The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He used to rule Germany. Now, he oversees Russian energy companies and lashes out at the U.S.

For seven years, Gerhard Schröder was the leader of the most populous democracy in Western Europe. He modernized the country's social security system, angered George W. Bush by refusing to participate in the invasion of Iraq and was only narrowly ousted in an election defeat to Angela Merkel in 2005. Schröder could have easily spent the rest of his career as an elder statesman, attending summits and writing books.

Instead, Schröder — a friend of Vladimir Putin who has defended Moscow's top man as a “flawless democrat” — opted for a career in the Russian business world.

Schröder has spent much of the past decade working for the Russian energy industry, serving as a board member of several consortia in which Russian-government-controlled energy company Gazprom is either the majority or sole shareholder.

His astonishing career in the Russian energy industry reached new heights this week when the former chancellor was nominated for a position as an independent director on the board of Rosneft, Russia's largest oil company — and one in which the Kremlin also holds a controlling stake. The nomination had been rumored for days and was confirmed by a government decree published late on Friday night. Schröder's office did not respond to an interview request by The Washington Post.

An unlikely rehabilitation

At a time when Russian business connections among members of Trump administration have come under growing scrutiny, Schröder's case stands out as the perhaps most blatant example of a Western politician having conflicts of interests when it comes to Moscow. “By becoming a well-paid official of a foreign, aggressive power he has damaged the reputation of the political class more than any other living politician,” said Stephan Bierling, an international politics professor at the University of Regensburg.

Yet, despite his obvious links to the Russian government which are considered embarrassing by many Germans, Schröder has recently made a comeback among Germany's Social Democrats, or SPD. The former chancellor was applauded by party members during a rare campaign speech at a party convention in June.

“What happens in the U.S. needs to be openly and harshly criticized,” said Schröder in the speech, during which he did not mention alleged Russian election interference, the conflict in Ukraine or Russian human rights abuses. Although Schröder stated he was “not anti-American,” he went on to criticize the United States' “monstrous” political influence, and he urged Germans to ignore Trump's demands to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. There was long applause for his remarks, which implied the need to improve relations with Russia.

The unseemly energy deal between Germany and Russia

Schröder no longer holds any active official position in the party, and Thorsten Benner, the director of Berlin's Global Public Policy Institute, cautioned that “it would be wrong to see Schröder as the mastermind behind SPD policies on Russia.”

But as the last SPD politician to become chancellor, Schröder's advice is increasingly back in demand. The Social Democrats are a junior partner in Merkel's governing coalition and seemingly offer little meaningful difference from her Christian Democratic Union. Current SPD leader Martin Schulz, Merkel's only serious challenger in Germany's general election in September, appears headed for yet another sizable defeat.

Still, some Social Democrats worry about glorifying a man who won two elections but crossed ethical boundaries in an unprecedented way after losing his third. Schröder's renewed popularity among parts of the German left has also stunned conservatives, who are concerned about possible Russian election interference in September.

“Does Schröder only fight for the SPD, or does the SPD also fight for him — the Chairman of the Shareholders Committee of Nord Stream 2, a 100-percent sister company of the state giant Gazprom?," asked German tabloid Bild of its mostly right-leaning readers, referring to the expansion of a natural gas pipeline that connects Russia and Western Europe.

A deal, a hug, and an international backlash

Schröder's current tightrope walk between the sidelines of German politics and the forefront of Kremlin-connected commerce is as astonishing as the path he took to get there.

As chancellor, Schröder championed the North Stream pipeline deal with Russia. The German government pursued the offshore pipeline between Russia and Germany to cut energy costs and establish a reliable supply route, but the U.S. largely viewed it as a Russian attempt to make Europe more dependent on the Kremlin. An expansion of the now-finished pipeline has been targeted by recent U.S. sanctions, pitting Washington against Germany and Russia on the issue.

Fears in Washington over the pipeline date back to 2005, when Schröder hastily signed the deal during his last days in office. Then, just weeks after leaving politics, he began to oversee the implementation of the gas pipeline project himself — this time as a businessman in Russia and as the head of Nord Stream AG's shareholder committee.

His move to Russia soon raised doubts about numerous other policies he had pursued. “Throughout his term in office, Mr. Schroeder thwarted attempts to put unified Western pressure on Russia to change its behavior,” The Washington Post's editorial board summarized in 2005. “We can only hope that Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, uses this extraordinary announcement as a reason to launch a new German policy toward Russia, one based on something other than Mr. Schroeder's private interests.”

Merkel did take a harsher stance on Russia in the following years, during which she sought a stronger alliance with the U.S. Meanwhile, Schröder's embrace of Russia continued undeterred.

In 2014, at the height of the Ukraine crisis, Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin, sparking an international backlash. By opting for a post-politics business career in Russia, his critics said, Schröder had essentially chosen to join the Putin administration.

His own former party was outraged at the time. “For anyone fighting for human rights and against Putin’s aggressive politics, this seems cynical,” the Social Democrats' human rights spokesman told reporters after the Schröder-Putin meeting in 2014.

A badly needed success story

Three years later, however, a growing number of people on the German left have started to admire Schröder again. While many are still skeptical of the radical welfare-state revisions he introduced, some German left-wingers have recently started to acknowledge that the unpopular project paved the way for Germany's current economic prosperity. He's also remembered as a “fighter with guts,” as Benner put it, for standing up to the U.S. during the Iraq War — something the Trump era may call for again.

Perhaps most importantly, said Benner, Schröder is seen “a strong campaigner who showed how to take on Merkel” — something the SPD, which trails Merkel's party by at least 15 percentage points, has lacked since his departure.

Here's why Germany's left has dwindling hopes of unseating Merkel

Schröder's rehabilitation also fits in with the traditional patterns of German politics. “Germans on the left and the far right have always had a weak spot for Moscow — [perhaps because] the relationship seemed to be on more equal footing than with the U.S. which remains the only superpower,” said Bierling, the Regensburg international politics professor. “If Putin had not invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many Germans would see him as a natural ally in times of transatlantic estrangement.”

Indeed, the current anti-Putin sentiment in Germany might not last forever. With global confidence in the U.S. in free-fall due to the Trump administration's policies, Schröder and other pro-Russian voices in Germany are finding it easier again to defend Putin, said Bierling and so, too, are many Germans finding it easier to forgive and forget when it comes to their former leader.