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Thursday, 18 April 2013

It’s getting cold – Russian-German relations at stake

There he is again: the evil Russian – or the evil German, depending from which side you look at it.

During his visit to the Industrial fair in Hanover, Russian President Vladimir Putin had to face a deterioration of the Russian-German relations. From the other perspective, German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed herself “disillusioned” from the recent developments in the bilateral relations. The situation is bleak, according to a recent report from the German weekly news magazine “Spiegel”. A common dinner with President Putin and Chancellor Merkel was reported to have taken place in a frosty atmosphere.

Putin’s paranoia
Russia’s increasing authoritarian system not only affects the own Russian opposition, but also foreign organizations and NGOs. A few weeks ago, the offices of German NGOs such as the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Saint Petersburg and the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation were rounded up by the Russian police and several records and computers have been confiscated. It is not a single event though, since numerous Russian and foreign NGOs are under strict surveillance by the Russian authorities.

The cause for this new Russian “paranoia” is a new law which classifies any foreign NGO and member of those NGOs based in Russia as a potential “foreign agents”. Especially since the anti-Putin demonstrations of the past two years, the state authorities are increasingly observing any activity that could potentially be anti-Putin directed.
It even includes embassy staff, the Russian intelligence FSB had ordered all Russian employees of foreign embassies to provide any possible information of foreign activities and collaboration with opposition groups – including the Russian staff of the German Embassy in Moscow.

Germany’s Russia-trauma
Germany’s policy towards Russia was mostly marked by two main streams: pro or anti. Contemporarily, Germany is heading back to a general anti-Russian tendency after a period of close cooperation.

During the Red-Green coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, he and Putin not only used to have an excellent interpersonal relation, but especially business relations as well. Unlike the common European tendency to make itself more independent from Russian gas supplies, Schröder set up the exact opposite, establishing the North Stream pipeline to get direct gas supplies from the Russian Federation through the Baltic Sea and avoiding unreliable transit countries like Belarus or the Ukraine. Additionally, Schröder rejected any criticism against his new best friend Putin and described him as a “flawless democrat”. However, since Angela Merkel is in office, the bilateral relations started to nosedive.

In particular, the Euro crisis has enforced the Russian-German drift, and Cyprus was just one example. Since wealthy Russians use Cyprus as a tax haven, it was the EU’s and above all Germany’s interest to embed Russians into the austerity programme through a mandatory flat tax payment on savings and investments.

Rich Russians, poor Europeans?
This has awakened the image of a hyper rich Russian oligarch, buying his way through Europe and especially through the European crisis countries; hiding his money from Russian tax administrations by buying real estates and investing in exquisite housings in the Mediterranean region. Spain has reacted to this investment boom by making concessions to Russians: if they invest in real estates or buy exquisite houses in Spanish cities, the Spanish authorities grant permanent residence permits to these Russian investors and their affiliates.

In the media, the image is unmistakably drawn: the rich Russians are buying out Europe, and as a result, an increasing Russophobia is on the move – all over Europe, parallel with a persistent Germanophobia.

From a German perspective, the Russia trauma is a persistent one. Russia is in fact Germany’s nemesis, struggling for supremacy in Europe. Both, however, are not necessarily the most popular countries on the European continent. One is being hated for returning into Soviet style authoritarianism with a hyper rich elite, and the other one is being hated for it’s mostly unilaterally imposed austerity programme on the crisis states, disregarding horrific social consequences.

Back to mutual post-war trauma
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma, Alexey Pushkov, has accused Germany to rewrite history after the broadcast of the World Word 2 drama “Our Mothers, Our Fathers (“Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter”), and having defined down the attack of Nazi-Germany on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. The movie, which tells the story of five friends and their lives during World War 2, did show atrocities committed by the German army in Russia, but without stating any comment or criticism. It is, however, exaggerated to anticipate a full scale history lesson in a movie that is supposed to explain Germany’s World War 2 trauma with the fate of five individuals.

Even though none of them – neither Russia, nor Germany – is interested in reducing trade partnership (as Germany is Russia’s most important trading partner in Europe), bilateral “friendship” might be over. A disastrous assumption, as both countries have the potential for European leadership across the entire continent. Russia knows that it needs its trade ties with Germany, and Germany knows about Russia’s political and economic power in the East and as a political and cultural counter balance against China.

The Bear vs. the Valkyrie
The struggle for power on the continent leads back to ancient rivalry, and all the efforts for bilateral consolidation will be wasted in vain. Surely, while Schröder and Putin were best buddies, Vladimir is having a rough time with Angela.

The question remains: who is stronger: The “flawless democrat” or the “German Iron Valkyrie”? In the long-run, both are dependent from each other – economically as well as politically. But both are re-entering a damned cold winter.

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