Ten days ahead of Germany’s parliamentary elections, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin attended on September 8 in Berlin the signing of a framework agreement to construct a gas pipeline from Russia directly to Germany along the Baltic seabed. The line would bypass the Baltic states and Poland.
The bilateral project is being billed as a major success for Germany and is so understood by most of the German public. However, the project increases Germany’s already excessive dependence on Russia for energy; undercuts the European Union’s supply-diversification strategy; throws another spoke in the admittedly slow wheels of the EU’s common foreign and security policy; and demonstratively ignores the long-standing, publicly expressed concerns of Poland and the Baltic states. These had called for an overland pipeline to connect them with the “old” EU. The seabed pipeline, however, de-couples these countries from the EU gas market, leaving the Baltic states in particular to deal with Gazprom on their own (Die Welt, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, September 9-11).
If implemented, the project would increase Germany’s dependence on Russian energy supplies to levels fraught with political risk. Gazprom already accounts for 37% of Germany’s gas imports, a figure far exceeding Gazprom’s market share in the “old” EU as a whole. Gazprom’s market dominance in Germany is scheduled to increase through use of existing pipelines until 2010, at which point the Baltic seabed pipeline is expected to be commissioned with a first-stage capacity of 27 billion cubic meters of gas annually.
Putin’s visit and the signing ceremony seemed designed to lift the fortunes of Schroeder’s Social-Democrat Party (SPD) in the September 18 elections to the German Bundestag, which the opposition Christian-Democrats (CDU) are expected to win comfortably against the SPD. The signing had originally been scheduled for October; but it was hurriedly brought forward when the SPD began drawing closer to the CDU in pre-election polls, and the Free-Democratic Party (FDP, slated to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an Atlanticist coalition with the CDU) slipped in the polls. The Kremlin now apparently hopes for an indecisive outcome that would force the Christian-Democrats to accept a “grand coalition” government with the SPD, thus complicating a return to Atlanticism in German policy.
Although Putin also met with Christian-Democrat Union (CDU) leader Angela Merkel, that meeting had none of the atmospherics and political impact of the Putin-Schroeder event. Playing on the German public’s concerns over energy supplies, Schroeder portrayed the gas project as a direct result of his government’s special relations with Russia and of the Schroeder-Putin personal relationship. At their joint news conference, moreover, Schroeder struck a missionary tone when describing the Russian-German relationship: “Few peoples on this Earth have such a clear mission, the mission incumbent on our peoples to help settle global conflicts on our planet through peaceful means. This applies to Europe, but not only to Europe….We can thank our strategic partnership, and I am grateful for my personal relations with the President [Putin]” (Kremlin.ru, September 8).
Schroeder passed up several opportunities at the news conference to address Polish and Baltic concerns over the gas project. Instead, he bluntly argued, “It is my responsibility to look after Germany’s interests, and I would advise the opposition not to hinder me in looking after Germany’s interests” (Kremlin.ru, September 8). Such language seems to make short shrift not only of EU policies, but also of the EU political culture as developed over decades of advancing from national-interest to common-interest policies. With similar bluntness, Social-Democrat Defense Minister Peter Struck two days later rejected the recent U.S. proposal for NATO troops to join U.S. operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Struck retorted, “There is a clear No from us on that.” (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, September 11; see EDM, September 8).
Germany’s Green Party, junior partner in the coalition government and holder of the foreign affairs portfolio, is not known to have raised serious concerns regarding the seabed pipeline’s environmental impact. The bilateral German-Russian deal bypasses the Council of Baltic Sea Countries, an intergovernmental forum of all the countries on the Baltic littoral. Energy cooperation and ecological protection of the Baltic Sea are among the Council’s main roles.
During Putin’s visit, some of the most influential figures in opposition parties criticized Schroeder for dealing with Moscow behind the back of Poland and the Baltic states, “generating a catastrophic mistrust” toward German intentions (CDU’s Wolfgang Schaeuble), “encouraging the re-Sovietization of Russia by forming an Axis with it” (FDP’s Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger), and generally for his uncritical relationship with Putin (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 9-11). Those are also the prevalent editorial views in Germany’s mainstream press. However, opposition politicians seem loath to risk the unpopular step of criticizing the gas deal on the eve of parliamentary elections. Even Merkel felt compelled to praise the pipeline project as “good for Germany.” The post-election government will have to address the risks of overdependence on Russia and the imperative of diversification of supply.