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The New German Ostpolitik

March 28, 2012 - Example Author - Bez kategorii

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This article originally appears in the Spring 2012 issue of New Eastern Europe. It was chosen by  readers via our facebook poll on which article from the issue should be published online.

More information on purchasing the Spring 2012 issue and/or a subscription to New Eastern Europe can be found here: www.east24.eu


By: Cornelius Ochmann

The end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Germany has changed Germany’s approach towards Russia and Eastern Europe into a more pragmatic one.

The term Ostpolitik was coined by Willy Brandt (Chancellor of West Germany between 1969 and 1974 – editor’s note) and occupies an important place in German foreign policy. For Germans, the word has positive connotations, and alludes to the start of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and other “Eastern Bloc” states, marking a turning point in post-war German history. This process included Chancellor Brandt’s first visits to Moscow and Warsaw, and the moment when he fell to his knees in Warsaw in 1970; a famous and unforgettable gesture which has become part of European history. The policy was continued by the government of Helmut Kohl (Kohl became chancellor of Germany in 1982 – editor’s note) and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and finally culminated in the reunification of Germany in 1990.

On the other side of the Oder, there were very different associations with the term Ostpolitik. In fact, squeezed between two powers, Poles tended to look at it more as relating to the predominance of German-Soviet relations. Interestingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russo-German relationship was viewed in a more similar way. To partly refute these charges, Germany has made many attempts, since the country’s reunification, to incorporate its foreign policy into the foreign and security policy of the European Union.

Financial partners

At the beginning of the 1990s, Germany’s foreign policy was shaped by the reunification process and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The disappearance of this major military threat changed Germany’s view of Eastern Europe and the previous security policy approach was replaced by a more pragmatic, economic approach. This, however, was not actually a new policy, as there had already been a significant increase in the business and financial relations between West German companies and banks and Soviet enterprises, starting in the 1970s and 1980s. The best example is the Mannesmann pipeline deal, which went ahead in 1970, despite American opposition.

History also plays a large role in the economic focus of Germany’s Ostpolitik. In the 18th and 19th centuries, German merchants and engineers were regarded as the modernisers of tsarist Russia. These views were maintained throughout the 20th century communist era and were at the root of the technological cooperation between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, German companies and banks had great hopes for Russia and considered it to be one of the great markets of the future.

While looking at Germany’s attitudes towards Russia at that time one cannot ignore the human dimension. This was embodied by Germany's response to the threat of famine in Russia in the winter of 1991-92, when German citizens pulled together to organise a large-scale relief mission. It was also then, when for the first time in its history, the European Community assumed the responsibility for the coordination of a relief effort and sent food packages to Russia emblazoned with the European flag. This was the first positive signal towards that part of the continent to come out of the nascent European Union. And a very important one given the fact that until then, people in Eastern Europe tended to believe the Soviet propaganda that the European Economic Community (EEC) was no more than an economic appendix of NATO.

In Poland and the other “Eastern Bloc” states, which had just freed themselves from the tutelage of the Red Army, a different perception of Russia prevailed. People had been afraid of the USSR’s military might and after the demise of the Soviet Union the most often asked question was whether Russia was going to maintain its imperial status. At the same time on the western side of the Oder, in Germany, the new Russia was perceived more as an opportunity to be seized than a threat.

The German government was fully aware of the suspicious views of the Central and Eastern European states toward Russia and decided to adopt a more cautious foreign policy. Germany gradually established diplomatic relations with all of the successor states of the Soviet Union. First, in the immediate aftermath of the unsuccessful coup d’état in August 1991, it recognised the Baltic republics. Then, starting in 1992 it began recognising the independence of the rest of the USSR’s successor states – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the five countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union shook Russia’s economy and put a strain on Russia’s economic relations with other countries. Germany felt the effects of this change, particularly in the east of the country. This new situation prompted Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the German government to stick to a more pragmatic policy towards Russia. Until 1998, Kohl was in charge of Germany’s Ostpolitik. The chancellor focused on maintaining good personal relations with Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin and, without a doubt, the greatest achievement of his policy was the financial stabilisation of Russia. It is also believed that this pragmatic approach facilitated the ongoing (although admittedly slow) transformation of post-Soviet economic structures. A major challenge to this economic transformation remained the fact that Russia proclaimed itself the legal successor of the Soviet Union, taking over all of its debts and obligations to other countries that had amassed during Soviet times.

