Chancellor Vs. President Sochi Boycott Stirs Up Tensions in Berlin
President Joachim Gauck's decision to cancel his visit to the Winter Olympics in Sochi has angered Chancellor Angela Merkel. The lack of coordination between Germany's head of government and its head of state makes relations with Russia even more difficult to manage.
Angela Merkel didn't want Joachim Gauck to be president. He's too independent for her liking. But she had to bow to pressure from her coalition partner at the time, the business-friendly Free Democrats. Still, her cooperation with him had been smooth -- until last week. That's when her fears were confirmed for the first time when he announced he would not travel to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.. Merkel learned of his decision in the media, according to people close to her.
SPIEGEL reported Gauck's decision, for which he didn't provide an official explanation. The cancellation was quickly interpreted as a protest against the human rights situation in Russua and the politics of President Vladimir Putin. Gauck's office didn't deny that view.
Gauck's decision didn't just provoke angry reactions in Russia. It also triggered a political debate within the government about the foreign policy of the president. The Chancellery and Foreign Ministry aren't happy about Gauck's behavior, to put it mildly.
Merkel was irritated about the furor the president triggered. She would have preferred to have been informed by him personally. She must have seen his action as grossly impolite, especially given the fact that the presidential office took it upon itself to inform the Russian embassy in Berlin.
Two Sides of the Story
There is, however, another version of events. According to the presidential office, the Chancellery was informed before the cancellation became public. So what really happened?
Maybe both sides are telling the truth. At working level, civil servants in the two offices regularly communicate wth each other. It's conceivable that presidential staff passed on the information about Gauck's cancellation to their colleagues at the Chancellery. They in turn may have neglected to inform Merkel's office, her spokesman Steffen Seibert or her foreign policy advisor Christoph Heusgen.
It would however be standard procedure to discuss a decision of this importance at the very top. The relationship with Russia is one of the most complicated issues of German foreign policy. It's not good if the head of government and head of state don't coordinate their positions very carefully. The upper echelons of the Foreign Ministry received no information about a cancellation.
More important than issues of protocol is the debate over whether Gauck's decision was the right one to make. By declining the invitation to attend the Winter Olympics, Gauck lays bare a fundamental difference of opinion between Merkel and himself on the issue of how Germany should deal with its difficult partner to the east.
Differing Views on Russia
On the one hand, their views onVladimir Putin are by and large the same. Like Gauck, Merkel believes that Russia's president isn't capable of modernizing his country or of shepherding it back onto a democratic course. In fact, the chancellor has publically voiced criticism of how opponents of Putin's government are treated in Russia, even in his presence.
On the other hand, she has refrained from openly snubbing the Russians. The fact is that there are many problems that can't be resolved without Moscow's help, whether this has to do with the civil war in Syria, Iran's nuclear program or the situation in Ukraine. For this reason, Merkel wants to remain in dialogue with Moscow at all levels. A few days ago, she let Putin know that she would like to hold joint Russian-German government talks soon.
Gauck, however, has allowed his refusal to be interpreted as a political signal. Merkel views this as a mistake. Sources within the Chancellery also say it isn't good that Gauck hasn't visited Russia yet since assuming office as Germany's president in March 2012.
But Gauck's relationship with Russia is more complicated and emotional than that of the Chancellor. He has called on the Russians to confront the crimes of the Soviet era. At the same time he plans to honor the millions of people who died fighting National Socialism.
The fact that Gauck hasnt paid a state visit to Russia isn't just his own doing. Putin isn't especially keen on seeing Gauck either. The Russian president has already cancelled two meetings, citing scheduling difficulties. For Gauck, that likely made a meeting during the Olympics difficult to stomach. After his cancellation, it will likely become even harder to find a free spot in Putin's diary.