Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s €250,000 pal

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Schröder and Putin – a special friendship

Among the surprisingly many members of the Western European political elite who’ve been remarkably steadfast in their, um, understanding for even the most brutal conduct by Vladimir Putin, one of the staunchest has been Gerhard Schröder, who served as chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005. Schröder, as it happens, sits on the board of Russia’s Gazprom, the giant government-owned natural-gas company, and is a longtime personal chum of the Kremlin thug (whom he’s called a “flawless democrat”). Putin once turned up at Schröder’s home in Hanover “with a Russian choir to celebrate his birthday.” Schröder has described Putin as having “a very close relationship to Germany” – noting that in the 1980s Putin was a KGB spy stationed in East Germany. (As we all know, of course, that’s the best way to develop a “very close relationship.”)  

Gerhard-Schroeder_2895463cAnd what a friend Schröder has been! When Putin invaded Ukraine, Schröder was quick to defend his buddy: Putin, he argued, was simply trying to keep Russia strong and on par with the U.S. Who could criticize that worthy goal? Putin, Schröder further explained was justly worried about “being encircled” – as if there were even the remotest possibility of a military incursion into Russia from Ukraine or Poland or one of the Baltic states. Schröder also made the point that Ukraine is “culturally divided,” with some Ukrainians identifying more with the West, others looking to Russia – so hey, why not let Putin seize some of the pro-Russian part of the country?

schroeder-wird-65_fullviewAt least Schröder acknowledged that the invasion constituted a clear violation of international law – but he hastened to add that the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia also violated international law. Never mind that Putin’s action was an aggressive, unprovoked land grab by a brutal dictator, and NATO’s bombing was a humanitarian effort to save the lives of people who were being targeted by a genocidal dictator.

Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, was outraged by Schröder’s support for Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Roland Nelles of Der Spiegel wasn’t impressed either. When Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in April of last year – hot on the heels of the Crimea invasion – Nelles accused him of “making a mockery of Berlin’s foreign policy.” Yes, the two guys are pals. But still, wrote Nelles,

russland-praesident-wladimir-putin-und-altkanzler-gerhard-schroederSchröder ought to know better. If the former German chancellor believes he can continue his friendship as if nothing has happened, it’s a mistake. Schröder’s own center-left Social Democratic Party is currently the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which is frantically trying to prevent his friend Vladimir from carrying out the policies of a power-drunk hegemon in Eastern Europe. In difficult times like these, a former German leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin….as Germany’s former leader, he is still obliged to maintain a statesman-like responsibility for his country.

Thomas Holl of Frankfurter Allgemeine agreed. Reacting to photographs of Schröder hugging Putin, he called them “macabre.”

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The hug

One interesting detail about that 70th birthday party. It was hosted by Nord Stream AG, a Gazprom subsidiary that operates a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Guess who’s the chairman of Nord Stream’s advisory board, raking in €250,000 a year from the Russian government? None other than Gerhard Schröder. In fact, he took the job only weeks after his party lost the 2005 parliamentary elections, forcing him to hand over the chancellorship to Merkel. “Opponents,” recalled Reuters, “said the haste with which he took up the job was unseemly and the link to Russian interests too direct for a former chancellor.” In any event, the fundamental fact about Schröder now seems clear. As Bundestag member Manuel Sarrazi puts it, he’s “spreading the Kremlin’s propaganda” and is “now a paid spokesman for Russia.” 

Putin’s Italian bromance

Yesterday, October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrated his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: the one and only Silvio Berlusconi.

putinberlus8When it was reported in late July, the news doubtless caused some people to scratch their scalps in wonderment. Vladimir Putin, it emerged, had invited Silvio Berlusconi – the 79-year-old media tycoon and three-time Italian prime minister – to become Russia’s economy minister.

No, Putin didn’t expect Berlusconi to accept, and Berlusconi had no intention of doing so. The offer was just a private joke, intended as a gesture of solidarity and friendship at a time when both men are on the outs with almost every other Western head of government – Putin because of his military adventurism and saber-rattling and Berlusconi because of his sordid scandals and court cases involving underage sex, corruption, tax evasion, and so on.

putinberlus2But the cameraderie between the two men isn’t new. Putin and Berlusconi are old buddies. A recent article in an Italian daily was headlined “Berlusconi and Putin: An Enduring Love.” Their “bromance,” as Adam Taylor called it in a recent Washington Post article about the relationship, “was cemented in the summer of 2002 when Putin’s two teenage daughters spent a month at Berlusconi’s summer residence in Porto Rotondo. The following year, Putin’s entire family visited.”

putinberlus9Since then they’ve socialized frequently, vacationed together on the Black Sea, in Sardinia, and elsewhere, exchanged lavish presents, partied, skied, strolled, and sung à deux, pulled schoolboy pranks on each other, played host to each other’s spouses and kids, frolicked with each other’s pets, and praised and defended and applauded each other in the media when everyone else in the Western world’s executive mansions and foreign offices was piling on.

putinberlus6Berlusconi, who has been described as having a “strange fascination for Putin,” has called Putin a “macho” guy and a “good boy” and a “godsend” to the people of Russia; Putin has expressed admiration for Berlusconi’s reputation as a ladies’ man, saying, when Berlusconi was on trial two years ago on sex charges, that if his Italian chum “were homosexual, no one would lay a finger on him.” Each of them has cut short meetings or changed appointments with powerful international personages in order to hang out with or take a call from the other. It’s that kind of friendship.

putinberlus4What’s the secret of their mutual attraction? Taylor cites their shared “pro-business, pro-power outlook” as well as their similar personalities: they’re “manly men on a continent of gray, dull eurocrats.” Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Center in Moscow puts it a tad differently: “They’re corporate, ruthless, willing to screw principles.” In early 2009, Ronald Spogli, then U.S. Ambassador to Italy, wrote a nine-page memo about the curious bond between the two, observing that Berlusconi “admires Putin’s macho style of governing and sees in his Russian friend a ‘fellow tycoon.’”

putinberlus1Their friendship is, of course, also a power alliance. While Berlusconi was PM of Italy, he personally made all government decisions relating to Russia, repeatedly leaving his own diplomatic corps entirely out of the loop. After Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Il Cavaliere was quick to stand up for him and to call the G8 “reckless” for banning him from their sodality; this past June, he promised his pal that the Forza Italia party (of which he remains capo di tutti capi) would fight to lift Western sanctions on Mother Russia.

Not unsurprisingly, the unusual intimacy of this adorable twosome has occasioned a good deal of international chn-scratching. In a 2010 article in Der Spiegel, appropriately entitled “Macho Friends,” Gregor Peter Schmitz wrote that the two men’s “close relationship” was “a source of unease for the US State Department.” In cables made public by WikiLeaks, American diplomats described Berlusconi as “increasingly the mouthpiece” of Putin in Europe.

putinberlus3In addition, those cables raised the possibility that the two mates might also share clandestine business and financial ties. According to one dispatch by Spogli, many Italian politicians and foreign diplomats were convinced, during Berlusconi’s years in office, that he was “profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia.” A Georgian ambassador to Italy suggested that Putin had promised his Italian buddy a “percentage of profits from any pipelines” developed jointly by Russia’s Gazprom and Italy’s Eni.

But, hey, what’s a little graft between friends?