Fri, Aug 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

German society favors a pragmatic softening of Russia policy

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg View

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the darling of Russia hawks because of her steadfast insistence on Ukraine-related sanctions against the Kremlin. However, if she wins next month’s election, as seems likely, she may get a foreign minister who is openly in favor of a more accommodating Russia policy.

A large part of German society is behind such a pragmatic softening.

Christian Lindner, the charismatic leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a small free-market party with a socially liberal bent, has faced relentless press criticism since saying in an interview on Saturday last week that Russia’s annexation of Crimea should be considered “a long-term provisional solution.”

Lindner — also an advocate of a close relationship with the US — has been calling for “encapsulating” the Crimea problem to take “positive intermediate steps” and put forward “proposals that would allow [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to correct his policies without losing face.”

If the FDP gets back into parliament, as polls predict, it will be the preferred coalition partner of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, as it was in many previous governments. The junior coalition partner usually gets the foreign minister’s portfolio. (The legendary foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who excelled in the job under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was an FDP member.)

That would put Lindner in the hot seat.

TABOOS

Lindner acknowledges that accepting Crimea’s inclusion in Russia is a taboo, so he has been careful not to call for anything as drastic as lifting EU sanctions.

Instead, he has coated his detente proposal in historical analogies: “We have never recognized the annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union, but statesmen like Willy Brandt and Walter Scheel have been able to develop an Ostpolitik that Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher pursued right up to German unification.”

Conservative and centrist commentators have nevertheless accused him of proposing a Kuschelkurs — a policy of cozying up to Putin.

IN A LOOP

In addition, given Lindner’s possible role in the next governing coalition, the government felt compelled to issue a statement saying its position on Crimea has not changed: It was a human rights violation and a threat to peace in Europe.

Lindner has found himself in an uncomfortable endless loop of self-justification.

“The signal to Moscow should be that Russia has a place in the house of Europe, only if it abides by the house rules again. As long as that’s not the case, there can be no cooperation. I don’t know if there’s readiness in Moscow to change course. But I know that it won’t start with big questions but with small ones,” he told the German tabloid Bild.

These may sound like puzzlingly opaque statements, but they appear to be in line with the feelings of those voters Lindner is trying to capture: the FDP base in the business community and the far-right supporters of the Alternative for Germany party, whose popular backing the FDP is trying to erode with some hardline rhetoric on immigration.

PUBLIC OPINION

A poll published yesterday showed that by suggesting more openness to Russia, Lindner scored with both these groups — and that 44.4 percent of Germans agreed with him, while 43.2 percent disagreed.

A plurality of Germans and a majority of both right-wing and extreme left-wing voters do not want Russia as an enemy.

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