Several times a week, at 8:30 in the morning, a small group of trusted staff members meets on the seventh floor of the Chancellery in Berlin for the "morning situation meeting." It's the most exclusive political circle in Germany. For half an hour, the chancellor and her closest advisors sit at a round table, discuss stories in the press, look at the day's agenda and talk about their approach.
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert, a former television anchor, usually begins the meeting by presenting the most important headlines and commentary. Last Thursday and Friday, it was the new German president, Joachim Gauck, who dominated the press review. He had cancelled a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, to protest the treatment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
Gauck's decision had the press and politicians scrambling to sing his praises. The new president had set a "standard for everyone," wrote Berlin's Tagesspiegel. "Gauck takes a stand," commented the Hamburger Abendblatt, and in an interview on broadcaster RTL, Markus Löning, the German government's human rights commissioner, described the president's cancellation as a "wonderful signal."
The chancellor herself rarely receives such favorable commentary. When the press does mention her, it is usually in conjunction with ongoing disputes within her governing coalition or with her approach to managing the euro crisis.
It didn't take long for officials at the Chancellery to seek to capitalize on Gauck's exceedingly good press. Merkel's assistants hurried to emphasis the role their boss had played in the president's well-received decision. Of course, Chancellery officials hastened to add, the president had only cancelled his meeting with Yanukovich after consulting with the chancellor. Furthermore, government spokesman Seibert indicated, Merkel might decide not to attend any of the games played by the German national team at the upcoming European Football Championship, which Ukraine is co-hosting. A decision on the chancellor's attendance had not yet been made, Seibert noted.
That was only the beginning. If Berlin has its way, the tussle over the fate of the imprisoned former prime minister will no longer take place behind closed doors, but on the larger political stage instead. The Tymoshenko case offers Merkel the opportunity to portray herself as a committed proponent of human rights. The overwhelmingly positive response to Gauck's cancellation reveals the degree to which the issue can generate sympathy.
In her first term, the chancellor was still generating headlines with her "values-based foreign policy." It resulted in a months-long disruption of relations with Beijing. But the champion of values has long since turned into a cool-headed pragmatist. Nowadays, the political and economic importance of the country largely determines how vocally Merkel criticizes human rights violations.
For Merkel, the risks are manageable in Ukraine. Yanukovich remains isolated internationally, and German exports to the country, with its roughly 45 million people, are less than 10 percent of German exports to China.
In the Tymoshenko case, Germany thus assumed a leading role for Europe early on, albeit largely on the quiet until now. For months, the Chancellery has tried to find solutions in talks with the Ukrainians. Karl Max Einhäupl, a neurologist and the head of Berlin's Charité university hospital, was able to examine the prominent prisoner twice. Last Friday, Einhäupl announced that he and a team of doctors planned to travel to Ukraine a third time soon.
Five weeks ago, the Chancellery and the presidential administration in Kiev seemed to have agreed on a face-saving solution. Officials said that Yanukovych was willing to accept a "humanitarian solution" and would allow Tymoshenko to travel to Germany.
But it wasn't long before the deal collapsed. Yanukovich fears that the opposition could stage a comeback in parliamentary elections this fall, particularly given the sharp decline his party has seen in its opinion poll ratings in recent weeks. If Tymoshenko is released and treated at Charité, she could resume the leadership of her All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" Party. It is a possible scenario that could explain Yanukovych's stubborn approach.
No Intention of Backing Down
Gauck's accession to office has now given the Germans a new means of exerting pressure. When the new German president took office on March 18, his Ukrainian counterpart had already issued an invitation for a mid-May meeting of European heads of state in Yalta. Gauck was skeptical and wanted to turn down the invitation, but his foreign policy advisors convinced him otherwise.
Their counterparts at the Chancellery had given them two recommendations. Either Gauck's potential visit could be exploited to exert additional pressure on the Ukrainians. Or, they argued, the president could also try to convince other heads of state to cancel their attendance of the May meeting, as well.
But the Ukrainians had no intention of backing down, and the situation escalated. The prisoner was moved to a hospital on Friday, April 13. According to her attorney, she suffered bruises on her arms and on one elbow and was hit in the stomach while guards forcibly moved her. Tymoshenko has been on a hunger strike since then.
Last Tuesday, Gauck decided to cancel the trip to Yalta. On Wednesday, the head of the foreign policy division in the office of the president notified the Ukrainian envoy in Berlin of Gauck's decision.
Gauck isn't the only president to cancel the Yalta meeting. His Austrian counterpart had already cancelled three weeks ago, allegedly for scheduling reasons, and the Slovenian president will also not attend the meeting. The heads of state of Estonia and Latvia haven't decided yet.
Last Thursday, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine was taken to task at the German Chancellery. After the meeting, officials said that he had not even tried to defend his president's position on Tymoshenko. And then, last Friday, came the bomb attacks in Dnipropetrovsk. The chancellor's advisors now insist that the pressure on the Ukrainian government is extremely high, given Tymoshenko's status as a symbol of the post-Stalinist Ukraine.
