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04/12/2016

Germany steps up its flirting with Russia

Europe's East

Germany steps up its flirting with Russia

Merkel and Putin, back in 2015

[ConexiónCOP/Flickr]

No other country sends as many politicians or businessmen to Russia as Germany; not all of the visits are made public knowledge either. EurActiv’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

Officially, Berlin-Moscow relations remain strained. But the Bundesrepublik has in fact sent more of its politicians and businessmen to Russia than any other county. Bavarian powerhouse and Angela Merkel’s number one critic these days, Horst Seehofer (CSU), met with Vladimir Putin back in February in a visit seen as an attempt to distance himself from the chancellor.

In the last few weeks, Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow, Thuringia’s minister-president, took a 40-strong delegation to Moscow and Kazan. His counterpart in Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff (CDU), met with the Russian ambassador in Berlin and suggested that he would be in favour of seeing an end to the current sanctions against the Russian Federation. Then there are other trips, made unbeknownst to the German public, that are seen in Russia as Berlin’s efforts to normalise relations in spite of the war in Ukraine.

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On 6 April, more German MPs visited the Duma, with the matter of discussing why Western-Russian communication is so difficult, high on the agenda.

Brandenburg’s former minister-president Matthias Platzeck (SPD), now chairman of the German-Russian Forum, as well as Franz Thönnes (SPD), Tobias Zech (CSU), Wolfgang Gehrcke (Die Linke), and Margaret Horb and Ingo Gädechens (both CDU) made the Moscow trip.

Chairman of the State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, met with the group. He belongs to the inner leadership circle and knows Putin from their days in St. Petersburg earlier in their careers; or from their time in the KGB if certain Russian media are to be believed.

This meeting could not have taken place in Germany, at least not with Naryschkin, because the Duma chairman was hit with an EU travel ban back in 2014 after he supported “the use of Russian troops in Ukraine” and the annexation of Crimea. At the meeting with the Germans, Naryschkin denied Russian involvement in Ukraine. Quite tellingly, he told news agency Ria Nowosti that if Russia were to actually engage in armed conflict with a country like Ukraine, it would take “a maximum of four days” to bring it to an end.

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Five days after the Duma visit, another German delegation was received in the Kremlin. Putin normally only puts in an appearance when heads of state or government rock up on his doorstep. But obviously these particular guests were important enough for him to greet them, adding praise for their “support of Russian-German trade and economic relations”. The president of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations replied that they would continue this work “despite the known problems”.

Indeed, the committee has long voiced its strong opposition to the sanctions in place; it is currently supporting Putin’s project to create an economic area “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. For its new chairman, Wolfgang Büchele, head of Linde AG, it was a sort of first official visit to Moscow. The following day, some Russian newspapers had large photos of the meeting as their featured images of the day.

The Petersburg Dialogue, a forum born in 2001 to foster stronger connections between the two countries, recently met in Sochi to debate primarily on global security. Before the meeting had even begun, Russian chairman Viktor Subkov, praised the fact that there are many “like-minded people” on the German side, whose attitudes also revolve around “healthy pragmatism”.

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A similar meeting of the Dialogue back in October, in Potsdam, turned rather sour when the Germans talked about Russia’s role in Ukraine; Subkov made his displeasure well known.

That Russia is now hosting the Dialogue shows how important the involvement of the Russian leadership is to the entire relationship. In July, it will once again be held in St. Petersburg. Two years ago, the forum was cancelled at short notice because of the Ukraine crisis and ongoing internal reforms. Germany’s chairman of the Dialogue, as well as head of Deutsche Bahn, Ronald Pofalla, said that two-thirds of the reform process is completed, with the rest coming this week.

Pofalla also suggested that there is a new-found willingness on the part of the Russian’s to change, which could not have been imaginable last year. “On the German side, we have opened up the Dialogue more to civil society,” Pofalla said. “Russia is taking this step now,” he added. He cited a new working group on “ecological modernisation” as an example. The Germans nominated Ralf Fücks, chairman of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, as leader, while the Russians put forward the head of Greenpeace Russia.

A rapprochement between Germany and Russia is also in the offing in Moscow. Kommersant, reporting on the Sochi meeting, said that the biggest surprise was the “unprecedented warm atmosphere”. “Even in the debates on Ukraine and NATO-enlargement, the experts expressed caution,” it added.

However, the word “annexation” did not pass the lips of the German representatives once during the meeting.

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