To Russia With Love-Relations with Moscow Emerge as German Election Issue

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By Christiane Hoffmann, Timo Lehmann, Veit Medick and Ralf Neukirch

With elections looming in three former East German states this fall, many leading politicians see rapprochement with Russia as a winning campaign strategy. But this perspective puts them in direct confrontation with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin.

Last Tuesday evening, an audience of around 300 people assembled in the event space of the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper in Leipzig, Germany. It was blazing hot under the publishing company’s glass ceiling, where Michael Kretschmer, the governor of the state of Saxony and a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was holding a campaign event. The front page of the regional newspaper’s June 8 edition was projected on one wall. Its cover showed a photograph of Kretschmer speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

About a month before the state election in the eastern state, the governor looked back on the meeting with satisfaction. “Lots of things got going at that moment,” he boasted. Putin had met Kretschmer on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. The Saxon CDU politician had previously called for the lifting of EU economic sanctions against Russia. The other governors of former East German states had signed on to the position, Kretschmer reminded the audience, “including my colleague Weil from Lower Saxony (in the former West Germany), the German business community and many initiatives.” He then added: “Since then, the Council of Europe has given Russia its voting rights back.” The listeners applauded.

It’s applause that is easily earned by Kretschmer. When Russia is mentioned in the state election campaigns in Saxony, Thuringia or Brandenburg, it becomes clear that many in the region are in favor of a milder approach to Moscow.

The relationship with Russia is important to Germans. For years, poll after poll has shown that a majority of Germans are in favor of a closer relationship to Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin. In the former East German states, three-quarters of respondents feel that way. Most in those states also want to see the sanctions that were imposed after the annexation of Crimea lifted.

It’s little surprise that the governors of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party, and of Brandenburg, Dietmar Woidke of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), hurried to sign onto Kretschmer’s demands. Two other governors in former East German states who aren’t currently facing an election also back Kretschmer’s position — Manuela Schwesig in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (SPD) and Reiner Haseloff in Saxony-Anhalt (CDU).

On this issue, the heads of the former East German states publicly stand in opposition to the Russia policy of Angela Merkel’s governing coalition with the SPD. The government has firmly decided that it will only loosen the sanctions once the conditions stipulated in the Minsk Protocol, which aims to put an end to the Ukraine conflict, have been satisfied. CDU party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently hardened their already tough position towards Russia.

But in the east, the parties’ hold on power is at risk, and they don’t want to leave the issue to the AfD and the far-left Left Party, which are both campaigning with a Russia-friendly tenor. This makes Kretschmer’s appearance with Putin a real win for the governor of Saxony. “The photo was a coup for Kretschmer that may earn him decisive percentage points in the state election,” says Matthias Platzeck, the head of the German-Russian Forum, a group that advocates for dialogue between Germany and Russia.

Without really having to do anything, Russia has already split German politics. Putin has hosted German governors more than once at the Kremlin. He also has a friendly relationship with former Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU. It’s likely heartening for Moscow that Merkel’s tough approach to Russia has a growing number of opponents, even within her own ranks in the CDU.

A Frequent Concern

Merkel’s Russia policy poses an identical problem for her party in all former East German states. Her critical position towards Moscow isn’t popular. “Russia comes up constantly in my electoral district,” says Philipp Amthor, a CDU member of the federal parliament, the Bundestag, representing Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. “Nothing has changed in this regard since the federal election.” Amthor recalls that when he was touring the island of Usedom a month ago with fellow CDU Bundestag lawmaker Christian Hirte from Thuringia, who is also the federal government’s commissioner for the former East German states, citizens brought up Russia policy at almost every encounter. For a CDU lawmaker, this is not an easy situation.

Russia is the issue on which Amthor feels the furthest from his constituents. “As tied to my home region as I am, it is still sometimes hard for me to identify with the opinion in my electoral district when it comes to Russia,” he says. “My opinion often differs from both an emotional and a security policy standpoint.”

Amthor can afford to be relaxed in his approach to the problem. Unlike his party colleagues in Saxony or Thuringia, he doesn’t currently have an election to win. But there is no unified position in the eastern German CDU state associations either on what stance to take on Russia during the campaign.

Kretschmer has clearly decided to take a confrontational course with the federal government and the leadership of his own party. “As a German politician, I think of the many businesses, especially in the former East German states that have been especially affected by the consequences of the sanctions policy,” he says. Between the lines, his stance suggests some amount of “Germany first.” Many in the east view the sanctions as merely a disguised stimulus package for the U.S. economy.

He accepts the fact that he is arguing against the chancellor and his own party leaders. “I know a large share of Germans are on my side,” he says. “This is not a specifically eastern German issue.”

But Kretschmer’s strategy is also controversial within the CDU in the former East German states. The head of the Thuringian wing of the party, Mike Mohring, who wants to lead the CDU to a win in the October state elections, is adopting a different approach. Mohring certainly cannot ignore the fact that many Thuringians are hoping for a better relationship to Russia. “I feel like the citizens have big expectations,” he says. “The people want Germany to continue talking to Russia.”

But Mohring also doesn’t consider the idea of a public battle over policy direction within the party’s leadership to be helpful. His parliamentary group already submitted a motion in the state legislature in 2017 that risked eliciting both support and criticism from the federal government. The text called for an end of the sanctions, but only once Russia fulfills the demands of the Minsk Protocol. By taking this position, Mohring had managed to politically neutralize the Russia issue. Then came Kretschmer. “The subject of ‘Russia’ thus far hasn’t played any role for us in the campaign,” says Mohring, except “when we make it into one.” He added: “But it’s only others who stand to profit from this.”

