The 2021 German Federal Elections – What’s Next for German-Russian Relations?
On October 26, 2021, federal elections were held in Germany to form the country’s 20th Bundestag. According to the election results, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) secured 25.7 percent of the vote, followed by the conservative block of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) with 24.1 percent, the environmentalist Green Party with 14.8 percent, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party with 11.5 percent.
The year 2021 will see not only new members in Bundestag, but also a new politician assuming the role of German chancellor. After 16 years of chancellorship, Angela Merkel has decided to step down from the leadership, leaving behind very big shoes to fill. Her successor will take over contested Russian-German relations that have been marked with both the spirit of cooperation and the sense of disagreement.
Merkel has been the primary representative of the liberal West in Russia, having visited the country 20 times throughout her tenure. Under her leadership, Berlin has retained strong economic and energy ties with Moscow. Russia is Germany’s second largest trading partner and a crucial supplier of natural gas. “The base of relations between Germany and Russia is more economic than political. It’s more about trade and deals and technologies and investment than about who is more important in the world,” says Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Strong energy and trade relations did, however, affect Merkel’s political decision-making. For instance, in 2008, German chancellor objected to provide Georgia and Ukraine – countries that Russia considers its “legitimate sphere of influence” – with the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), despite the willingness of the U.S. to include these two post-Soviet states in the North-Atlantic alliance. However, Russian-German relations were marred by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-ignited insurgencies in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, forcing Merkel to adopt more critical stance toward Putin’s domestic and foreign policy choices since then.
According to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, “for Russian policymakers, Germany remains the European Union’s key member state. Historically, Moscow’s relations with the major powers have heavily depended on its interaction with the leaders of those powers. The future of the [German-Russian] relationship will depend in no small measure on who succeeds her [Merkel] and how skilled that successor is at the art of statecraft.”
Currently, the three parties that aim to form Germany’s new government – Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats – opened formal coalition talks to draft the government’s program for the next four years, announcing that, if the negotiations succeed, the country will have the next chancellor in early December of 2021. It is widely believed that Merkel’s successor will be Olaf Scholz from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who presently holds the posts of the vice chancellor and finance minister.
Previously, Scholz has criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region, declaring that it is “necessary for everyone to replace the law of the strongest with the rule of law.” At the same time, however, he has been advocating for a renewed European “Ostpolitik,” similar to the policy of rapprochement championed by his predecessor Willy Brandt vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Furthermore, he has supported the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia, despite strong continued resistance from the majority of the Western countries.
Therefore, it seems that Russian-German relations will not be altered drastically with the new government in Berlin. However, influence that the Green Party might have on the new German leadership is yet unknown. The latter has adopted a more hawkish attitude toward Moscow, actively promoting an idea of “cleaner,” more energy-efficient Europe. This, in turn, can potentially affect Germany’s foreign policy with regard to Russian gas and oil, in particular, and the leadership in Moscow, more generally.
“We count on continuity in our bilateral relations,” announced the Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov prior to the 2021 Bundestag elections. “Germany, of course, is our very large trade, economic, and investment partner. We are interested in our relations continuing and developing further,” he said. It is clear that, with or without Scholz in power, Russia expects stable and projectable relations with the leading European state. With the month of December fast-approaching, which should bring the new chancellor to Germany, Moscow will be able to better predict the course of its future relations with Berlin and reshape its foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe.
Prepared by Tina Dolbaia, November 10, 2021
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