The German government maintains an internal list of opposition politicians currently being targeted by the Ukrainian judiciary. Most of them are allies of Tymoshenko, like former Interior Minister Yuri Luzenko, who was sentenced to four years in prison in February on charges of illegally obtaining an official apartment for his driver. The list notes the Danish Institute for Human Rights assessment that the case against Luzenko was unconstitutional.
In addition, the former environment minister and the former defense minister are likewise serving prison terms. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of a number of former cabinet ministers and officials who, according to information available to the German government, have fled the country. These cases too are focused on in talks between Ukraine and Germany.
Still, the involvement of the chancellor is surprising, and is reminiscent of her early years in office, before she de-emphasized the importance of human rights as a guiding light of her foreign policy. Early in her first term, which began in 2005, she openly called for the closing of the prison camp in Guantanamo, a step her predecessor Gerhard Schröder hadn't dared to take. She tangled with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference. And she risked conflict with China, a rising world power, when she demonstratively received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery in September 2007.
Merkel's own story was a perfect complement to her politics. She was a woman from the former Eastern bloc who had lived in a dictatorship herself, and who refused to remain silent when human rights were abused elsewhere in the world. It was a different tone than the one taken by Schröder, who held private birthday parties for autocrats like Putin. German citizens approved of Merkel's approach. In a SPIEGEL survey, 82 percent of respondents said that they felt it was correct for Merkel to receive the Dalai Lama.
The emphasis was partly the function of her first coalition, which paired Merkel's conservatives with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). A solid human rights focus provided a useful counterpoint to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister from the SPD and subsequent challenger for the chancellorship. Steinmeier's pragmatic political arguments always seemed a little shabby compared to Merkel's emotional talk of freedom.
A Pragmatic Approach
After the 2009 elections, however, Guido Westerwelle of the business-friendly Free Democrats took over the Foreign Ministry. Merkel no longer had to create political separation from her foreign minister; plus Westerwelle proved to be perfectly capable of ruining his reputation without her help. Suddenly, demonstrative criticism of Russia or China became scarce. She shifted to a pragmatic approach.
Merkel agreed to Schröder-esque compromises that she would have rejected just a few years earlier. During her last visit to China in February, the Beijing authorities prevented Mo Shaoping, a prominent human rights attorney, from attending a reception at the German Embassy. And a planned meeting with representatives of an independent newspaper in Canton was cancelled. Merkel chose to downplay the snub. After all, good German-Chinese relations are important, especially for the economy. And Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had afforded the chancellor an unusual level of diplomatic recognition. For Merkel and her advisors, it seemed unreasonable to jeopardize a strong relationship because of one human rights attorney.
This approach quietly became the Leitmotif of Merkel's foreign policy several years ago. The chancellor openly criticizes dictators like Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, with whom there is already no contact. But undemocratic regimes that control key natural resources or are strategically important can expect a more indulgent approach. In June 2011, for example, Germany's Federal Security Council, chaired by Merkel, approved the sale of more than 200 tanks to Saudi Arabia. The fact that the regime in Riyadh is one of the world's most undemocratic governments and contributed to the violent suppression of protests in Bahrain was irrelevant.
A dictator like Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has already paid two visits to the Chancellery, because he has oil and natural gas to sell. He has nothing to fear when it comes to public criticism from the chancellor. Merkel has moved so far away from her original approach that a close associate now concedes: "We would probably no longer receive the Dalai Lama today."
The Tymoshenko case gives Merkel the opportunity to portray herself as a champion of human rights once again. The Chancellery's goal is to bring the former Ukrainian prime minister to Germany for treatment, but the days of face-saving solutions are now gone. Gauck's cancellation of the Yalta visit has pushed backroom diplomacy into the bright spotlight, a move that is absolutely to Merkel's advantage.
Without Merkel in Attendance
She still hopes that Yanukovich will eventually give in. Meanwhile, the Chancellery is already mapping out other scenarios for the event that he doesn't come around. If Tymoshenko is not released before the European Football Championship kicks off in June, the German team will probably have to play without Merkel in attendance.
In that case, it seems safe to assume that no German cabinet member would travel to the tournament. "For the last two years, a gradual shift to authoritarianism has been underway in Ukraine that seeks to invalidate the orange revolution. No one can be interested in an insidious Sovietization," says Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
The only exception could be Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, whose portfolio also includes sports. Last week Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), consulted with Chancellery Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla, announcing afterwards that he would only attend the match between the Netherlands and Germany in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv if he could see Tymoshenko first.
The EU's association agreement with Ukraine won't be signed until Yanukovich relents, either. If necessary, say senior diplomats, individual member states will block the agreement. The Germans, they add, have simply taken on a key role in the Ukraine case.
The example of Belarus shows that pressure can even convince hardened dictators to back down. When the opposition took to the streets after the Belarusian presidential election in December 2010, President Lukashenko also had regime opponents and the opposition presidential candidates thrown into prison. The EU responded by recalling its ambassador from Minsk and calling for the cancellation of one of the dictator's pet projects: the ice hockey world championship, which is scheduled to take place in Belarus in 2014.
Lukashenko capitulated, and in mid-April he pardoned one of his archenemies, the former presidential candidate and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikov. After that, the first EU ambassador returned to Minsk on Wednesday; Berlin's ambassador Christof Weil is expected to follow soon.