A German State Governor's Strange Enthusiasm for Moscow Manuela Schwesig Draws Ire for Role in Nord Stream 2 Pipeline
There was a time when Manuela Schwesig was considered something of a beacon of hope for Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), a young woman from a state formerly belonging to East Germany, a politician with what it takes to become chancellor one day. After her brilliant election victory as governor of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania last autumn, it seemed as though there was nothing that could stop her. But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and Schwesig’s star sank a little further with each passing day.
The weekend before last, the Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported on files from the Governor’s Office. They revealed the extent to which the Russian state-owned corporation Gazprom exerted influence in the state capital of Schwerin through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline company. Now, Schwesig is in a position of having to defend herself against accusations that she served as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet.
In the weeks before that, Schwesig had always coolly rejected accusations that she was one of Putin’s friends. "That’s nonsense," she said. "I have never had a conversation with President Putin or defended his actions in Ukraine." But her attempts to distance herself have a hollow feel to them. Her name is too closely associated with a strange climate foundation, a dubious structure that was intended to protect the gas pipeline and thus Russia’s interests from sanctions from the United States. And Schwesig's attempts to defend herself have not been particularly convincing. Although she denied the accusations published in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, she did admit that in the context of climate foundation, "there had of course been talks with Nord Stream."
"Can You Please Send It To Her at Short Notice?"
The extent of Schwesig’s influence on the foundation, which is supposed to be independent, is shown in government papers that DER SPIEGEL was able to view. The Governor’s Office was forced to release the files following a legal complaint by the transparency web portal Frag den Staat, Ask the State. They show how closely the state government and Nord Stream 2 AG coordinated before the establishment of the foundation.
Schwesig was even involved when it came to the jobs of the foundation’s managing director, a press officer and a project manager. In an email, the Governor’s Office is sent a draft job listing stating: "Manuela wanted to be able to look at it in advance. Can you please forward it to her at short notice?" When asked for comment, a spokesman for Schwesig said he could not say to what extent she had actually dealt with it.
For January 2021, the files then show close consultation with Nord Stream 2 AG – right up to the question of how to deal with journalists. Schwesig had asked for an "argumentation paper," talking points, for answering press inquiries.
A Nord Stream consultant sent the company’s press strategy to the head of the Governor’s Office, Heiko Geue of the SPD and state Energy Minister Christian Pegel, also of the SPD and suggested "possible argumentation for selected journalists." The tone: The foundation is "not explicitly directed against any government."
A Meeting with Gas Lobbyist Gerhard Schröder
The pipeline company’s communications adviser even asked the government spokesman if he could join a background discussion with journalists "passively by phone." Previously, he had asked in vain whether "an employee of our agency" could attend "to record and create a minutes of statements as well as questions and answers." Schwesig’s spokesman stated when contacted that he had rejected that request. No company representative took part in the press event.
The spokesman for Schwesig said there had, of course, been "preparatory talks with Nord Stream on the establishment of the foundation. But the decision was up to the state parliament and the state government." He said it is "absurd to say the governor is close to the Kremlin." He noted that the construction of the pipeline had also been supported by the last federal governments.
But even the application to establish the foundation already bore Schwesig’s name. She prevailed in getting the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state parliament to approve the establishment of the organization. Her Justice Ministry also recognized the foundation under the state’s foundation law, a move that critics such as the organization Environmental Action Germany described as "grossly illegal." Also indisputable is the fact that Schwesig herself has repeatedly met with gas lobbyist and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, also of the SPD, for talks.
A Lively Exchange with Nord Stream's CEO
In a Berlin pub in 2018, for example. It was the year that pipeline construction began, but the state government will not comment on whether Nord Stream 2 was a subject at the meeting. The state government said it was a "personal exchange." In 2020, too, the former chancellor and the state governor chatted with each other again during the Usedom Music Festival. According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, one of the issues at stake was how to ward off U.S. sanctions against the pipeline. The Governor’s Office denied that this had been the subject of the discussion, and Schröder declined to comment.
In September 2020, Schwesig and Schröder had dinner with Nord Stream 2 CEO Matthias Warnig, a former officer with the East German Stasi secret police and confidant of the Russian president. Just a few weeks earlier, Schwesig and Warnig had exchanged views in the Governor’s Office. Schwesig or her predecessor in office and later foundation Chairman Erwin Sellering have met Putin’s buddy more than a dozen times since 2012, according to a state government response to a query from the Green Party.
It is also a fact that Heiko Geue, an old colleague of Schröder's, holds a central position in Schwesig's state government. Geue was a speechwriter for Schröder and then the personal assistant to Frank-Walter Steinmeier , who was Schröder’s chief of staff at the Chancellery at the time and also an architect of the SPD’s failed Russia policy. Until 2021, Geue served as Governor Schwesig’s chief of staff. He serves as finance minister in her new government.
The connection to Schröder is obvious, as is the link between Geue and Steinmeier. Schwesig has always rejected suspicions that she might be some kind of accomplice of these men. Through her spokesman, she let in be known in February that the insinuation that Schröder had influenced her opinion on the Baltic Sea pipeline "is false." The former chancellor, that was part of her message, had at no time exerted any influence on the project. It was an astonishing statement considering that Schröder is chairman of the supervisory board of Nord Stream AG and that the very nature of his job is to exert influence on the project.
Criticism of Russia's Policies? Absent.
On top of that comes the fact that, in recent years, few German politicians have been as committed to cooperating with Russia and Putin’s friend Schröder as Manuela Schwesig. In the summer of 2017, when the former chancellor allowed himself to be elevated to the supervisory board of the Russian oil company Rosneft, thus putting his party on the defensive and having to explain itself right in the middle of a federal parliamentary election. Schwesig’s response at the time? She said it was his decision. Martin Schulz, the SPD’s chancellor candidate at the time, on the other hand, lambasted Schröder, saying he was acting "completely stupidly."
