Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has his legs crossed and his arms behind his head. He has something he is dying to say about Joschka Fischer, who was German foreign minister under Schröder from 1998 to 2005.
"I doubt very much that it will be possible to run Nabucco profitably without gas from Iran," says Schröder, as a smug grin appears on his face. "But Joschka will undoubtedly resolve the conflict with Iran."
Schröder chuckles hoarsely. He clearly enjoys the subject. The Nabucco pipeline is supposed to transport natural gas from Central Asia to Europe; construction is slated to begin next year. Fischer is promoting the project on behalf of two energy companies.
Iran is a problem, Schröder says a second time. "Tell that to Joschka when you see him," he says with his famous wolfish grin.
Fischer doesn't find the former chancellor's message the least bit amusing. Fischer is known for poking fun at other people, but he isn't very good at being the butt of someone else's jokes -- particularly Schröder's.
In a recent newspaper article about Afghanistan, Fischer wrote about "cumulative threats" and recommended that "all of the crises in this region need to be contained and perhaps even resolved: the Middle East, Iraq, the Gulf, Iran, Kashmir." All of the crises in the region? Fischer is nothing if not ambitious.
Fischer and Schröder are sparring once again. Although the subject of their spat has changed -- from political power to pipelines -- the contours are still more or less the same.
The former chancellor is working with the Russians, and his pipeline is called Nord Stream. The former foreign minister is working against the Russians, and his pipeline is called Nabucco. The two men are playing a modern-day version of the Great Game, the 19th-century struggle between Britain and Russia over control of Central Asia. This time around, the game involves the energy supply of the future and a finite resource: natural gas.
But when Fischer takes on Schröder, it isn't just a contest over who has the longest pipeline. In fact, it is only another chapter in the rivalry between two of the biggest egos in German politics, a contest that has been going on for more than a decade and has yet to be decided.
Success or Failure
The part about Iran is complete nonsense, Fischer says in response to Schröder's smug remarks. "Just think about what it will mean if Nabucco doesn't happen," he says. "The region, the geopolitical situation, Moscow!" He raises his arms into the air in a gesture of exasperation.
A Nabucco failure would not just be a geopolitical calamity. It wouldn't be great news for Fischer, either, who is being paid to promote the project by the German utility giant RWE and the Austrian oil and gas company OMV. He has a personal interest in Nabucco being a success, while Schröder has a personal interest in it being a failure.
The Nabucco project is intended to make the Germans less dependent on Russian gas. Russian energy giant Gazprom, which leads the Nord Stream consortium, has no interest in Germany becoming less dependent on Russian gas -- which is why Schröder, who is chairman of Nord Stream's shareholders' committee, is against Nabucco.
It is part of the ongoing rivalry between two men who endured seven years in government together. Now they are fighting over who controls the post-government period.
The Correct Historical Light
Schröder plucks an imaginary piece of lint from his nose, a slow-motion gesture that is familiar from his period as chancellor. Back then, he used it to play for time when someone asked him a difficult question.
Schröder has just read a positive opinion piece on the highly controversial Hartz IV welfare reforms, which he pushed through as chancellor, in that morning's edition of the German financial daily Handelsblatt. As he sees it, his achievements are slowly being cast in the right historical perspective, and Schröder himself is being seen in a different, more positive light. It's a development that is partially due to Fischer's work on behalf of Nabucco.
Schröder made himself the target of criticism from many quarters -- including the Poles, the Baltic States and Germany's conservatives -- when he supported Nord Stream as chancellor. From his point of view, however, the issue is very simple. Germany imports about 40 percent of its gas from Russia. The Nord Stream pipeline, which leads from Vyborg near St. Petersburg to a point near the northeastern German town of Greifswald, will make Germany independent of transit countries. Once it is built, it will make little difference to the Germans whether the Ukrainians have refused to pay their gas bills and whether Gazprom uses this as an excuse to shut off gas deliveries, as has happened in recent winters. Once Nord Stream is online, gas will keep flowing to Germany whatever happens.
To hear Schröder talk about Nord Stream, the project seems to make perfect sense. However the fact that Schröder supported the project while he was chancellor was never the problem. The problems only began later.
Schröder had hardly been out of office a month before he accepted his position on Nord Stream's shareholders' committee. He became a paid lobbyist for a pipeline he had promoted as chancellor. It wasn't illegal, but many found it objectionable. The Germans don't like to see a former chancellor swiftly turn into an elder salesman instead of an elder statesman.
It still irks Schröder that people see it this way. Most of all, it irritates him that Fischer was long seen as a shining example of everything Schröder was not.
In his theatrical farewell to the Foreign Ministry, Fischer ripped off his necktie and rhapsodized about his return to freedom. Unlike Schröder, who tried to hang on to power as long as he could, Fischer immediately accepted the outcome of the September 2005 election, which brought Angela Merkel to power. The press described his departure from office as dignified.
Fischer became a visiting professor at Princeton University and wrote opinion pieces in newspapers -- the sorts of things one might expect from a former foreign minister. For a long time, Schröder seemed a little dodgy compared to Fischer.
Ruining His Reputation
That's why Schröder likes the idea that Fischer is now negotiating with Iran on behalf of large energy companies. He hasn't forgotten what Fischer's Green Party said about the Gazprom deal at the time, namely that Schröder was committing political folly and that he was behaving improperly and ruining his reputation.
