The shocking Mr Schockenhoff
Germany is increasingly prepared to be tough with Vladimir Putin
Nov 10th 2012 | BERLIN | from the print edition
IN BERLIN they still talk about Angela and Vladimir’s dog. When Chancellor Angela Merkel paid one of her visits to Russia, her team reminded the Russians that she disliked dogs. Yet when she arrived, Vladimir Putin (at the time Russia’s prime minister, now again president) kept her waiting and put his black Labrador by her chair.
It is characteristic of Mrs Merkel that she does not let personal gestures ruin diplomacy. As a former East German (and daughter of a pastor), she must have private doubts about Mr Putin, who ended his KGB career in Dresden. But she suppresses them more than Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president, also a former East German and a pastor. For Mrs Merkel, the bilateral relationship was a mostly unemotional affair about buying gas from Russia while selling German machines.
Yet that has changed, as will once again be apparent when she meets Mr Putin in Moscow for the Petersburg Dialogue next week. This forum, set up in 2001 during the Schröder-Putin days, is designed for frank exchanges between businessmen, academics and policymakers. One of the Germans travelling with Mrs Merkel is Andreas Schockenhoff, who will chair the working group on “civil society”.
Mr Schockenhoff’s presence will irritate Mr Putin. He is not only a parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats, Mrs Merkel’s party, but also her special envoy for non-governmental Russo-German relations. Since Mr Putin became president again in May, Mr Schockenhoff has attacked his crackdown on civil society. He has criticised Mr Putin’s harassment of charities and campaigning groups, new laws against demonstrations and free speech and the jailing of two women from Pussy Riot, a punk group that staged a protest in Moscow’s main cathedral.
Mr Schockenhoff says Russia’s ambassador in Berlin complained when he criticised Mr Putin by name. Then the Russian foreign ministry became “very, very angry”. Nonetheless, he drafted a position paper for parliament. Germany’s foreign ministry then intervened, which Mr Schockenhoff found “unusual”, as successive drafts went back and forth. Last month the Russians accused Mr Schockenhoff of making “defamatory” remarks about Mr Putin, and suggested that they would no longer recognise his authority to speak for the government.
Germany could have ignored this comment, but surprisingly chose not to. Steffen Seibert, Mrs Merkel’s spokesman, said the Russian criticism “astonished us” and reminded Russia that it was up to the government to decide who spoke for it. Mrs Merkel may at last have shown her true colours—even if Germany’s influential pro-Russia business lobby is at pains to play that impression down.
Alexander Rahr, a leading Russophile and author of a biography of Mr Putin, says Germany’s Russia policy has for decades oscillated between realpolitik and values, and that the current spat is nothing new. The Russians, he says, have no equivalent of Mr Schockenhoff’s function. Germany “must not lose patience, must not lose Russia”, he advises, adding that Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) is a better course.
Yet Ulrich Speck, a foreign-policy analyst in Heidelberg, is not so sure. He thinks Germany should make more effort to promote liberal values in the world, and particularly in Russia. The Germans have more clout than they realise. “Economically, we are a giant, and they are the dwarf,” he says. Germany has already refocused its eastern priorities towards Poland, a far larger trading partner. Mrs Merkel recently visited Moldova, a country Russia has long bullied. And Germany is part of NATO’s “Steadfast Jazz” exercises next year, defending Poland and the Baltic states against supposed Russian aggression. The harder line against Mr Putin may endure.
from the print edition | Europe