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
.. 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,”
.. 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.
.. Schröder’s renewed popularity among parts of the German left has also stunned conservatives, who are concerned about possible Russian election interference in September.
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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
.. “If Putin had not invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many Germans would see him as a natural ally in times of transatlantic estrangement.”
.. 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.