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Russia’s bizarre proposal to condemn West Germany’s 1989 ‘annexation’ of East Germany

An East German border policeman hands a flower back to West Berlin citizens sitting on the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 10, 1989. (Michael Probst/Reuters)

Russian lawmakers will consider a new statement that would condemn an event that happened 25 years ago – the reunification of Germany.

According to Russian news agency Tass, State Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin has asked the Duma's Committee on Foreign Affairs to look into condemning the "annexation" of East Germany by West Germany in 1989.

Given the time that's passed and the relative success of German reunification, the idea has struck many as absurd: Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union in 1989, called it "nonsense" Wednesday. Similar outlandish statements have been made by Russian lawmakers recently – last year, one proposed a ban on high heels, for example.

However, this proposal can't be as easily dismissed: Naryshkin is an ally of President Vladimir Putin, and it seems unlikely he would have made such a bold statement without the Russian leader's approval.

And while the events it concerns may be long in the past, the motivation is likely the present. The plan was originally put forward by Nikolay Ivanov, a Communist Party lawmaker, who has argued that the reunification of Germany was insufficiently democratic. "Unlike Crimea, a referendum was not conducted in the German Democratic Republic," Ivanov was quoted as saying, referring to the region of Ukraine that broke away to join Russia last year after a disputed referendum.

Russia and Germany have an important, if complicated, relationship. Chancellor Angela Merkel is perhaps the closest Western leader to Putin – she grew up in East Germany, and – like Putin, who served with the KGB in Dresden – can speak both German and Russian. However, Merkel has been a prominent voice supporting sanctions on Russia after actions in Ukraine, and the relationship has been strained. Merkel famously told President  Obama that the Russian leader was living "in another world."

Ivanov pointed to comments made by the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Anne Brasseur of Luxembourg, who had accused Russia of annexing Crimea, and said his proposal was a "form of a retaliatory step." Merkel herself had also recently condemned Russia for its actions in Crimea. “The annexation of Crimea is a violation of something that has made up our peaceful coexistence, namely the protection of borders and territorial integrity,” Merkel said last week in Davos, Switzerland.

Even if the proposal is just bluster, a direct comparison between the two events does seem a little hard to make. The reunification of Germany occurred after Hungary removed its border fence, allowing thousands of East Germans to escape to the West, and eventually helped to topple the Berlin Wall. After large protests, the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) later held free and fair elections in 1990, which led to the formation of a pro-reunification government that signed an agreement to dissolve East Germany and join the West.

Meanwhile, the annexation of Crimea followed violence in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, and the mysterious arrival of the "little green men" widely assumed to be Russian troops. A rushed referendum was held with these troops in Crimea, which produced overwhelmingly pro-Russian results.

As Gorbachev put it, the times are different. "You can't make judgments about what happened in another era, 25 years ago, from current-day conditions," the former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union told Interfax. "What referendum could have been held while hundreds of thousands of people rallied both in the GDR and the FRG [the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany], the only motto being 'We are one nation?' "