The man who ruled Germany for seven years before losing to Angela Merkel in 2005 is fighting back against criticism from the media and his own party for his nomination to sit on the board of Russian oil giant Rosneft.
Gerhard Schröder, who has repeatedly drawn criticism in Germany for his closeness with Russian politicians and businesses since leaving office, told Swiss newspaper Blick he plans to continue with his nomination despite members of the Social Democrats (SPD) saying it reflected badly on the party before September’s election. Mr. Schröder, whose proximity to Vladimir Putin media reports have dubbed “devastating” to the SPD’s campaign, said he didn’t believe he was hurting his party.
Russia nominated the former German chancellor and bosom buddy of Mr. Putin to the board of its biggest oil producer as an independent director, according to a government statement published late Friday. Elections will be held at a shareholders’ meeting on September 29. Mr. Schröder said he would be going on with the nomination despite criticism he considered misdirected.
Rosneft, in which the Russian government owns a 51-percent stake, is under Western sanctions over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
Immediately after the announcement, Mr. Schröder faced massive criticism in Germany. Green party member Reinhard Bütikofer described his move as “shameless,” accusing him of being “a paid servant” of Mr. Putin and his policies.
The CDU leaped at the chance to embarrass the SPD's chancellor candidate.
Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, distanced himself from Mr. Schröder’s decision, taking to Facebook to announce, “I wouldn’t do it.” He also tried to keep the issue out of the election campaign, stating it was a “private matter.”
Unsurprisingly, leading Christian Democrat politicians leapt at the chance to embarrass the SPD’s chancellor candidate. The CDU’s Norbert Röttgen, head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told media: “Rosneft is not a only a business, it is above all a core component of Putin’s power system. A former chancellor’s participation in it is anything but a private matter.” He blasted Mr. Schulz for showing “weakness” as a party leader.
The SPD has been struggling to make up ground with Ms. Merkel who is seeking to persuade voters to grant her a fourth term in next month’s election. Polls show her conservatives are set to emerge from the September 24 election as the largest party – but they will still need a coalition partner.
Commenting on Mr. Schulz’ remark, Mr. Schröder told Blick that he would support the SPD leader’s election campaign anyway, “if he wants me to.”
He also claimed he would be paid about $350,000 annually for the part-time post. While admitting that he had expected some criticism, he accused local media of beefing up the story to influence the election: “It is a political campaign to benefit Ms. Merkel. They defame me personally to help her.”
It’s not the first contentious career move the former chancellor has made. Soon after losing the chancellery to Ms. Merkel, Mr. Schröder was made chairman of Nord Stream, a Gazprom-led consortium established for the construction of a pipeline carrying Russian natural gas across the Baltic Sea.
His senior role in a commercial project he had championed while in government proved highly controversial at the time, with many politicians accusing him of an ethical lapse. But Mr. Schröder consistently denied he had done anything wrong and remained a reliable apologist for Mr. Putin, whom he once infamously called “an impeccable democrat.”
A loaded, and often ironic, German word for people like Mr. Schröder is Russlandversteher, or “those who understand Russia.” If the former chancellor continues with his nomination to Rosneft’s board – and judging by his comments this week, he will – then no doubt that term that will continue to be put to use about him in the near future.
Daniel Tost is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: tost@