The close friendship between Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin facilitated the transition from what has been called the “romantic phase” of Russian foreign policy to the interest-oriented period at the end of the 1990s. Thus when it came to NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe, the German government proceeded in a very delicate manner. Germany opposed the inclusion of the Baltic States in the first wave of enlargement because it did not want to provoke Russia. Although Volker Rühe, the minister of defence at the time, was one of the proponents of NATO enlargement, which he thought was a way of stabilizing Eastern Europe, the Kremlin never saw Germany as the driving force behind the process.

High expectations

After Helmut Kohl left office having been in power for 16 years, everyone expected a change in the government’s policy towards Russia. His successor, Gerhard Schröder had a quite different start in his dealings with Russia. Schröder was known for his criticism of Kohl’s private meetings with Yeltsin and government guarantees for Russian debt. Not surprisingly, his first visit to Moscow in the autumn of 1998 was far from what we can call a success. The controversy over NATO enlargement was also, without a doubt, a shadow cast over Russo-German relations.

Schröder and Yeltsin first developed a closer relationship when they met to clarify the purpose of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. This gesture was much welcomed by Germany’s business community. However, the turning point came in 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia. Putin’s presidency raised high expectations in Germany, especially with regard to further investment opportunities and Russia’s modernisation. In September 2001 President Putin gave a famous speech at the German parliament which was meant to symbolise Russia’s return to Europe. However, despite these pompous words, Putin proved unable to incorporate Russia into Europe; one of Germany’s greatest disappointments. 

What Putin did manage to achieve was to bring Russia back onto the global stage. But even this was because of rising energy prices rather than Russia’s participation in European structures. The Russian proposals for an Energy Union were levelled more at Germany than at EU level, and from the beginning it did not stand much of a chance. However, the agreement on the construction of the Baltic pipeline, which was signed in 2005 during the last months of Chancellor Schröder’s government, seemed to confirm all the negative prejudices about the existence of Russo-German special interests, something the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs had been trying to avoid since the country’s reunification.

The Baltic pipeline (Nord Stream) continues to cast a shadow over German-Polish relations, despite the fact that the decision to build it was not motivated by anti-Polish sentiments. An analysis of the origins of this enterprise reveals that one of the reasons why Germany opted out of the Yamal pipeline, which runs through Belarus and Poland, was the tense relationship between Russia and Poland in the aftermath of NATO enlargement. Disagreements between the Russian and Ukrainian government caused the interruption of gas supplies to Europe in the winters of 2005-06 and 2008-09. These events cemented the decision to build a pipeline directly from Russia to Germany, and today the Baltic pipeline plays an important role in providing the EU with its much-needed gas supplies. A southern pipeline (South Stream) is also now on the cards and may add to the economic and geopolitical dynamic in the region.

In today’s Germany, Ukraine is seen, by both the elite and the general public, as an important country in Eastern Europe. This new view of Ukraine has been shaped by the Orange Revolution of 2004, as well as some other international events such as the Eurovision Song Contest of 2005 and this year’s European Football Championship (EURO 2012).  However, recent developments in the area of Ukraine’s domestic policy seem to confirm the fears of some sceptics who voice that Ukraine and the whole Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are still under Russia’s sphere of influence.

The Russo-German rapprochement between the governments of Chancellor Schröder and President Putin between 2000 to 2005 also caused some friction in the area of security policy. During the US-led military intervention in Iraq which started in 2003, a new (or perhaps not so new) security alliance of Germany, France and Russia was set up. And while the Berlin-Paris-Moscow axis was voicing its opposition to military intervention in Iraq, the Bush administration persuaded the Central European states to give their verbal support to the American-led military intervention. Today, we all know that the controversy over the Iraq war led to a split within Europe on the eve of the largest, and most politically sensitive, enlargement of the EU.

Germany’s opposition to the military intervention in Iraq was shaped by societal changes and, in particular, the increasingly pacifist views of the vast majority of the population, rather than by any special relationship between Germany and Russia. Poland supported the Bush administration’s decision to intervene quite openly, something that the German elite could not understand. Today it is much clearer than it was in 2003 that Germany failed to comprehend the historical context of the Polish decision. Time has shown, however, that this new security policy axis was very short-lived. And even though the rhetoric of “new” and “old” Europe still exists to this day, it is now heard much less often, and only when there is some sort of political conflict. 

