Germany’s new government last week nominated Gernot Erler as its coordinator for Russia. The appointment of Erler, a Social Democratic lawmaker and Russia expert, was considered a big success for the Social Democrats, Germany’s junior coalition partner. Above all, it is a sign that Berlin can be expected to adopt a very different—and more conciliatory—tone toward Moscow from in the past.
Erler’s predecessor was Andreas Schockenhoff, a Christian Democrat who consistently spoke out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law. At one point, the Kremlin even called for Schockenhoff’s dismissal. That provoked a sharp rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Erler’s style is very different. He believes in face-saving, not finger-pointing and lecturing.
“Criticizing alone will not help,” Erler told Carnegie Europe. “There is always the problem of saving face. The previous [German] government had no Russian policy and it had no policy toward Ukraine.” Erler added that the former foreign minister and Free Democrat Guido Westerwelle did not have a policy toward Central Asia either. “Lots of activities, but no strategy.”
So what will Erler do differently?
Just like Schockenhoff, Erler says his job as Russia coordinator is to support nongovernmental organizations and other nonofficial movements. Yet the sixty-nine-year-old Social Democrat also wants to use his ties to build trust between official and unofficial society.
Above all, Erler wants to improve the atmosphere between Berlin and Moscow, which had deteriorated over the past few years under Merkel’s previous, center-right coalition. He is a believer in Ostpolitik, the policy aimed at bringing about political reform through rapprochement with the East advanced by the Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt in the early 1970s.
Later Social Democrats—most prominently the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who was hired by Russian energy giant Gazprom immediately after leaving office in late 2005—have reinterpreted Ostpolitik to mean furthering political reforms through economic modernization. This is also the tack adopted by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was Germany’s foreign minister during Merkel’s first term and has now been reappointed to the post.
Yet given Putin’s hardline rule, the results of this policy have been disappointing, to say the least. Merkel’s Christian Democrats have abandoned the Ostpolitik approach, as have an increasing number of younger Social Democrats.
Erler does not deny that Germany’s policies toward Russia have fallen well short of expectations. “Steinmeier is frustrated about developments,” Erler said. “For all our support, the modernization of the Russian economy has not happened to the extent that we wanted.”
Most German experts on Russia agree that Berlin’s modernization policy toward Moscow has not worked. Germany’s Mittelstand, or small- and medium-sized companies, is fed up with Russia’s corruption, lack of transparency, weak rule of law, and poor infrastructure. Even big companies increasingly complain about the lack of progress in Russia to the influential pro-Russian Ost-Ausschuss, the lobby for German economic interests in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
So is Putin the problem?
“Putin is a challenge,” Erler stated. “The present kind of setup is that he alone should decide. But the system itself cannot function if society doesn’t participate.” So why doesn’t Putin open up to society? “Russia is locked between the EU and China. Russia tries to find its place in the world order,” Erler explained.
Add to that Russia’s lack of competitiveness. “Russia has no dynamic. Russia is not ahead in terms of competitiveness. Productivity is the problem,” according to Erler. Even Russian membership in the World Trade Organization has failed to spur competitiveness and productivity. Maybe that is because Moscow can keep replying on oil and gas to sustain Russia’s economy and the Kremlin’s style of governing. “Happiness means a high price of oil and gas. But that dependency is not sustainable in the long term,” Erler said.
Yet Erler still thinks that Germany’s interests are best served by a close relationship with Russia. “We have vital economic relations with Russia. Bilateral trade last year amounted to €80 billion [$109 billion]. This is important for jobs,” Erler explained. He also said that Germany did not have to start from zero with regard to its policy toward Russia. “We only have to renew it,” he said.
Erler’s cautious words reflect a desire on behalf of the Social Democrats to avoid an open conflict with Merkel over Russia, as happened during the last grand coalition of 2005–2009, when Erler served as state secretary in Steinmeier’s foreign ministry. According to Erler, those disagreements will remain a thing of the past. “Steinmeier is a professional,” he explained.
Nevertheless, the differences over Russian policy between the Chancellery and the foreign ministry, and between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Steinmeier’s Social Democrats, remain real. Papering them over may help Berlin’s new grand coalition to keep its ranks tight. But it will do nothing for developing a coherent strategy toward Russia.