Amthor, Mohring’s fellow CDU lawmaker, doesn’t see Russia as a winning subject for the CDU or for the political sphere more generally. Nevertheless, he observes, that “the SPD is trying to use the issue to gain support in the east on a massive scale.”

The Social Democrats and Russia already maintain a very unique relationship, partly for historical reasons. Few things define the party’s view of itself more than the foreign policy tradition of former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt, who sought rapprochement with the Soviet Union through his Ostpolitik policies. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas learned this early in his tenure, when he tried to differentiate himself from his predecessors by taking a more critical stance toward Russia.

A Tricky Situation

The pushback, led by Schwesig and Weil, was considerable. But the balancing act between the German government’s critical position on Russia and the pro-Russian position of many Germans remains especially difficult for the Social Democrats.

Few people know this as well as SPD Bundestag parliamentarian Dirk Wiese. For about a year and a half now, the 36-year-old has been the federal government’s commissioner in charge of Russia policy. On Wednesday of last week, Wiese was sitting in his office in front of a poster of former chancellor Willy Brandt. His job is basically a balancing act, and he says that many of his statements are scoured for signs he’s a supporter of Russia or a foreign-policy hawk. Before he took up the job, Wiese had never stepped into this foreign policy minefield. He says he’s annoyed by the “black-and-white thinking” in the debate. “Just trying to understand where the Russians are coming from, doesn’t automatically mean you agree with them.”

The politician, from the Sauerland region of western Germany, is currently noticing nationwide interest in Russia. But he says that, of course, the interest is particularly strong in the former East German states for historical reasons. There, he said, the Germans have a very different image of Russia than “some hard-nosed West German left-wingers.”

Fellow SPD politician Dietmar Woidke, who is currently fighting for re-election as governor in Brandenburg, holds a similar view. “Many people in eastern Germany have a personal relationship to Russia, cultivate friendships and speak the language,” Woidke says. “The result is that there is an emotional connection for many people.” He says the topic of how to improve the relationship with Russia is constantly raised at events. Most of the time, he says, people call for politicians to finally remove their Western blinders and say that if it were put up to a vote, there would be a clear majority in favor of lifting the sanctions.”

But Woidke himself believes politicians need to make more of an effort when it comes to Russia. He rejects the hard line future European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently called for. “We need a clear position, but not a harsh one,” he says. “Most importantly, we don’t need to pour oil on the fire.”

There are also real economic reasons behind calls by politicians in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia to lift the sanctions. Since the EU imposed these measures in 2014, exports to Russia have fallen dramatically in the three former eastern German states where elections are taking place this fall. The year 2013 was still a good one for German-Russian business ties. By 2018, however, exports from Brandenburg had decreased by 24.3 percent and by 21.5 percent in Thuringia. But Saxony was hardest hit. According to figures from the Dresden Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Saxon companies exported around 60 percent less to Russia in 2018 than in 2013.

The sanctions are an additional damper for the weaker economic conditions in the former East Germany and cost the region valuable industrial jobs. Michael Harms, the managing director of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (OA), is calling for the sanctions to be lifted in the near future. “That is the clear expectation of the business community,” he says. But he also links that demand to progress in the implementation of the Minsk Protocol.

In contrast to the SPD and the CDU, the Greens have a relatively easy time positioning themselves on the issue. Because they haven’t been part of the federal government in Germany for years, it’s easier for them to take a clear position on Russia, regardless of practical concerns. The party’s politicians specializing in foreign policy, like Cem Özdemir and Marieluise Beck, are almost all hawks critical of Russia: They are against Putin, against the new Baltic Sea Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and in favor of sanctions. The only longtime Green politician who deviates from this position is Jürgen Trittin.

Signs of Progress?

Green Party leader Robert Habeck doesn’t see any reason for a softer approach to Russia either. “The sanctions are tied to the implementation of the Minsk Protocols, and as long as that has not occurred, they need to remain in place,” Habeck says. “There is evidence that Russia is interfering in the affairs of countries. When it comes to this, a clear line and a clear position is needed.”

Habeck doesn’t believe that this position will harm the Greens in the former East German states. He says the party in the region has an “anti-socialist” tradition. “There is no romanticization of Russia, and instead a fine-tuned sensitivity to attacks on civil liberties and to populism.”

So far, there has been little to suggest the federal government will give in to pressure from the states. But there was recently a positive development in the stiff relationship between Berlin and Moscow. The fact that Economics Minister Peter Altmaier traveled to the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum in July was seen as a sign that Russia’s isolation since the Ukraine crisis is waning.

Germany had previously helped Russia regain its voting right in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Progress is apparently also being made in the effort to ease the availability of visas for young Russians.

And for the first time since the crisis, the foreign ministers of both countries, Lavrov and Maas, took part in the annual Petersburg Dialogue, a platform for exchange between Germany and Russia, in mid-July. Participants reported an improved atmosphere in many working groups, and argue that a true dialogue had once again taken place.

Even the initially critical German foreign minister made an effort to stage the meeting with “My Dear Sergey” as harmoniously as possible. “Without Moscow,” Maas said, seeking to flatter the Russian, “we will not be able to address the most pressing questions facing the international community.”

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