Just as it was in the 1990s, Germany’s Ostpolitik during the Schröder era was also determined by economic interests. Putin and Schröder often gave the impression that they were willing to ride roughshod over neighbouring states, something which caused a lot of needless speculation. However, what is more important and which became quite apparent in the early 2000s, is the fact that the German elite and German society as a whole were deeply rooted in European structures. Germany’s visible commitment to what we call European values has an important meaning. It makes it clear that closer ties between Germany and Russia have never been a real threat to Europe.

Change of paradigms

The outcome of the German elections in 2005 and the shift of power did not change German interests in Russia, and even though it was clear that the new Chancellor Angela Merkel had a rather low-key approach towards President Putin. In fact, Merkel’s scepticism towards Putin can be explained by their two different biographies. Not surprisingly Merkel stated that she would stop in Warsaw on her way to Moscow, a gesture which clearly upgraded the role of Poland in the formulation of a new Ostpolitik. What’s more, during her first visit to Moscow, Merkel met the representatives of Russian civil society, another symbolic gesture, the importance of which should not be underestimated.

The 2008 war in Georgia changed the paradigms in Germany’s Ostpolitik. Within a few days Russia had squandered the trust that it had enjoyed in Germany for decades, and was no longer given the benefit of the doubt.  Merkel flew to Tbilisi in August 2008 and to this day this visit continues to symbolise the change in Germany’s Ostpolitik.  Russo-German and Russo-EU relations quickly returned to normal. However, now there is a clearly visible, red line. The conservative-liberal alliance (CDU/CSU and FDP) which has been in power since the autumn of 2009 has become even more critical of Moscow.

In her dealings with Russia, Chancellor Merkel pinned her hopes on Dmitry Medvedev as many German business leaders were impressed by the Russian president’s modernisation strategy. Once disappointed by Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin, Germans still thought that one man was going to be the saviour of Russia. This belief lasted until autumn of 2011 when Putin announced that he was coming back to the Kremlin.

In Germany in recent years the prevalent image of Russia has changed.  One may say that it has become more multidimensional. Following the 2001 Putin’s speech to the German Parliament, which had raised great expectations, large sections of the elite believed that the principal task of Ostpolitik was Russia’s integration into Europe.

Russia and Eastern Europe are beginning to occupy an increasingly important position in German export statistics. One clear example is the engineering and automotive industries. In 2011, bilateral trade with Russia reached a new record of more than 90 billion dollars. This in fact exceeds trade with all the other Post-Soviet Eastern European states, which is of about the same amount. Even more important than the level of trade in absolute terms, is the fact that trade with Russia has increased by almost 30 per cent. Germany remains the most important market for Russia’s gas and oil. However, the truth also Germany’s most important trading partner is not Russia, but Poland. In 2011 the volume of Polish-German trade amounted to more than 100 billion dollars.

Strategic transformation

In 2007, during the “Grand Coalition” that included the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), there was talk in Berlin of a strategic transformation in relations with the East. The coalition proposed the policy of “change through rapprochement,” which formed the basis of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, to be transformed into a new strategy of “change through integration”. The proposals came from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and were developed with the help of Egon Bahr, the architect of Willy Brandt’s original Ostpolitik. Merkel reacted to these ideas in an unusual way. She permitted the minister for foreign affairs to proceed with the idea but shied away from commenting on the activities of the SPD-dominated Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Some members of the CDU, such as the then-chairman of the German parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ruprecht Polenz, criticised Steinmeier’s proposals.

Merkel concentrated on integrating Poland into the development of European policy towards Russia, which had come to a standstill in the wake of the Polish decision to suspend negotiations on a new EU-Russia partnership and cooperation agreement. The proposals put forward by Foreign Minister (and SPD chairman) Steinmeier, which envisaged giving preferential treatment to Russia at the expense of other Eastern European countries, did not get the support of either the Chancellor or the CDU/CSU parliamentary party. The year 2008 demonstrated that the expectations in regards to Russia were obviously exaggerated.

In this context one is led to ask whether or not a “new German Ostpolitik” has actually emerged since Chancellor Angela Merkel came to power. A comparison of the Kohl, Schröder and Merkel governments reveals certain differences, some of which can be explained by the fact that the security policy was far more important in the 1990s than it currently is in the second decade of the 21st century. However, one thing seems to have stayed the same: the economic interests of German industry are what really matters. Eastern Europe, in general, and Russia, in particular, continues to be important and potentially lucrative markets for German business. Policymakers will always take such interests into account, no matter what combination of parties happens to be in power.

This article originally appears in the New Eastern Europe Issue 2 (III) / 2012

Cornelius Ochmann is a German political analyst and project manager for EU-Russian relations at Bertelsmann Stiftung. 

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