The close friendship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is often described as a "bromance," and has often been criticized as providing a vindication for Putin's increasingly autocratic control.
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.
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, making it more difficult to set up new political parties, and clamped down on the activities of non-governmental organizations.
Buddies with a shared blind spot
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 took him on a Christmas sleigh ride in Moscow. And the Vladimir Putin who visited Schröder's home in Hanover to celebrate his 60th birthday.
As early as 2004, Schröder was willing to leap to Putin's defense, and, in essence, that is the way it has stayed. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Schröder has traveled to Moscow twice to attempt negotiations. And has come back empty-handed.
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."
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? EU partners, Ukraine and the United States have vehemently criticized Schröder's backing for Nord Stream 2.
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."
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."
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.
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."
In 2018, Schröder's prominent place at Vladimir Putin's swearing-in ceremony raised eyebrows in Germany and abroad.
One year 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 September 2020 he insisted there were "no proven facts" that Russia was behind the poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny — although Germany's military laboratory had announced that the samples taken from his blood confirmed the presence of a nerve agent from the banned Novichok family.
Navalny then called Schröder Putin's "errand boy," and Schröder responded announcing 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.
Traditionally, many in Germany would like to see closer and more constructive ties between Berlin and Moscow. But across the political spectrum, Schröder's dealings with the Kremlin are seen as counterproductive.
This article has been translated from German. It was first written in 2020 and has since been updated to reflect recent developments.
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