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Schröder and Putin: friendly during earlier talksImage: AP

Schröder's Delicate Russia Problem

DW staff (jba)
November 30, 2004

Amid the crisis in Ukraine, Germany's chancellor finds himself wedged ever tighter between a rock and a hard place as the European leader with the closest ties to Russia's Putin


The support Russian President Vladimir Putin has given pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine's disputed presidential election has left German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in an uneasy situation.

While many European countries have condemned the official election results which proclaimed Yanukovych the winner, Schröder's criticism was muted.

Increasingly, political observers are calling for Schröder to take a stronger stand in support of the democratic process in Ukraine, on behalf of the international community.

Personal friends

At the opening of an annual political meeting in Berlin on Tuesday, Dick Morris, the US campaign advisor to Bill Clinton, demanded more decisive action on the part of the German leader.

"Schröder has the best relationship to Russian President Putin. He should use it for the good of the international community," Morris told a press conference at the opening of the meeting, which hosts 700 top international political players.

Demonstranten gegen das Ergebnis der Präsidentschaftswahl in der Ukraine
Demonstrators wave an orange flag in front of police blocking a street to the Ukrainian Presidental administration building in Kiev, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2004.Image: AP

The chancellor is a personal friend of Putin's and the two leaders and their wives even celebrated Orthodox Christmas together in Moscow in 2001.

For his part, Schröder has actively promoted a positive relationship between the Cold War foes -- what he calls a "strategic partnership." The unspoken concern, however, is that too much pressure from Germany to persuade Russia to back off its support for the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych could put that relationship under strain.

Schröder 'under pressure'

But even within Schröder's own government there is growing dissent on how to approach the issue. Recently, his coalition of Social Democrats and Greens issued statements aimed at appeasing the chancellor's increasingly loud critics, both from the conservative opposition as well as from outside the country.

Gipfel Gerhard Schröder und Wladimir Putin in Sotschi
Putin and Schröder at the Russian leader's vacation residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Monday Aug. 30, 2004.Image: AP

"The crisis in Ukraine puts the chancellor in a difficult situation," Alexander Rahr, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations told AFP news agency. "He is under pressure from both the German opposition and his own party."

Human rights supporters within Schröder's Social Democratic Party and the Greens are critical of his policy towards Putin and are pushing for him to back the supporters of Ukraine's pro-Western opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.

But it would be in Berlin's interest "not to burn its bridges" with Russia or the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine which strongly backs Yanukovych, Rahr said with a view to German exports to Russia, which have more than doubled since 1999. Germany is also growing more dependent on its close ties to the Kremlin as it imports 30 percent of its gas from Russia and plans to increase that to 40 percent in the next few years.

Diplomatic ties

Gerhard Schröder in Russland bei Wladimir Putin
Putin meets Schröder July 8, 2004 for Kremlin talks on expanding economic cooperation between the two nations.Image: AP

The Schröder-Putin friendship functions not only on an economic level, but on a diplomatic one as well. In recent days, German government speaker Bela Anda has made much of the fact that only after Schröder telephoned Putin last week to express his hope that a solution would be found -- "and not before" -- did Putin agree to cooperate "with any elected Ukrainian president."

The comment clearly implied that Schröder's intervention had been crucial.

And on Tuesday, Anda announced that Schröder and Putin had agreed that the outcome of any new presidential election in Ukraine "must be strictly respected."

Meanwhile, however, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens has adopted a sharper tone, putting yet more pressure on the chancellor. Over the weekend, Fischer described the Ukrainian parliament's decision to annul the results of the election as an important step "to allow the will of the democratic majority of the Ukrainian people to be respected."

Pipelines are key

Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations predicted that in the difficult days to come, Germany is going to have to involve itself more deeply in the Ukrainian crisis in a mediating role which could help it preserve its relationship and economic ties with Russia, especially in the energy sector.

Gas aus Russland Bau der Erdgasleitung JAGAL
Natural gas from Russia is piped to Germany via Ukraine. Here, a portion of the pipe is being built near Halle.Image: dpa

The fact, for instance, that pipelines from Russia to Germany pass through Ukraine only increase its importance to Berlin, Rahr said.

In response to the pressure, politicians in Schröder's own party have begun making comments aimed at playing up the chancellor's pro-democratic position.

On Monday, for instance, the German government once again called for a peaceful and constitutional solution to the election debacle in Ukraine. Government spokesman Anda said it was absolutely necessary that "the crisis be solved in dialog."

And foreign ministry spokesman Walter Lindner said it is important "that the unadulterated will of the democratic majority of the Ukrainian people be brought to bear," and that a "solution without violence" must be found.

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