In 2020, after the poisoning attack on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whom then-Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstratively visited in a Berlin hospital, Schwesig commented: The poisoning has to be resolved as quickly as possible, but it should not be used to question the Nord Stream 2 project. When U.S. Senators then threatened sanctions, Schwesig demonstratively visited the port of Mukran on the German island of Rügen where construction of the pipeline was coordinated. Speaking before her state parliament, Schwesig said, "They only care about one thing: that we buy their fracking gas from them." There was no public criticism of Russia’s policies to be heard from her.
Last year, after the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office designated three German nongovernmental organizations to be "undesirable," the Petersburger Dialogue, a German-Russian forum that brings civil society along with think tank experts and policymakers from both countries together, suspended all events for the time being in protest. Schwesig, on the other hand, stuck to her "Russia Day," a German-Russian business gathering that takes place in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania every two years. The day was sponsored by Gazprom, and the governor sat on the podium together with Russia’s ambassador.
"The Hypocrisy Makes Me Want To Throw Up."
As recently as the end of January, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz first mentioned the pipeline in the context of possible sanctions if Putin attacked Ukraine, Schwesig publicly wished for the "speedy certification" of the pipeline. She remained silent about the build-up of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and said she "supports the course of Chancellor Scholz, who is doing everything he can to ensure that the conflict is resolved diplomatically."
It was only when Russia invaded Ukraine that Schwesig did an about-face. On Feb. 28, she tweeted that the Russian invasion was a "clear violation of international law" and could not be justified in any way. Schwesig said the state’s partnership with the Leningrad region would be put on hold, and "all other activities of the state government directed toward Russia" would also be suspended. She added that there would be no more "Russia Days" for the foreseeable future. Suddenly, the pipeline foundation also found itself at the brink of extinction.
The foundation’s very creation, the pipeline and cooperation with Russia had all now become mistakes. "We have been working in good faith a dialogue with Russia," Schwesig said in early April. "What seemed right at the time has proven wrong in retrospect." But many don’t believe that she has actually reversed her position. Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk criticized her pivot as "dishonest." When Governor Schwesig posted a photo of Schwerin Castle illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian national flag on Twitter and added "Solidarity with Ukraine," Melnyk countered: "The hypocrisy makes me want to throw up."
The Tone Is Getting Harsher
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the atrocities committed there have done more than just turn former Chancellor Schröder into a persona non grata. The "watershed moment" could also mark the end of Manuela Schwesig’s career.
The tone of the debate has grown harsher. Harald Terpe, the head of the parliamentary group of the Greens in the state parliament, spoke of the "blatant direct influence of Nord Stream 2 AG and the Russian state-owned company Gazprom on the policies and communications of the state government of Governor Schwesig."
In Berlin Mario Czaja, general secretary of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, said that it needs to be quickly clarified "to what extent Manuela Schwesig has allowed herself to be instrumentalized for Russia’s interests. A governor can’t be a Putin lobbyist at the same time." He added that the Kremlin’s influence on the SPD is "apparently even more profound than had been thought, and the criticism of our Eastern European friends of the Social Democrats’ entanglements with the Putin regime has proven to be justified." He called on Chancellor Scholz to "clear things up."
But that might be easier said than done, because the state government’s pro-Russian line was not an invention of Schwesig’s – it was part of the SPD’s core brand . In Schwerin, Governor Schwesig had merely adopted the course set by her predecessor in office, Erwin Sellering. In 2014, in the midst of the first Ukraine crisis, Sellering traveled to St. Petersburg with Schröder and the CDU politician Philipp Missfelder, who died in 2015, to celebrate with Putin after the former chancellor’s 70th birthday. Nord Stream AG, which is 51 percent owned by the semi-state-owned Russian corporation Gazprom, hosted the reception at Yusupov Palace. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller also attended the party in the city.
Potential Scapegoats Are Already Named
For the past several years, Russian money has played a decisive role in the northeastern state. Whenever the notoriously cash-strapped shipyards in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were in crisis, Moscow was an obvious place to look for millions in bailout money, sometimes the only option. Back in 2009, Vitaly Yusofov, an investor from Putin’s realm, acquired the insolvent Wadan shipyard, with production sites in Wismar and Rostock. In 2014, he also bought the Volkswerft Stralsund shipyard.
Whether it is a coincidence or not, Yusofov isn’t just any oligarch, he’s the son of former Russian Energy Minister Igor Yusofov, who was President Putin’s special envoy for international energy relations at the time. And yet: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s strange love affair with Moscow is difficult to explain with economic arguments or concerns about jobs. In 2021, Russia was far behind, in 10th place in the state’s foreign trade balance.
An investigative committee in the state parliament is set in May to begin probing whatever else might have been drawing the governor toward Russia and also everything that her state government was doing for the pipeline and the foundation.
As early as the beginning of April, it was already possible to anticipate Schwesig's likely line of defense: "Knowing what we know today, sticking with Nord Stream 2 and setting up the Climate and Environment Foundation was a mistake. A mistake that I also made." Me too! Is that supposed to mean that others made the same mistake? The governor has already named her potential scapegoats. When she denied the accusations made by Welt am Sonntag early last week, she said: "Christian Pegel and Mr. Geue can refute this with very concrete examples." So far, though, that hasn’t happened.
Responding to calls for her to step down this week, Schwesig said she sees no reason to resign as governor.