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Eastern Europe

German poll won't improve East Europe relations

Disputes over democratic values and reforms have strained Germany's relations with Russia and Ukraine. Little is expected to change after the elections.

She speaks Russian, he speaks German. But despite this, Angela Merkel hasn't been able to develop a friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin like her Social Democrat predecessor in the chancellor's office, Gerhard Schröder.

Merkel and Putin's last meeting in June nearly ended in scandal. On a visit to St. Petersburg, Merkel suddenly called off her appearance with Putin at a joint opening of a controversial art exhibition featuring so-called "trophy art," artwork that had previously been in German hands and then brought to the Soviet Union by the Red Army after World War II. The chancellor was reacting to Putin's decision to cancel their planned speeches at the event.

In the end, both Merkel and Putin attended the exhibition. The chancellor spoke of Berlin's claim to the artwork, taking the fact that Putin wasn't thrilled about her comments in her stride.

From the beginning, Merkel has taken a "pragmatic" approach when it comes to engaging with the Kremlin, say experts. "Merkel and Putin don't have a particularly warm personal relationship," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the trade journal Russia in Global Affairs. Their views are "too different," he added.

These differences are unlikely to be overcome after the September 22 election when, according to the latest polls, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) once again becomes the strongest political force in parliament and Merkel begins her third term as chancellor. "Their relationship won't become any warmer, on the contrary," said Lukyanov.

Masked members of Pussy Riot feminist punk group perform during their 'flashmob'-style protest inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The girls were marched by guards out of the cathedral. (Photo ITAR-TASS/ Mitya Aleshkovsky)

Members of Pussy Riot were convicted of a protest in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Drifting further apart

Since Putin's return to the presidency in May 2012, Berlin's criticism of the political situation in Russia has become stronger. Whether it be new laws which, from the German perspective, have placed Russian civil society and the political opposition under pressure, or the verdicts against punk rock activists Pussy Riot, or the recent introduction of legislation outlawing "homosexual propaganda," German politicians have not hidden their disappointment. Lukyanov says this points to an ever-increasing gap in values between Russia and Europe, and that includes Germany.

The critical mood between Berlin and Moscow has reached a high point, says Vladislav Belov, head of the Center for German Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. But he doesn't believe the relationship will deteriorate even further.

"The attitude toward Putin and his government has worsened," he told DW. But in general, he said, German-Russian relations hadn't been affected. This is especially true for the economy. Total trade between the two countries reached more than 80 billion euros ($105.4 billion) in 2012, according to figures from the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations.

Similarities remain

German experts are now discussing how Berlin should react to domestic political changes in Russia. Some have advocated maintaining a critical stance, while others are against the idea.

Hans-Henning Schröder, of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), sees a need for a "new political approach" toward a Russia that has changed considerably.

Russian gay rights activists shout during their protest action outside the lower house of Russias parliament, the State Duma, in Moscow, on June 11, 2013. Russia's parliament debated today a law introducing steep fines and jail terms for people who promote homosexual propaganda to minors, a measure critics fear will be used to justify the repression of gays amid rising homophobia in the country. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Germany has spoken out on Russia's recent legislation outlawing 'homosexual propaganda'

Schröder's Russian colleagues, on the other hand, don't think their country needs to change its relationship with Germany.

Russian experts don't believe that it will make any difference which parties will eventually take power in Berlin. According to Belov, a grand coalition between the CDU, its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) would be the most desirable outcome for Moscow, because then the "critical tone would not be so strong" - the Social Democrats would be less openly critical of Russia. The continuation of the current CDU/CSU and Free Democratic Party (FDP) government would be the second-best option in Moscow's view, said Belov.

His conclusion: there will be no changes in German-Russian relations, not even if Green party, which is "particularly critical of Putin," makes it into the ruling coalition.

Ukraine needs Berlin

In neighboring Ukraine, however, the expectations for the outcome of the German elections are significantly higher. Unlike Russia, Ukraine is seeking membership in the European Union and for that it needs support from Berlin.

Shortly after the elections, in November, the government in Kyiv aims to sign an association agreement with the EU that would also include plans for a free trade zone. Experts like Valeriy Chaly, the deputy director general of the Razumkov Centre in Kyiv, believe that support from Germany will be key.

"Berlin's stance on the EU's association agreement with Ukraine is one of the reasons that politicians and experts in Kyiv will be closely watching the German election," Chaly told DW.

Supporters of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko take part in a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 28, 2012. Tymoshenko was sentenced to 7 years in prison in October on charges of abuse of office condemned as politically motivated by the West. The banner reads: 'Freedom for Ukraine' . (Foto:Sergei Chuzavkov/AP/dapd)

Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office

The Tymoshenko burden

Yet, relations between the governments in Berlin and Kyiv are even more difficult than those with Moscow. Chancellor Merkel hasn't met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in two years. The reason: the president's authoritarian style and the so-called "selective prosecution" of opposition politicians, whih has repeatedly been criticized by Germany and the EU.

The fate of Tymoshenko, Ukraine's former prime minister charged in an internationally criticized trial in the fall of 2011, is the main issue threatening the relationship. Should she remain in prison, Germany is not likely to sign the association agreement, according to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. Chaly expects Berlin's final decision will be made after the elections, but what that will be depends on Kyiv.

But despite the criticism out of Berlin, pro-Western forces in Ukraine hope that Merkel remains chancellor. In comparison, the SPD has the reputation of being too close to Russia.

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