"Just Embarrassing" Gerhard Schröder Casts a Dark Shadow over Berlin's Foreign Policy

In the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Germany is cutting a rather ambivalent figure. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is one major reason why. Can the Social Democrats and the country find its way out from under his shadow?
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder

Foto:

Roman Pawlowski

Gerhard Schröder lives with his wife in a rather inconspicuous prewar building in the Zoo Quarter of Hannover. The apartment is plenty big for two, at 95 square meters (1,020 square feet), but it’s hardly a palace.

It would be nice to speak with the former German chancellor and hear what he has to say about all the excitement surrounding him. To hear his thoughts on the controversy that erupted over his comment that Ukraine should finally stop with all the "saber rattling." And on the widespread disgust with the work he does for Russian companies at a time when his friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is posing such a threat to Europe. Does he recognize the problem? Does he care?

Schröder, though, has been infected with the coronavirus and cannot be disturbed. His symptoms are not serious, it is said, but he needs rest and plenty of sleep. He can take care of a couple of phone calls, but nothing more than that.

DER SPIEGEL 7/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2022 (February 11th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Still, there is no way he can be oblivious to what is going on around him – to the fact that he has become the target of scorn and vituperation from half the country. How his party, the Social Democrats (SPD), is distancing itself from him and is coming under pressure to sever ties completely. How some even want to withdraw his privileges as a former chancellor – his office and staff.

But his friends say that Gerd is quite relaxed, and that he has managed to survive a number of more intense battles in his career. What he is currently experiencing, they say, is just a bit of headwind. The main thing, they say, is that most Germans take the same view as Schröder – namely that peace with Russia is the only thing that matters.

Indeed, there is a fair amount of bemusement in the Schröder camp: He, Gerhard Schröder, is supposedly undermining the foreign policy of Germany and Europe? How adorable.

The history of the SPD is full of fractures and schisms. But the relationship between Gerhard Schröder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, and his party is developing into a political drama of outsized dimensions. The manner in which the relationship has deteriorated over the years is unprecedented.

At one point, Schröder had almost achieved hero status within the party. He raked in election victories for the SPD, sent Helmut Kohl into retirement and clearly rejected German participation in the invasion of Iraq. But it has been all downhill ever since he was voted out of the Chancellery. First, his party began questioning the welfare reforms that Schröder had introduced while chancellor, and then Schröder began his love affair with Russia. Over the years, he has gone from being a source of irritation for the SPD to a downright curse. These days, 77-year-old Schröder is a danger to his party, to current Chancellor Olaf Scholz and, according to some, to the entire country.

At a time when the West is circling all the diplomatic wagons at its disposal in a combined effort to prevent Putin from marching into Ukraine, the former German chancellor is firing rhetorical barbs at Kyiv and seeking to deepen his business ties with Russia. Together with his friends on the Baltic Sea coast, Schröder is now trying to save the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the suspension of which is widely seen as a key element in the package of sanctions aimed at curtailing Putin’s aggression.

In June, Schröder is even scheduled to become a member of Gazprom’s board of directors. It would be his fourth leadership position in the Putin-dominated energy sector of Russia. He already holds posts in the oil concern Rosneft, in the company the operates Nord Stream 1 and in Nord Stream 2.

"To be on Putin’s payroll as a former chancellor: That doesn't look good," says Rudolf Dressler, an SPD éminence grise and a moral authority within Social Democracy. "He has never really cared about the party."

During the 16 years of Angela Merkel’s tenure in the Chancellery, his shenanigans as a gas lobbyist weren’t quite so momentous. Everybody knew that Merkel was firmly in control. But ever since Olaf Scholz has taken over as chancellor, Schröder’s ties to Russia have become the focus of international attention. Allies have become leery and many in capital cities around the world have begun wondering where, precisely, Germany’s SPD stands, particularly when it comes to the intersection between business interests, morals and values-based foreign policy. Does Schröder still have an influence over the party? Over the chancellor? The fact that such questions are even being asked is a problem for Germany – and it is a problem that isn’t particularly easy to solve.

