The Troubles of an Aging Marriage: In Russia, Merkel Will Find Old Spark Is Gone

By Matthias Schepp in Moscow

Not so long ago, senior German politicians made frequent visits to Russia. But few in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government have made any effort to deepen German-Russian relations. Berlin is in danger of losing the political and economic initiative to other countries courting Moscow.

Merkel (with Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Vladimir Putin, right): The situation is business as usual, but boredom is creeping into the relationship. Zoom
REUTERS

Merkel (with Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Vladimir Putin, right): The situation is business as usual, but boredom is creeping into the relationship.

When reporters with Russia's state television commented on the German national team during World Cup matches in South Africa, they weren't shy about using a term like "blitzkrieg" to rhapsodize about playing style. It was almost as if the Nazis had never attacked the Soviet Union. They gushed about how dynamic and creative the young players were.

For years now, surveys have shown that Russians value Germans more than the people of any other nation. In schools from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, close to 2 million students still learn German. Six-thousand German firms have a presence in Russia, more than any other country. But at the diplomatic level, relations have been cooling off recently.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Russia for a joint cabinet meeting between the German and Russian governments. It is the 12th in a series of similar high-level meetings, this time to be held in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg. In 2000, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to hold the government consultations on a regular bais. During the pinnacle of relations, Moscow and Berlin forged a united front against George W. Bush's Iraq war and, in 2005, agreed to a multi-billion euro Baltic Sea pipeline that would bring natural gas for the European market directly to Germany.

But the Russians expect little from the Yekaterinburg meeting. Ties with Berlin have become a bit like those in an old marriage: The situation is business as usual, boredom is creeping in, and other partners have become more interesting. When it comes to which country has the best ties with Russia, France, Italy and America have all begun competing strongly with Germany.

'Mostly Old Men, Few Women'

As in marriage, both partners are responsible for the recent relationship shortcomings. A year ago, a successor had to be found to replace Mikhail Gorbachev as the co-chair of the so-called Petersburg Dialogue, the meeting of non-government organizations, captains of industry, journalists and religious representatives from both countries. The replacement named by Moscow, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, a technocrat who is unlikely to bring any new momentum to the Petersburg Dialogue.

The Germans had wanted German Gref for the position. The former Russian economics minister and current head of Russia's largest bank is known for his support of liberal reforms. "Mostly old men, few women," he said disparagingly of the group's composition. The momentum between Moscow and Berlin, it seems, has been lost.

Inside the Kremlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, both of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), are considered political lightweights. When Brüderle visited Moscow in February, he rattled on about 24-hour, automated kiosks from German postal monopoly Deutsche Post that enable packages to be dropped off or picked up by customers in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Ambitious projects were conspicuous in their absence. They either fell through in Washington -- as in the case of the planned Russian investment in Opel, the beleaguered German subsidiary of General Motors. Or they languished in Berlin, as illustrated by German chipmaker Infineon. The German government has done little to aid the Russians' effort to acquire a 29-percent share in the bluechip firm.

In the previous grand coalition government between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD made Russia a focal point, propagating "transformation through interrelations" and coining the term "a modernization partnership."

Within the new German government, though, there is no one who truly feels responsible for Russia. Steinmeier used to travel frequently to Moscow, making a trio of visits during his first nine months in office. Successor Westerwelle has only made a single visit during the same amount of time -- and when he did, he didn't make the best impression. In the dignified reception area of the Foreign Ministry, he waved to the photographers as if he were on the campaign trail. His Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who has been in office for six years and had 38 years of diplomatic experience, remained stone-faced.

With icy coldness, he rebuffed Westerwelle's proposal for a German and Europe free of tactical nuclear weapons.

Moscow rejects the initiative because it would neutralize Russia's advantage over the Americans in these weapons. More than anything, though, was the fact that Westerwelle was clearly isolated with his proposal. His preparation on the issue had been poor. With a view to his cheeky initiative, the Russian newsmagazine Profil described Westerwelle as the "German Zhirinovsky." Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has long had the reputation in Russia as being a harmless political buffoon.

The heads of the Moscow offices of German companies are already complaining about "insufficient political support from Berlin." Angela Merkel did travel to Moscow for the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, where she viewed the showy military parade and laid a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier along the Kremlin wall. It was an important gesture of friendship between the two countries -- one which earned her the respect of officials in the Kremlin.

Sarkozy Secures Major Contracts for French Firms

Nicolas Sarkozy took a different approach. The French president didn't make it to the celebration or the parade, but he did travel to the World Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, where he bagged major contracts for some of his country's biggest companies. Despite the global economic crisis, Russian-French trade has increased by 250 percent during the past five years. French energy giant GDF Suez has acquired a 9 percent share of the Baltic Sea pipeline, buying 4.5 percent each from German firms Wintershall and Eon-Ruhrgas. In the nuclear power sector, German companies are also withdrawing. Russian company Rosatom has signed a deal with French firm EDF, but the cooperation between Siemens and the Russian company has made no progress.

Paris has also sold four Mistral helicopter carriers to Moscow, including the transfer of the electronic know-how. Meanwhile, Russia's Hermitage investment fund is building two skyscrapers along the Seine in Paris for more than €1.5 billion.

And since President Barack Obama announced just over a year ago that he would reset relations with Moscow, the United States has also been catching up with Germany. The firm Russian Technologies, run by a confidant of Prime Minister Putin, recently ordered 50 Boeing planes with a total value of $4 billion, despite the fact that the Russians don't even know yet which of the country's airlines will use the jets.

The order was intended as a signal to Russian companies that they are now allowed to do business with the Americans, who had been shunned during the Bush presidency. For his pet project of modernizing the Russian economy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has mostly tapped US companies like Intel and Cisco Systems.

In light of the intensifying competition, Klaus Mangold, the chairman of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a joint organization of the leading associations representing German business, invoked the past. "Germany, because of its industrial strength, remains the natural modernization partner for Russian industry," he said. Then he noted that: "But because of growing competition through other countries, we need to expand this." Merely defending that role might be a good place to start.

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