German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was likely breathing a little easier on Tuesday. The media spotlight, which had been turned squarely on his seemingly naïve relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has, for the time being, dimmed. On Tuesday, Putin dropped his Soviet-esque stance on the massively manipulated Ukrainian elections and said he would accept election results in the case of a revote. It seemed like a major diplomatic coup for Schroeder.
But Putin's sudden about face -- he had earlier been insisting that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had won the presidency in "free and fair elections" against opposition challenger Viktor Yushchenko and that Europeans should refrain from getting involved -- doesn't change what should be an uncomfortable fact for Schroeder. Namely, he continues to maintain close professional and economic (and publicly friendly) relations with a man most believe to be a half-hearted democrat at best and a quickly developing autocratic prince at worst. It is a dangerous game of geo-political Russian roulette and one that, Tuesday's news aside, could sooner or later backfire on Schroeder. If it hasn't already.
The most-recent questions surrounding the Schroeder-Putin courtship surfaced last week. Following energetic attempts by Putin to influence the elections in Ukraine -- including massive financial support and campaign appearances supporting government candidate Yanukovych as well as premature recognition of a Yanukovych victory despite clear indications of massive fraud -- Schroeder came to Putin's defense. "I am thoroughly convinced that the Russian president wants to transform Russia into a democracy and that he is doing so out of a deeply held conviction," he said. As if that weren't a gem of a quote, a few days earlier Schroeder had referred to Putin as "a flawless democrat."
Criticism of Schroeder's position isn't just coming from the German media -- more and more voices from abroad are questioning his "German path" as Schroeder himself refers to his efforts to become more independent from the United States security umbrella. Russia's best-know human rights activist, Sergei Kovalyov, is livid. He feels Germany is sacrificing long-held beliefs in human rights and democracy for a powerful friend and a few euros. "What the chancellor is doing with Russia isn't just morally wrong, it is also dangerous," he warns.
Looking the other way
It's not just Ukraine either. Following parliamentary elections in Chechnya earlier this year -- an election that was criticized by the European Commission as "neither free nor fair" -- Schroeder said, "As far as I can see there were no major flaws." Members of Schroeder's own party, the Social Democrats, and his governing coalition partner, the Greens, roundly criticized his position. Schroeder has also had little to say about Putin's takeover of the powerful oil company Yukos nor has he expressed particular concern about the steady Kremlin attack on press freedom in Russia.
The bet Schroeder is making is primarily an economic one. Trade between the two countries has rocketed upward since 1999 and Putin's March 2000 election to the Russian presidency hasn't hurt. Five years ago, Germany imported 8.4 billion worth of goods from Russia. In 2003, that number stood at 14.2 billion according to the Deutsche Bundesbank, Germany's central bank. Exports have risen even more, from 5.1 million in 1999 to 12.1 million in 2003 -- mostly in the form of cars, technical equipment and chemical products. This trade spike has been carefully fostered. Schroeder has made repeated trips to Russia in recent years -- usually bringing a few industry magnates along with him -- and he sees Russia as being one of Germany's most important partners in the next 20 to 30 years.
The lion's share of the trade coming out of Russia, however, is gas. Fully one-third of the oil and natural gas burned in Germany comes from Russia, accounting for 10.4 billion of its imports from Moscow. And with Germany having made the decision to free itself from nuclear power by 2020, that dependence is likely to grow. Already, German companies have been allowed to invest in the Russian company Gazprom -- a company which controls the largest natural gas reserves in the world -- and, last year, signed a contract to become the largest foreign participant in gas mining in Russia. It is a privilege not many foreign investors have been given. Gazprom is very closely bound to the Kremlin and is often used to further Russia's foreign relations interests.
A difficult decision
Despite the economic successes of Schroeder's Russia policies, the risks, with the situation in Ukraine possibly developing toward a clash between the EU and Russia, are are growing. Putin's Tuesday U-turn won't likely change that. Schroeder may soon be forced to make a difficult decision: Should he come out strongly for democracy in Ukraine or should he come out strongly for the ongoing -- and highly lucrative -- economic benefits resulting from his special relationship with Putin?
Criticism from within the government and from the opposition is likewise growing louder. The foreign policy expert from the opposition Christian Democrats, Volker Ruehe, said before Germany's parliament: "Schroeder has to take a strong position. At issue is a decision for a democratic, European state." Gert Weisskirchen, the foreign policy expert in Schroeder's own party, the Social Democrats, echoed that sentiment. "Vladimir Putin has to recognize the results of every democratic election whether he likes it or not and no matter in what country."
Signals out of Ukraine on Wednesday continue to indicate that a new vote will be held. Whether they will be free and fair remains to be seen. So far this autumn the country is zero for two on that count according to the election observer group Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It also remains to be seen if Schroeder's friend Putin will continue to try to get his favorite Viktor Yanukovych elected. The record doesn't look so good on that count either.
Schroeder would be well-advised to watch both developments closely. If violence does erupt in Ukraine and Putin sides with Yanukovych, the consequences could be dire. Relations between Moscow and Washington could sour, imperiling the delicate balance of freedom in Europe that has developed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and force Europe to consolidate its support quickly behind the United States. The result, a Schroeder confidant told DER SPIEGEL in recent days, would be a "new Cold War."