Olaf Scholz was once again confronted with the Schröder scourge during his recent trip to Washington, D.C. In an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN, Scholz was asked what he thought about Schröder’s involvements in Russia. "He’s not speaking for the government," Scholz responded. "He’s not working for the government. He’s not the government. I am the chancellor now." It almost sounded as though there was some need for clarification as to who is Germany’s political leader. It was an uncomfortable moment.

Within the SPD itself, anger is likewise growing with the former chancellor, along with the fear that Schröder could bring the party down with him. A trio of state elections are slated to take place in the next three months and the party is eager to leave behind its defensive posture and establish something of a firewall to protect it from its former leader. Kevin Kühnert, the party’s general secretary, spoke of a "transgression" in the German daily Tagesspiegel. Dressler, for his part, finds Schröder’s behavior "just embarrassing,” and says: "The problems he is creating for Scholz internationally are unacceptable." Wiebke Esdar, a prominent voice from the SPD’s left wing and a member of the German parliament, says that it is distressing that some people "can’t just keep their mouths shut."

It sounds as though there is a movement toward simply cutting ties with Schröder. But how? Is it really possible to break with a former chancellor? Or will the situation just calm down over time?

It’s 4 p.m. last Monday at SPD headquarters in Berlin and Lars Klingbeil, the co-leader of the SPD, has called together a small group of senior SPD members, including state governors, experts, the party’s floor leader in parliament and Kühnert. Klingbeil wants to have an open and honest heart-to-heart about issues like war and peace, the SPD’s relationship to Russia and the legacy of Willy Brandt, the party’s celebrated former chancellor who pursued a policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Schröder with Russian President Vladimir Putin: An unassailable friendship?

Schröder with Russian President Vladimir Putin: An unassailable friendship?

Foto: Alexei Druzhinin / dpa

Klingbeil wants to formulate a clear message behind which all Social Democrats can finally unite – those who prefer détente and those who are leery of Moscow. That, at least, is Klingbeil’s intention, but first the discussion once again focuses on Schröder and his jobs. Schröder and Putin. Schröder and his public statements.

Michael Roth, an SPD parliamentarian who focuses on foreign policy, speaks up. Roth, according to meeting participants, says that things with Schröder cannot continue as they are. The former chancellor’s actions, he insists, are harmful to the SPD. Someone needs to send him a clear message, Roth says, perhaps someone from party leadership.

Klingbeil responds by saying he doesn’t want the meeting to concentrate exclusively on Schröder. The focus must be on the party’s fundamental position on an important issue and not on dealing with the individual stances adopted by former party officials. "But one thing is clear," says Klingbeil, with an eye on the chancellor and his party co-leader Saskia Esken: "Gerhard Schröder doesn’t speak for the party. That role is reserved for Olaf, Saskia and myself." Some meeting participants understand his comment to mean that he plans to take on the task of clearing up the situation and communicating the party’s position to the former chancellor. The main thing is to keep things quiet in Hannover.

The discussion, though, is particularly difficult for Klingbeil. He once worked for Schröder in his electoral district and has a "good personal, private relationship" with him, as he described it this week on a talk show, where he was once again asked about the former chancellor’s activities. More than anything, though, Klingbeil’s political coming of age was heavily influenced by Schröder’s victory in 1998 after 16 years under Kohl’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU).

Indeed, how SPD members view Schröder depends to a certain extent on the generation they belong to. For Klingbeil, who was born in 1978, and other Social Democrats in his age group, Schröder was – until Scholz’s election last year, at least – the last SPD chancellor before the party began slipping and losing election after election at the federal level. Schröder may have his flaws, but for Klingbeil and others, Schröder was also kind of cool. He stood for success.

"Gerhard Schröder is a role model for me when it comes to reaching people and winning elections," Klingbeil gushed two years ago. "Without the lessons I learned from him, I never would have won my rather conservative electoral district."

