Thursday, October 01, 2009

Europeview/Germany and CEE


Oct 1st 2009

Will the Free Democrats quell east Europe's fears?

EASTERN EUROPE owes a huge debt to the Germans. By showing that capitalism worked better than planned economies, West Germany helped win the cold war. East Germans kept trying to escape, forcing the Soviet-backed regime to build the Berlin Wall, destroying communism’s claim to be popular. East German people-power brought that wall down and tore up Stalin’s map of post-war Europe by demanding unification. In the 1990s Germany forced expansion onto the European Union’s agenda and then made it happen (and paid for it, German taxpayers would add sourly). And to this day, Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a template for other countries wanting to come to terms with their past.

All the odder, therefore, that Germany is not more popular in the east. The burgeoning trade and political ties between Berlin and Moscow have spooked the countries in between. Germany and Russia are planning a condominium, just like 70 years ago, the worriers say. An opinion poll last year showing that a substantial majority of Germans would oppose the military defence of the Baltic states if they were attacked further stoked those fears. The countries between Russia and Germany feel squeezed—all the more so now that America is distracted, NATO divided, and Britain out of the game.

Germans find that sort of talk rather hurtful, especially when it is laced with crude references to the Nazi past. Some Polish politicians have made a speciality of that. The result is a vicious circle. German policymakers see the easterners as ungrateful and mad, so concentrate more on the profitable business of selling things to Russia. The easterners see a game being played over their heads, and get even crosser.

Until this weekend, the easterners had a point. Even the best German diplomats could not conceal the fact that Germany’s economic relationship with Russia to some extent trumped the security fears of the nominal allies in the east. German scepticism about NATO expansion was well-known. Even the departure of the Russia-loving Gerhard Schröder, who after leaving the chancellery went to work for a German-Russian gas pipeline, made little difference. Angela Merkel might have the right instincts, the Poles and others reckoned, but she was constrained by the grand coalition with Mr Schröder’s old party, the Social Democrats.

This weekend’s election offers a glimmer of light. The Social Democrats are out and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are in. Their leader, Guido Westerwelle (pictured at right, above), is likely to be Germany’s new foreign minister. Although a foreign-policy novice, one of his few notable campaigns was against Mr Schröder’s business dealings. The ex-chancellor fought a lengthy legal battle to gain an injunction preventing Mr Westerwelle from repeating allegations of improper conduct.

It would be premature for the east Europeans to pin much hope on Mr Westerwelle. Even in the days of his FDP predecessor, the legendary Hans-Dietrich Genscher, it was the federal chancellery, not the foreign ministry, that largely decided Germany’s foreign policy. Freed from the baleful influence of the Social Democrats, Mrs Merkel may be tougher with Russia on some issues. But Germany’s business lobby is the biggest supporter of the “Russia First” policy. And conservatives in Mrs Merkel’s CDU/CSU have the closest ties to German industry.

What could make a difference is having a solidly pro-nuclear German government. If Germany makes serious plans to extend the lives of its nuclear power stations, it reduces the country’s dependence on imported Russian gas—the cornerstone of the “special relationship” between Berlin and Moscow. Perhaps countries such as Poland, which love whinging about energy security but have been slow in doing anything practical, may then get round to following Germany’s example. Just don’t expect gratitude.

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