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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

On Gernot Erler’s mistake

13 January, 2014 - 16:39
Edward LUCAS

Here you are, Germany’s policy on Russia sets the tone for the rest of Europe. If the leading politicians in Moscow and Berlin agree, then the rest of the continent has to make the best of it. History gives some grim examples of that, and some good ones. Helmut Kohl’s ability to get on with Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin was a boon during the dismantling of the Soviet empire. Gerhard Schroeder’s soft spot for Vladimir Putin was a disaster as the ex-KGB regime tightened its grip.

Under Angela Merkel, Germany’s Ostpolitik has toughened. She personally detests the Russian leader and his sinister, bullying manner (at their first meeting he let his Labrador sniff her legs, in the full knowledge that she has a fear of dogs dating from her childhood). In the last government she appointed a special envoy for Russia, Andreas Schockenhoff, who became a notable public critic of the Putin regime. That wasn’t too controversial in Germany. Public opinion there has long got over its sentimental Russophilia. Putin’s anti-gay legislation goes down particularly badly among liberal-minded Germans. So, too, did the jailing of Pussy Riot. Even German business is a lot less enthusiastic about Russia than it once was. Poland is now Germany’s most important business partner in the East. Germany no longer depends so heavily on Russian gas.

Mr. Erler has criticized “Russia-bashing” as counter-productive. The Kremlin changes its policy when it can save face, not when it is backed into a corner. On Ukraine, he thinks that the EU should have trilateral talks with Russia to defuse suspicions that the West is engaged in a power-grab in the East.

But the grand coalition with the SPD, Schroeder’s old party, has brought changes. Frank-Walter Steinmeier is again the foreign minister. And Mr. Schockenhoff has been replaced by the SPD’s most seasoned Russian hand, Gernot Erler. He is a fluent Russian speaker, well connected at every level (including among the opposition).

Mr. Erler has criticized “Russia-bashing” as counter-productive. The Kremlin changes its policy when it can save face, not when it is backed into a corner. On Ukraine, he thinks that the EU should have trilateral talks with Russia to defuse suspicions that the West is engaged in a power-grab in the East.

He is wrong on all that. But the German voters have spoken. Mrs. Merkel cannot ignore the election result. The lessons of the past are moderately encouraging. Mr. Steinmeier was a good deal less starry-eyed about Russia by the end of his previous term as foreign minister than he was at the beginning. Unlike Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Erler does not call Mr. Putin a “flawless democrat.” He just thinks that public criticism is pointless. (Though I am reminded of this old dictum: the Soviet Union reacts badly to pressure, but without pressure it does not react at all.)

It is also worth bearing in mind that in the German system, prominence is distributed more widely than real power. The most important decisions, on foreign policy and everything else, are made in the Federal Chancellery. Russia’s policy may be presented differently, but Mrs. Merkel will not countenance a fundamental change.

Appearances matter though. For that reason, Mr. Erler should take care to work closely with Germany’s Baltic and Central European friends. They are justifiably jittery about Russia’s behavior and trajectory. (Swedes this weekend learned that the mock air-attack Russia rehearsed against them last year involved a nuclear strike.) These countries also have every reason to want better relations with Russia: the economic sanctions and verbal warfare directed against them by the Kremlin are unpleasant and harmful. So they will worry that their interests may be sacrificed on the altar of Germany’s bilateral relations with Russia. If Mr. Erler is wise, he will visit them regularly, and make it clear that no secret deals are being cooked up. His soft-spoken approach should be for their benefit, not at their expense.

By Edward LUCAS, International Editor at The Economist, special to The Day

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