He is fond of talking about his first encounter with Schröder. It was before he had become chancellor, back when he was governor of Lower Saxony, and Klingbeil was an intern with a state parliamentarian. During an appearance in a village south of Hamburg, a retiree approached Schröder with a complaint. "The bike path is damaged up there," the man said. Schröder called an assistant over and said: "Mark that down. We’ll take care of it." Two weeks later, Klingbeil says, the bike path was fixed.

Given his past, it is difficult for Klingbeil to distance himself from Schröder. He swings back and forth between loyalty to his friend and irritation over the fact that Schröder is making things so difficult for the SPD and that his view enjoys so much sympathy among the German population. According to recent surveys, the majority of Germans aren’t just opposed to supplying weapons to Ukraine – they also support providing Russia with security guarantees and would like to see the Nord Stream 2 project come to fruition.

In all the discussions over the tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border and over possible sanctions, it is easy to forget that Germans and Russians have a rather special relationship, one characterized by craving for solidarity and by a certain mutual fascination. In a survey performed by the pollsters from Civey on behalf of DER SPIEGEL, 46.6 percent of participants said they would like to see tighter ties with Russia, while only 34.6 percent said they are in favor of more distance.

It is, Klingbeil told the German tabloid Bild on Wednesday, "not the easiest situation" for him. It is clear, he said, that he can’t "cheaply distance" himself. But, he insisted, he finds Schröder’s position to be "wrong." Klingbeil has emphasized on several occasions that he views Russia as the aggressor, and not NATO, much less Ukraine.

The situation is far simpler for Jessica Rosenthal, head of the youth wing of the SPD. She was just six years old when Schröder defeated Kohl, and she has no links to the former chancellor, at least none that are positive. She says she went into politics to fight against much of what Schröder stood for, his welfare reforms first and foremost. "As young socialists, we want to fix those mistakes and make the SPD credible again."

Rosenthal is now a member of German parliament, but her view of Schröder has in no way become less obdurate. On the contrary. Schröder speaks like "a lobbyist for Russia – and nothing else" she told the Berlin-based daily die tageszeitung. She told the paper that she is more impressed by a different ex-leader of the SPD. "Andrea Nahles has been able to remain loyal to the SPD even after ending her political career," she said – leaving unsaid the rest of the thought: in contrast to Schröder.

If one takes at face value what Schröder’s confidants say, then such comments are of little consequence to him. He believes there is nothing wrong with his ties to Russia and that his friendship with Putin is unassailable. Plus, he earns quite a bit in his role as Putin’s man in the West. "It’s my life, not yours," he once said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL. It sounded as though he meant: I don’t really care what people say about me.

But how can that be? How can someone who used to lead the country be so exclusively focused on his own well-being? How is it possible to accept being viewed as a greedy lobbyist for companies belonging to an authoritarian state?

Schröder’s behavior may seem completely unreasonable, but it isn’t unexplainable. Schröder grew up with his mother in rather modest circumstances. They had just enough money for their daily needs. And the connection with Russia extends into his family history, with his father having fallen on the Eastern Front.

When Schröder began climbing the political ladder, the status symbols that came along with the upper echelons of society were more important to him than they were to other members of his party – the cigars, the expensive suits. He learned to play tennis and then golf, finding his way into a world that had been closed off to him in when he was young.

But it was never enough. Even after Schröder became German chancellor, after his name could no longer be excluded from the history books, he apparently still had a compulsion to continue proving himself, because everything he had achieved could one day be taken from him if he didn’t keep fighting.

As such, the fact that he has actively gambled away his reputation over the years by continually adding to his collection of supervisory board memberships is only a contradiction on the surface.

Is it money that he is after? Schröder doesn’t really have expensive hobbies. He doesn’t have a yacht, doesn’t own a collection of expensive cars, and even golf isn’t the millionaire’s sport it once was.

His circle of friends includes a number of businessmen who have more money than he does, such as the investor Carsten Maschmeyer and the drug store magnate Dirk Rossmann. And certainly, Schröder’s self-image wouldn’t stand for constantly accepting generous invitations from his millionaire friends. More important than money for Schröder, though, has always been his market value and the attention he receives – and perhaps also the price that a Russian company is willing to pay for him.

