirmed the presence of a nerve agent from the banned Novichok family.

When Navalny then called Schröder Putin's "errand boy," Schröder announced he would sue Bild, the paper that published the interview, for libel.

Navalny also said he was in no doubt that Putin has been making secret cash payments to Schröder, but was quick to admit not having any proof for the allegation.

Schröder's behavior 'damaging Germany's interests'

Speaking with DW, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of Germany's opposition Free Democrats said Schröder's behavior was "damaging Germany's interests."

"Even if Schröder's involvement in Russia is legal," he added, "it is certainly not worthy of a former German head of government."

"Companies like Gazprom and Rosneft aren't private businesses. They belong to the Russian state, which uses its energy policies as a weapon to intimidate its European neighbors," he said.

There are many in Germany who would like to see closer and more constructive ties between Berlin and Moscow. But across the political spectrum, Schröder's dealings with the former spy in the Kremlin are seen as counterproductive.

This article has been translated from German.

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