The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Georgia and the Candidates for German Chancellor

Bidzina Lebanidze*

Germany’s next parliamentary elections will be held on September 24. According to the polls, current Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are set to win the elections once again. However, because of Germany’s political culture and electoral system, the Christian Democrats will lack enough votes to form government independently/on their own. Once again, they will have to form a coalition government.

There is an expectation that the post-election power distribution will not change and that Germany’s government will continue to be made up by the existing “Grand Coalition” of two major parties – the CDU and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). However, there is a chance either the Social Democrats move to the opposition or the CDU finds better coalition partners, for instance the Greens and the Liberals. Therefore, one can assume that the major pre-election intrigue lies with Angela Merkel and her party’s decision on their next coalition partner. That raises questions about how Germany’s foreign policy will change with the new coalition government.  

Foreign policy does not generally dominate Germany’s pre-election campaigns. Even less attention is paid to the Eastern Partnership countries. However, the results of Germany’s elections will still have significant impacts on Georgia and the Eastern neighborhood, since Germany’s position tends to be very significant/decisive to EU policies toward Russia and the Eastern Partnership countries. Currently, the single most important issue related to this region that scores high in German pre-election debates is complicated relations between Germany and Russia in the context of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Any shift in German-Russian relations will be important for the Eastern Partnership countries, including Georgia. In particular, unconditional warming of ties between Russia and Germany would have negative impacts on Georgia. Therefore, considering the fact that Georgia doesn’t feature at all in German elections, the optimal outcome of the elections for Georgia and for the post-Soviet area generally will be determined by the participating political parties’ respective stances toward Russia.  

Angela Merkel – current German Chancellor and the main contender to win the elections – has the toughest stance on Russia compared to the rest of Germany’s political spectrum. However, Merkel does not have a positive image in Georgia. Her name is associated with the decision made during the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 denying the Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. It also isn’t news that at the personal level Merkel’s government has had a complicated relationship with the Georgian government (Ronald Asmus describes the complicated personal relationship between Merkel and Mikheil Saakashvili in his book).

However Merkel’s stance toward Russia and the Eastern Partnership countries is still quite ambivalent. On the one hand, imposing and maintaining EU sanctions on Russia was only possible through Merkel’s direct lead. On the other hand, Germany opposes the United States’ initiative to further tighten sanctions against Russia, which might hurt the German-Russian partnership in terms of energy security. Merkel’s government never questioned the political relevance of Nord Stream either, a natural gas pipeline connecting Germany to Russia through the Baltic Sea, bypassing Eastern Europe.

The Nord Stream natural gas pipeline has long been an item of discord between Germany and the Eastern European countries, especially Poland, significantly impeding elaboration of the EU’s common energy policy. What’s more, building of a second Nord Stream pipeline is planned before 2019, something which has been widely criticized by Poland and the Baltic states. The Ukrainian government also opposes the new gas pipeline, labeling it a “politically motivated energy-project.” The German-Russian energy partnership is likewise criticized by the European Parliament and the European Commissioner for Energy, stating that Nord Stream 2 is against the interests of the EU by hampering the secure supply of natural gas to the Union. Therefore, Merkel’s attitude toward Russia is ambiguous. Her government plays a key role by imposing and maintaining EU sanctions against Russia on the one hand. On the other hand, it opposes further toughening sanctions while it strengthens its energy ties with Russia.

In addition to the CDU, five other parties have real chances to enter the Bundestag – four out of these five parties are not satisfied with the current state of German-Russian relations and are lobbying for warming relations with the Kremlin. The main contender of the Christian Democrats, the SPD, is known for its warm relations with Russia during and after the Cold War. Warm relations between Germany and Russia reached their height during Gerhard Schröder’s tenure as chancellor.

Even though Schröder is no longer active in politics, his influence over the party is still considerable. The former chancellor successfully manages to lobby for pro-Russian interests. For instance, during one of the latest SPD conventions, Schröder openly criticized the US government and labeled close relations with Russia and the “rapproachment policy” as an integral part of German social democracy. For years, Schröder chaired the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream. By the end of September, it is planned to appoint him as Chairman of the supervisory board of the Russian energy company Rosneft.

Schröder’s economic ties and lobbying for closer relations with Russia have been frequently criticized by Social Democrats. However, Schröder is not the only politician with close economic ties with Russia. Russian influence over Germany’s political, social and media life has significantly increased over the past 10 to 15 years, which is sometimes referred to as the “Schröderization of Germany.”  Other leaders of SPD are also known for their soft stance towards Russia. Former chairman of the SPD and current Minister of Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel openly advocates for a “new rapproachment policy” with Russia. One of the first steps of this initiative includes lifting sanctions on Russia in case the ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia is maintained in its current state and if the two parties withdraw heavy artillery from the frontlines – a condition more acceptable to the Kremlin than what is envisaged by the Minsk Agreement. Gabriel’s statements were met with negative reactions from the Ukrainian government as well as from coalition partners in Berlin – the Christian Democrats and the Christian Socialists. It should be noted that the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, has a more calculated position towards Russia. However, Schulz is still an outsider in the party – he returned to party politics from Brussels, where he was president of the European Parliament. Thus, Shulz, despite having to consider the party’s opinion, is therefore less influenced by Schröder’s pro-Russian wing.