It is a form of self-affirmation, akin to the number of listeners his podcast attracts – or the size of the waves of indignation he triggers in the German media. When Schröder joined Nord Stream in 2005 shortly after his tenure in the Chancellery came to an end and triggered a storm of resentment, it was, he once said, something of a relief. He didn’t just disappear into the history books as a former chancellor, but remained in the public eye.

Schröder also had more courage as chancellor than many who preceded him. His package of welfare reforms, known as Agenda 2010, wasn’t just badly needed, it was a huge risk for a Social Democratic chancellor, putting him in danger of being voted out of office. Just as it now takes a certain amount of courage to lobby on behalf of Russian gas interests, knowing full well that it could completely destroy what is left of his reputation.

And if you look at things from within the logic of Putin’s friendships, it almost makes sense that Schröder keeps accumulating leadership jobs in the Russian fossil fuel industry. In Putin’s system, after all, declining such an offer is akin not just to cowardice, but also to personal rejection of the Russian leader himself.

Schröder is important to Putin, a man from whom it is difficult to separate oneself once you have entered his orbit. In Germany, Schröder is seen as a macho, someone who takes orders from nobody. But in Russia, the criteria for masculinity and loyalty are in a completely different league.

To understand just how much influence Schröder still has, how stabile his networks remain and how problematic his lobbying activities are, it is helpful to take a trip to the Baltic Sea coast in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. His friends, his interests – it’s all there in plain sight.

It is here where two thick metal pipes can be seen protruding from the ground just outside the port of Lubmin. They are built to withstand 177 bars of pressure and can only be controlled in an emergency with hydraulic valves weighing several tons.

This is where the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany terminates. Schröder’s project. It is here where Russian natural gas is to be piped into the German supply grid and distributed throughout Europe. If, that is, the pipeline ever goes into operation.

The state’s governor, Manuela Schwesig, who is also a member of the SPD, has been working for several years to ensure that the gas does begin to flow. Schröder can rely on her support, just as he can on that of Erwin Sellering, Schwesig’s mentor and the man from whom she took over as governor in 2017. And there is yet another Schröder confidant in the state capital of Schwerin: Heiko Geue, his former speechwriter back when he was chancellor. He was Schwesig’s chief of staff before taking over the state Finance Ministry in the new cabinet.

Some within the SPD are ashamed of Schröder’s behavior, but Schwesig stands by him. She even defended the former chancellor in 2017, when he accepted a promotion to the board of directors of the Russian oil company Rosneft. When Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned in 2020, Schwesig warned against using the attack to question Nord Stream 2. And when a number of U.S. Senators threatened sanctions that same year, Schwesig demonstratively visited the port of Mukran on the German island of Rügen, where construction of the pipeline was being coordinated. With the intent that her words would reach Washington, she told her state parliament: "What the U.S. really wants is for us to buy their fracking gas from them.”

A recently as the end of January, when Chancellor Scholz first mentioned the pipeline in the context of possible sanctions should Putin attacks Ukraine, Schwesig publicly wished for "speedy certification” of the pipeline.

Schwesig's ties to Schröder have been close for some time. When construction on the pipeline began in 2018, she had lunch with him at a restaurant in Berlin. The two are also known to have had a conversations on the sidelines of the Usedom Music Festival in her state in 2020. Both sides have remained silent about the nature of their discussions, but it sems clear that Nord Stream 2 has been a focus. At least, it would be rather surprising if gas lobbyist Schröder didn’t bring up the pipeline during a personal conversation with the governor of the state where the pipeline terminates.

Schwesig bristles at any suggestion that she is some kind of stooge to Schröder or even Putin. Her spokesperson says it is erroneous to claim that Schröder has any influence on her opinion about the pipeline. Schwesig cites objective political reasons for the pipeline project: Nord Stream 2 is important for "energy security" in Germany. For her, Schröder is a door opener to the corporate world and to Russia.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Governor Manuela Schwesig.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Governor Manuela Schwesig.

