The close friendship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Schröder, often described as a “bromance”, is seen by many critics as justifying Putin’s increasingly autocratic control of Russian politics.
Friendship has existed for a long time. Many in Germany still remember a 2004 interview in which Schröder was asked if Putin was a “flawless democrat”. To which the former Chancellor responded: “Yes, I believe he is.” The answer, of course, is dynamite.
Back in March 2004, the “perfect democrat” had just won 71% of the vote in the Russian presidential election; controlling most of the major state institutions; complicate the formation of new political parties; and suppress the activities of non-governmental organizations.
But it is clearly a different Putin that Schröder had in mind: Vladimir Putin with whom he shares such an intimate friendship. Vladimir Putin who took him on a Christmas sled trip in Moscow. And Vladimir Putin who visited Schröder’s home in Hanover to celebrate his 60th birthday.
In 2005 Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin met in St Petersburg
Friends with blind spots together
So, in early 2004, Schröder was willing to jump into Putin’s defense and, in effect, that’s what stood.
But why is the former German chancellor so willing to side with an autocrat? Gernot Erler – a Russian scholar and, like Schröder, a member of the German social democrats (SPD) – believes he has an answer to that question:
“We will never hear criticism of Putin’s actions coming from Gerhard Schröder,” he said. “And it is precisely because of their long-lasting friendship. For Schröder, this means that whatever the facts: they support each other in any way.”
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In 2005, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his party the SPD lost the snap elections by a narrow margin. He gave up his seat in Parliament and announced that his political career was over.
At Putin’s request, Schröder was immediately appointed chairman of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline. Less than a month after leaving the chancellery, he allowed the Russian president to convince him of a “project with European dimensions.”
European dimension? Poland and the Baltic republics harshly criticized Schröder’s support for the Nord Stream. And in Germany, there is also a loud roar. Schröder’s political opponents were quick to label him “shameless” and his new post “indecent”. After all, he had given massive support to the pipeline project while he was, most recently, still in office.
Partying in St. Petersburg and war in Ukraine
In 2014, Gerhard Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday. And he did it in style: at St. Petersburg. Petersburg – at the invitation of Nord Stream. He welcomed his special guest Vladimir Putin with a big hug and described him as a very reliable friend with whom he has developed a relationship based on mutual trust: “Call it friendship,” said Schröder. However, he stressed, the two friends did not “talk politics”.
In 2014 Gerhard Schröder was widely criticized for hugging his friend Putin, who recently ordered an invasion of the Crimean peninsula.
At that time Russia had just violated international law by annexing the Crimean Black Sea peninsula, which officially belongs to Ukraine. Andin eastern Ukraine, civil war has just broken outbetween Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.
So, an extraordinary birthday celebration is taking place at St. Meanwhile Petersburg, only a thousand kilometers to the south, there was war. For many in Berlin, this was an unacceptable provocation.
Schröder’s seemingly “uncritical” friendship with Putin regularly makes news in Germany. In 2016, Gerhard Schröder pointed to history to explain the deep connection: “Our two families suffered terribly during World War II. I lost my father. Putin’s brother died during the German siege of Leningrad,” said Schröder. “And,” he continued, Putin has “kept every promise he made, as I did, too.”
Read more: Who are Putin’s and Russia’s allies in Germany?
Schröder continues to attack
A year later, in 2017, the Russian government proposed Schröder as chairman of the board of directors at Rosneft. This has come as a surprise to many observers, given the state-owned oil giant is on the EU sanctions list for its involvement in the annexation of Crimea.
“It’s my life and I decide what to do with it, and not the German press,” said Gerhard Schröder defiantly in his defense.
In 2017, Gerhard Schröder became chairman of the board of directors at Rosneft.
That same year, in the midst of an election campaign in Germany, Schröder went to great lengths to criticize the German Bundeswehr troop deployment in Lithuania, near the Russian border. “It just sends the wrong signal,” said the former chancellor. Germany’s NATO allies are furious.
In an interview with Time Schröder later praised the Russian leader for his “rational behavior”, adding: “Compared to the US president, we should be happy to have Putin.”
Two years later, Schröder celebrated his birthday again – this time his 75th. And Putin took the opportunity to commend “his high-level international authority and central personal role in promoting German-Russian relations.”
Schröder’s relationship is still clear to maintain. And in the interview podcast in late September, he insisted that “there is no proven fact” that Russia was behind the poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny – even though a German military laboratory had announced that samples taken from his blood confirmed the presence of the banned Novichok nerve agent. family.
When Navalny later calls Schröder Putin’s “messenger”, Schröder announced he would sue picture, Papers that publish interviews, for slander.
Nawalny, too, said he believed Putin had made secret cash payments to Gerhard Schröder. But he quickly admitted he didn’t have any proof of the allegations.
Alexander Lambsdorff of the German opposition Free Democratic (FDP), told DW: “With his behavior, Schröder is undermining German interests.”
“Even if Schröder’s involvement in Russia is legal,” he went on to say “it is definitely not appropriate for the former head of the German government.”
“Companies like Gazprom and Rosneft are not private businesses. They belong to the Russian state, which is using its energy policies as a weapon to intimidate its European neighbors,” Lambsdorff concluded.
There are many people in Germany who want to see a closer and more constructive relationship between Berlin and Moscow. But Across the political spectrum in Germany, Schröder’s deal with a shrewd former spy in the Kremlin was seen as counterproductive.
This article was translated from German.