ZOiS Spotlight 33/2021

German Elections: What Next for Policy towards Eastern Europe?

by Gwendolyn Sasse 22/09/2021
The three candidates for the German chancellorship in a TV discussion on 12. September. IMAGO / Sven Simon

The end of the Merkel era means uncertainty over the policy course that is likely to be pursued by Germany and the EU in their relations with Eastern Europe in future. Russia in particular was a priority for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Time and again she reached out directly to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, even when the prospects of influencing his domestic or foreign policy course were slim. By doing so, she demonstrated that direct contact continues to be important despite conflicting interests and that dialogue and sanctions should not be thought of as a dichotomy.

The Chancellor played a key role in formulating and sustaining the EU sanctions regime against Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the Russia-backed war in Eastern Ukraine. She was also the driving force behind the Normandy Format talks in which Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France have attempted to de-escalate the war in Ukraine. The format produced the Minsk agreement in 2015 and is still the only framework for negotiations, including on humanitarian issues.

The fact that for many years, Merkel described the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a ‘purely economic project’ clashes with the other pillars of her policy towards Russia, even though she lobbied hard, during the final phase of the project, for part of the gas transit across Ukraine to continue.

Overall, her departure creates a lacuna in German and EU policy towards Russia. At present, none of the lead candidates standing in the Bundestag election has the interest or, indeed, the clout to take this topic forward at the top level, beyond the customary rhetoric.

No bypassing Russia

The list of challenges in Eastern Europe that are directly or indirectly connected to Russia is a long one – from the issue of the conditions attached to the start of Nord Stream 2 operations, the continuation or extension of EU sanctions against Russia and the need for a political response to the repression in Belarus, to a new policy impetus for the Eastern Partnership.

Although Russia, China and the future of transatlantic relations were identified as challenges in the party manifestos, the emphasis, in this election campaign, was firmly on domestic policy – both within the parties themselves and in the media discourse. Even the EU, its need for reform and its foreign policy presence were marginal issues in the public debate. The TV debates involving the three contenders for the chancellorship sidestepped foreign policy issues almost completely, seemingly confirming political scientists’ frequent assumption that foreign policy is not an election-winner. But in a world in which the interlinkages between domestic and foreign policy are becoming increasingly apparent and are also being felt in daily life – the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Syria and the Afghanistan crisis being notable examples – this assumption is wide off the mark.

The SPD and the Ostpolitik tradition

Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate for the chancellorship, has a politically challenging tradition to contend with. The party is committed to dialogue with Russia as one of its core principles, and its rhetoric contains echoes of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. In the current CDU-SPD ruling coalition, the Federal Foreign Office – led by the SPD – made fruitless attempts to revitalise the concept of Ostpolitik. The fact that this idea now features in the SPD election manifesto, using the same phrasing (‘European Ostpolitik’), this time specifically invoking OSCE principles, shows how much importance the party attaches to keeping the concept alive.

Compared with the other centre parties, the SPD gives more coverage to Russia and Eastern Europe in its election manifesto. It recognises the need for a ‘new conceptual direction in Europe’s Neighbourhood Policy’, but provides no fresh impetus of its own. Russia’s key role in maintaining peace in Europe and the willingness to engage in dialogue are emphasised in the SPD manifesto, along with the specific goals of promoting civil society links and easing visa requirements for youth exchanges. Sanctions are not addressed directly, as there is no consensus on this issue within the SPD leadership or the party itself. Scholz himself has been reticent on the issue of sanctions, including in relation to the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

CDU forthright on Russia on paper

The CDU/CSU manifesto, unlike the other election manifestos, starts with foreign and security policy challenges. Alongside the call for a national security strategy to be published on a regular basis, the conflict of values with authoritarian states such as Russia is clearly identified. Under the heading ‘A constructive and resolute approach to Russia’, the first sentence reads ‘Russia presents a challenge to our values’. In strengthening the EU and NATO, ‘credible’ resilience and military deterrence are priorities. Dialogue and cooperation with Russia should be limited to areas where common interests are apparent – international climate action is the only potentially shared objective that is explicitly mentioned. The manifesto also talks about wanting to strengthen the independence of the Eastern European neighbours and mentions the war in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the sanctions, along with a demand that the Belarusian leadership facilitate a peaceful transition. Armin Laschet, the CDU’s contender for the chancellorship, is regarded as fairly uncritical of Russia: he has questioned Nord Stream 2 even less than Angela Merkel herself. He has not yet displayed any particular expertise, nor shown any interest, in Eastern Europe.

Greens say no to Nord Stream 2

The Alliance 90/The Greens election manifesto is the most far-reaching in its focus on the Eastern Partnership countries, calling for the path to EU accession to be kept open for them. Here too, Russia is mentioned as an increasingly authoritarian state and a source of military and hybrid threats to ‘democracy, stability and peace in the EU and the common neighbourhood’. Alongside the goal of strengthening democratic civil society forces in Russia, the option of fresh sanctions is also mentioned. The Greens are the only party calling openly for a stop to Nord Stream 2.

The FDP does not address the topic of the Eastern Partnership. With regard to Russia, support for the current sanctions is linked to the goal of ‘rebuilding trust’. According to the FDP manifesto, a decision on the start of Nord Stream 2 operations should be taken collectively at EU level. The Left Party and the AfD are notable for their overtly pro-Russia and anti-sanctions policy stance.

New emphases in German and EU policy towards Russia are most likely to be forthcoming if the Greens have a role in government. In potential Red-Red-Green coalition negotiations (SPD-The Left-The Greens), the positions on Russia held by the Left Party and the Greens would be very far apart. However, it is unlikely that the option of governing would be dismissed over this foreign policy difference, not least because the Left Party and the Green grassroots, if not their leaderships, are relatively close in their thinking on security issues.

Policy towards Russia and Eastern Europe is thus at risk of becoming a bargaining chip in coalition negotiations, rather than evolving into a programmatic debate. This poses a risk, because even continuity in policy towards Russia in the post-Merkel era requires a strategy.

Gwendolyn Sasse is the Director of ZOiS.