Foto: Müller-Stauffenberg / ullstein bild

The majority of residents of her state and members of her state parliament support Schwesig’s position. Indeed, pro-Russia positions have something of a tradition in the state. As long as the pipeline was under construction, it secured jobs in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The pipes were encased in concrete in Sassnitz and taken out to sea from there. The pipeline will also provide the state with tax income if it goes into operation. In Lubmin, where the first Nord Stream pipeline terminates, the project accounts for around 20 percent of corporate tax revenues.

Schwesig believes strongly in economic ties with Russia, even in times of crisis. She says it’s better to "continue with dialogue rather than burn bridges.” Her state maintains a close partnership with the Leningrad Oblast.

Schwesig’s well-meaning yet, for some, overly uncritical stance on Russia is a legacy inherited from her predecessor Sellering. The former governor, a recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship, has shown unwavering loyalty to Moscow. In 2014, during Putin’s invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, the SPD politician traveled to St. Petersburg, in part to celebrate Putin’s 70th birthday together with Schröder. Nord Stream AG, which is 51 percent owned by the partly state-owned Russian corporation Gazprom, hosted the reception at Yusupov Palace. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller also attended the party.

Sellering has had a new job since last year: He is no longer just the chair of the German-Russian Partnership Association, he’s also on the board of the public Climate and Environmental Protection Foundation MV, which Schwesig had the state parliament establish in a fast-track procedure, supported with 20 million euros from Nord Stream 2 AG.

It’s a highly dubious construct. Contrary to what the name suggests, it is less about climate protection than about protecting the continued construction of the pipeline from U.S. sanctions. The idea was to set up a German business enterprise in the form of the foundation, but one in which the Russians would have by far the biggest say. Nord Stream 2 AG has the right to nominate the managing director and, according to the articles of association, the business principles must be designed "in consultation with Nord Stream 2 AG.” The use of the word "foundation” in the name is also more than a little misleading.

But the foundation is a bit less well-conceived than originally though. When U.S. Senator Ted Cruz threatened to financially destroy the port company in Sassnitz on the island of Rügen if it continued to support the construction of the pipeline, "a bit of panic ensued,” say sources close to the state government in the capital of Schwerin. Thousands of pipes for pipeline construction already paid for by Nord Stream AG had been delivered to Sassnitz by then.

Because the U.S. bill explicitly exempted state institutions from sanctions, the initial idea called for using a state-owned company to complete construction of the pipeline. What was almost overlooked in the hectic process was the fact that such a construct would also have meant that Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania would have had to assume liability for warranty claims and risks.

Ultimately, the foundation was created using Russian money, and it has been causing political headaches ever since – including in Berlin. So far, however, the debate hasn’t done any damage to Governor Schwesig. On the contrary.: She is seen by many as having stood up to the U.S. for the inexpensive sum of 200,000 euros from her state’s coffers. The rest of the money came from Nord Stream 2, of which Schröder is the chairman of the board.

In the state parliament, the SPD, the conservative CDU and the far-left Left Party voted in favor of establishing the foundation, with only the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) abstaining. In state elections in September 2021, Schwesig and her SPD nearly secured an absolute majority in parliament. She apparently isn’t concerned about accusations that she may have crossed red lines by setting up the foundation.

However, many in the SPD are now angry about the direction Schwesig has taken in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, her proximity to Schröder and her at times questionable fight for the controversial pipeline. Schwesig’s critics argue that although economic interests may be understandable, pursuing a pro-Russian course for purely economic interests is opportunistic and in opposition to the interests of other EU member states. Nobody, though, is prepared to rush her out the door, though. Schwesig is one of the party’s more promising politicians – and not only because of her election victory. They may still need her.

