Andreas Schockenhoff pulls no punches when it comes to Russia.
As Germany’s special envoy to Russia, the conservative lawmaker has become increasingly outspoken about what is happening there under “Putin Two”.
Germany was supposed to be Russia’s closest ally in the European Union as well the staunch defender of Russia’s so-called modernization program.
Yet when the three singers of the Pussy Riot punk band were convicted to harsh prison sentences last August, Schockenhoff did not remain silent.
In interviews, he criticized the Kremlin’s disregard for the rule of law and the virtues of an independent judiciary, warning about the damage it was doing to Russia. The Pussy Riot trial breached legal standards, Schockenhoff said. Putin was “harming his own objective of making Russia a modern, competitive country.”
Now the Kremlin has hit back, and with extraordinary language. This past Monday, the Russian foreign ministry accused Schockenhoff of “making defamatory remarks”. Not only that, the ministry said that the Kremlin no longer regarded Schockenhoff as having the authority to speak on behalf of the German government.
The reaction by Berlin was revealing. It showed deep tensions and differences between the foreign ministry and the Chancellery over how to deal with Putin, in particular, and Russia in general.
The German foreign ministry was curt in its reaction to the Russia’s verbal assault on Schockenhoff. The envoy would remain in his job. It did not criticize the Russian comments.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who does not hide her dislike for Putin, was not prepared to let matters rest there. The criticism of Schockenhoff “astonished us”, Steffen Seibert, the government’s spokesman said on Monday.
Seibert, who was clearly prompted by the Chancellery, said it was not up to Russia to decide who spoke on Germany’s behalf. Merkel, he added, fully intended to speak her mind when she meets Putin next month in Russia. “There will have to be frank words spoken there,” Seibert warned.
In fact, over the past few weeks there have been a lot of frank words exchanged over Russia inside Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and between the conservatives, the opposition Social Democrats, and the Foreign Ministry.
The issue now is how Berlin should deal with “Putin Two”, the systemic corruption and how it should respond to the growing civil society movements whose supporters are fed up with Putin’s style of authoritarian rule.
Schockenhoff wants the Christian Democrats—meaning the government—to adopt a much broader strategy towards Russia, which means including much wider sections of civil society.
His view is that Germany needs to reassess its strategy, given the erosion of democracy. He points out that it is all very well talking about Germany helping Russia to modernize, but that Berlin has little to show for its efforts.
You would imagine that Schockenhoff would have little trouble in persuading the coalition to agree a parliamentary motion about Russia.
After all, the conservatives and Free Democrats were highly critical of the way in which the former Chancellor and Social Democrat, Gerhard Schröder turned a blind eye to Putin’s crackdown on the media when he was in office. Schröder, who is now on the payroll of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, even called Putin an “impeccable democrat.”
Yet the coalition did not throw its weight behind Schockenhoff. Philipp Missfelder, the lawmaker who is the conservatives’ foreign affairs spokesman, has for some time been particularly cautious about criticizing the Kremlin. When asked why the Christian Democrats had argued so much over the motion, he replied : “It’s all about timing and the diplomatic language.”
The stance of the foreign ministry is another matter.
Some of the ministry’s top diplomats exerted all their back corridor influence to soften or dilute some of the language in the Christian Democrat’s motion.
They believe that it is not wise to antagonize Russia because it is an “indispensable partner” for energy and for resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran, as well as the conflict in Syria—as if Russia had been so constructive in any of these three issues.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, a Free Democrat, has given many speeches about values and interests. But when it comes to Russia, Westerwelle seems to still be influenced by his mentor, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who made cooperation with Russia a priority.
This is a shame. Westerwelle should take a stand on Russia and set himself apart from his predecessor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat.
Steinmeier, who in an earlier government had been Schroder’s chief of staff in the Chancellery, believed passionately in supporting Russia’s path towards modernization and supporting German industry in Russia. Neither Russia’s human rights record nor the democratic deficit was ever part of the equation. It reflected the traditional German Social Democrat view of Russia : engagement and closer ties would lead to change. Well, the right kind of change has yet to take place.
The interesting twist in all these internal wranglings in the government and the foreign ministry is that the Social Democrats are no longer united over Russia.
Franz Thönnes, a Social Democrat member of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, sharply criticized Putin’s crackdown on non-governmental organizations last Friday in the German parliament and questioned the success of the modernization program. So there may be some rethinking going on there, too.
Of course, the big German companies that are doing business in Russia and the influential industry lobby, the Ost-Ausschuss, resent Schockenhoff’s outspokenness. They would rather retain the status quo.
But even industry is no longer monolithic. The German Mittelstand, or small and medium sized companies that are investing in Russia, have become far more critical of Putin’s reign because they suffer enormously under the pervasive corruption. By now, many of their managers are convinced that Germany should not continue to do business as usual with Russia under “Putin Two”.
For Putin, this new tone in the German debate spells trouble.
After all, Germany, the country with which Russia has always enjoyed a special relationship, has also always been its strongest advocate within the European Union. If it changes its attitude now, the EU might finally find itself in a position where it could adopt a coherent and value-oriented strategy on Russia.