Another potential ally of Merkel, the Free Democratic Party (Liberals), shares a similar stance on Russia as the Social Democrats. Party leader Christian Lindner openly supports a strategy of warming relations with Russia and, in the context of Russian-German bilateral relations, argues for sidestepping the annexation of Crimea. The only party that shares Merkel’s more-or-less tough approach is the German Greens. Greens leader Cem Özdemir is one of the fiercest critics of Putin’s regime in Germany. He regularly criticizes Putin’s domestic and foreign policies as well as Germany’s soft stance towards Russia.

The Greens will likely enter the Bundestag. However, their chances of becoming a part of the coalition government and the degree of their influence over the country’s foreign affairs will only become clear after the elections. If the Greens get enough votes to form a two-party coalition government with Christian Democrats, then according to German tradition they will get the status of junior coalition partner and equally share foreign policy competencies. Merkel will still be chancellor while the foreign minister portfolio will be held by the Greens. However, it is more likely that the Christian Democrats and Greens fail to get enough votes to form a two-party coalition. In this case, another option would be a three-party coalition of Christian Democrats, Greens and Liberals, where Greens would have to compete with the Liberals to obtain influence over foreign policy and cabinet positions.

After the elections, two other parties – the Left Party and Alternative for Germany (AfD) – will potentially enter the Bundestag. The Left takes the extreme left on the value scale while AfD is considered to be an ultra-right party. Both parties, like the Social Democrats and Liberals, support closer relations between Germany and Russia. However, it is less likely that these parties will become part of the government. Yet, if they enter the Bundestag, the influence of those supporting closer ties with Russia will increase. AfD with its ultra-right anti-immigration platform is a natural ally of Russia, as are other ultra-right parties in Europe. According to the leader of the party, Russia is needed as a “Christian bulwark against an Islamic invasion” and blocking the refugee wave is only possible through cooperation with Russia.

In light of other parties, at this point the most critical position against Russia and in support of the Eastern Partnership countries is held by Angela Merkel and her CDU. In one of her latest interviews Merkel once again reiterated the position that turning a blind eye to the annexation of Crimea would equate to abandoning a divided Germany during the Cold War. Merkel’s rigid position on Russia does not mean that, should she win the elections, Germany and EU policy towards Russia will change significantly. On the one hand, to take decisions Merkel will have to take into account the views of the coalition partners, which will likely be either the SPD or FDP and Greens together, and the parliamentary minority. On the other hand, Merkel must consider the interests of other EU states, including those that unconditionally support closer ties with Russia. 

Going back to the title of the article, the “good” candidate holding a fully acceptable foreign policy for the Eastern Partnership countries and Georgia does not exist. From the current candidates, Chancellor Angela Merkel with her political weight, experience and moral compass is likely the best candidate. However, considering that Merkel’s win is without doubt, it will be interesting to see who will be the “junior partner” in the new coalition government. 

In these regards, the most favorable scenario for Georgia and other Eastern Partnership countries would be a coalition of the Christian Democrats and Greens, with Merkel as chancellor and the Greens leading the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A less favorable scenario would be a coalition of Liberals and Christian Democrats or Liberals, Christian Democrats and Greens – in both cases, the Liberals would try to implement softer policies towards Russia. However, their influence in the coalition would not be all that significant. Even less favorable but most likely is the continuation of the existing “Grand Coalition” represented by two parties with almost similar levels of political power – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Although in a new “Grand Coalition” Merkel would remain chief foreign policy figure, she would constantly have to consider the position of the Social Democrats. If the events are to follow a “bad” scenario, the Social Democrats take first place in the elections and secure the chancellor position in the upcoming government. Regardless of their coalition partner, the Social Democrats’ influence over foreign policy will increase significantly. The “worst-case scenario”, which is fortunately not expected, is the formation of a leftist coalition of the Social Democrats and the Left Party. Among all other alternatives, this coalition would have the most pro-Russian policy.

To conclude, Angela Merkel is definitely not an ideal candidate for Georgia and for Eastern Partnership countries and we should not expect any significant changes in Germany’s stance towards Georgia or Russia. However, compared to other candidates, Merkel is the most acceptable candidate from Georgia’s perspective. All other alternatives would be far worse.


*Dr. Bidzina Lebanidze is a senior analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics and lecturer at the University of Freiburg. He obtained his doctorate in Political Science from the Free University of Berlin. 

**This publication was produced with the support of the Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF). The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Georgian Institute of Politics or the Open Society Georgia Foundation.

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