But how does the SPD plan to prevent former Chancellor Schröder from creating even greater problems for the party? The debate is likely to heat up even further in June, when Schröder is slated to join Gazprom’s supervisory board. The polls are threatening to tip. In the Civey survey, 56 percent of Germans now believe that Schröder’s behavior is hurting the struggle for a unified Russia policy. But how can the damage be averted? By rebuking him? By threatening to kick him out of the party? That seems unthinkable. What about taking away Schröder’s office or his work car? Also not an option.

Even the Christian Democrats, who first brought that idea into play, have since backed away from it. CDU party head Friedrich Merz is said to have made clear internally that the party should not bother itself with such "petty” issues. He argues it would make more sense to address the core of the problem: that Schröder's actions and his Russian connections have damaged Germany's foreign policy.

It appears that Schröder may indeed have greater influence on the Social Democrats than is portrayed publicly. On Jan. 5, the former chancellor met with Johann Saathoff, a member of parliament with the SPD, who until recently served as the German government’s envoy to Russia. Noteworthy is also the list of others who attended the meeting: Martin Schulz, the chair of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an SPD-aligned think tank; Matthias Platzeck, the former head of the SPD; and Heino Wiese, the honorary consul of Russia and an advisor and confidant of Schröder. What was the purpose of the meeting? Was Schröder seeking access to the new government, to decision-makers in the SPD? Was it about Nord Stream?

SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil

SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil

Foto: Xander Heinl / picture alliance / photothek

Saathoff insists that he was the one who approached Schröder, and not the other way around. "As I recall it, Nord Stream was not an issue,” he says. "I was concerned about developments in civil society in Russia.” The meeting is sensitive because it runs counter to the narrative of both the Social Democrats and the chancellor that there is a firewall between the party and Schröder. Both Saathoff and Schulz attended the SPD meeting on Russia last week that was organized by Klingbeil. Saathoff also works for the federal government as parliamentary state secretary in the Interior Ministry.

The CDU is demanding clarification. Thorsten Frei, the parliamentary group manager for the Christian Democrats, is calling the developments a "fatal signal.” "It is high time that Chancellor Scholz takes action in view of this indecent entanglement of politics and lobbying and clearly distances himself," he says. The assurances from the SPD leadership that they have distanced themselves from Schröder have been "refuted," says CDU member of parliament Matthias Hauer. "The government needs to come clean about how these meetings came about and what they were about.”

Given their trusting relationship, some Social Democrats now see Schwesig as the key to containing Schröder, while others are counting on Klingbeil. He’s the party’s co-leader, after all, and he’ll have to play a role in sorting things out. Avoiding the issue isn’t an option. The atmosphere has grown too tense for that.

SPD youth wing leader Rosenthal says she is saddened by the way Schröder is behaving. She is demanding that her party give clear marching orders to the former chancellor: "Gerhard Schröder should keep a low profile. He would be do everyone a favor by doing so.” Meanwhile, Anke Rehlinger, an election campaigner in Saarland, believes Schröder’s actions are "incompatible with the dignity of a former chancellor.” And veteran SPD politician Dressler has appealed directly to Klingbeil. He says the party leadership needs to ask itself: "Is he still viable, or do we have to say to him: It’s over now. That is Klingbeil’s job. He needs to tell him to stop speaking out publicly.”

Klingbeil contacted Schröder in recent days to inform him that he doesn’t share his views on Ukraine and that he has little understanding for his Gazprom job. For the SPD chair, the issue could mark his own Merkel moment, if you will. In 1999, Merkel, the then CDU secretary general, famously broke away from once overpowering former chancellor and party chair Helmut Kohl in an article she submitted to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper. In doing so, she freed the Christian Democrats from Kohl’s donations scandal – and it also paved the way for her own path to power.

Is that a possible model for the SPD party boss? Possibly. But it wouldn’t be simple.

In the end, the problem could still fall on others. When Scholz sat in the studio with the CNN anchor on Monday, Tapper emphasized that the Ukrainian government didn’t know exactly where Germany stood because of Schröder. Scholz was clear in his response. "This is a talk you might have with him here at CNN,” he said to Tapper. "But you should not have it with me.”

Still, the problem isn’t going to simply go away.

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