Fischer doesn't just work for RWE anymore. Now he also advises BMW and Siemens. In other words, he derives income from a carmaker and two companies involved in nuclear power plants, one as a manufacturer and the other as an operator. Back when he was environment minister of the western state of Hesse, Fischer was one of the staunchest opponents of the nuclear industry. As vice chancellor, he helped negotiate Germany's phase-out of nuclear power plants. This, in itself, is a remarkable career.
Fischer downplays his activities, saying that he has nothing to do with the nuclear sector, and that most of what he does today isn't that different from what he used to do back when he was a politician. He may be right, but nevertheless, it's easy to understand why Schröder is so pleased about Fischer's new job.
"Joschka's job, as I understand it, is about giving foreign policy advice. I don't see anything wrong with that," says Schröder, as he puts on a very serious face, trying to hide how gratifying it is for him that he and Fischer now play similar roles.
Fischer now represents a nuclear power company, and his work also involves natural gas agreements with countries like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, countries with governments that are sufficiently repressive to make Russia look like a democratic idyll. Morally speaking, he and Schröder are now operating at the same level -- at least from Schröder's perspective.
The two men haven't come together yet to discuss their jobs. Fischer and Schröder are still in contact, but they are no longer friends. A get-together with their two families that was planned for the Christmas holidays had to be cancelled.
Schröder makes no secret of the fact that he and Fischer have long been rivals. "There has always been a spirit of healthy competition between Joschka and me," he says. "Joschka has always believed that he is the better of the two. I, of course, never made that assumption about myself." When it comes to self-irony, at least, Schröder clearly has the edge on Fischer.
The competition the former chancellor mentions began even before the coalition of Schröder's center-left Social Democratic Party and Fischer's Green Party -- known colloquially as "red-green" -- came to power in 1998. A year earlier, the two men had given the German magazine Stern a joint interview -- an interview from which their relationship never fully recovered.
"His Highness no longer seems to be accustomed to the fact that there are other opinions," Fischer said, to which Schröder replied: "In a red-green constellation, one thing has to be clear: The larger one is the chef, and the smaller one is the waiter." For Schröder, and for Fischer, politics has always been an eternal contest over who is the bigger fish in the pond.
Instinct Vs. Geopolitical Vision
The problem was that Fischer never saw himself in the role of the waiter. "The conversation left me with a lasting negative impression," he wrote in his memoirs. However, he never challenged the chancellor directly. There were other ways to demonstrate his superiority.
Schröder never paid much attention to the intellectual foundation of his policies. He was a man of instinct, a man of the moment -- someone who could deal with crises and make quick decisions.
Fischer, in contrast, was more interested in the big picture -- but sometimes his picture was so big that he could no longer keep it all in view. Fischer looked at Germany and the world and tried to understand how everything fitted together. Whenever he would hold forth in the cabinet about how it was important to look at the geopolitical implications of things, Schröder would roll his eyes.
It was an allocation of roles that both men could accept, until the war against Iraq began taking shape. Although Fischer was opposed to the war himself, he didn't like how vocally Schröder was broadcasting his opposition.
Fischer was also opposed to the snap election Schröder called in 2005 after the Social Democrats got trounced by the conservatives in a state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, traditionally an SPD stronghold. But Schröder didn't listen. The chef decided to close the kitchen -- ending the career of his waiter at the same time.
Fischer is sitting in a rectangular Bauhaus armchair, which his body fills almost exactly.
After leaving office, he had hoped for an international post, perhaps something with the United Nations. The European Union was looking for a foreign minister last year, and Fischer would have been a good candidate. But the political situation was not conducive.
Last August, Fischer rented an office on Berlin's prestigious Gendarmenmarkt square. The walls still look freshly painted and somewhat bare. The letters on the sign at the door -- JF&C, for Joschka Fischer & Company -- sound like the initials of an American law firm, or a lobbying firm.
But Fischer doesn't see himself as a lobbyist. But what is he then? It isn't easy to get a straight answer from him. Are you negotiating on behalf of RWE? No, says Fischer, he isn't negotiating. "But I do conduct talks." Fischer conducts talks, but he isn't negotiating. Everything about Fischer is a little enigmatic.
One thing is clear, says Fischer, and that is that he is not competing against Schröder. Nabucco, he says, is not directed against the Russians. It's an opinion that few people share. The Russians are opposed to Nabucco, and Schröder doesn't have a high opinion of it, either.
In His Element
All protestations aside, Fischer is Schröder's competitor. He is back in his element as an international politician, dealing with important matters like connecting Central Asia to Europe and improving relations with Turkey. Schröder, on the other hand, is mainly interested in preserving Russia's gas monopoly.
Both men are now lobbyists, and perhaps the winner of this new round of their long-standing battle will emerge within the next year. The construction of the Nabucco pipeline is scheduled to begin in 2011. There are no gas delivery contracts yet, and it still isn't clear what Turkey's price will be for allowing the pipeline to pass through its territory.
In other words, it is still possible that Schröder's prognosis is correct and Nabucco will never operate at a profit. On the other hand, it could well be that all of the geopolitical factors Fischer describes will fall into place. But no matter what happens, the loser will not accept defeat. The battle of Schröder vs. Fischer will continue.