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International Relations

Opinion: Merkel's new Russia policy

Even though much appeared to be the same, German Chancellor Angela Merkel put a new spin on Berlin's Russia policies during her visit to Moscow, says Ingo Mannteufel, the head of DW's Russian Program.

The meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as part of their regular Russian-German intergovernmental consultations had been eagerly anticipated. That's because German-Russian relations seem to have reached their lowest level in a long time after a Putin-critical resolution by the German parliament a week ago caused quite a stir in Russia.

The resolution, carried by the ruling CDU/CSU and FDP, along with the opposition Greens, strongly criticized the internal political developments in Russia and the use of state power against Russian critics.

Ingo Mannteufel, Copyright: DW/Egor Winogradow

Ingo Mannteufel, head of DW's Russian Program

The Kremlin elite refused to accept this and dismissed the criticism in the strongest terms. The Russian Foreign Ministry even declared that it did not want to talk officially with the author of the resolution Andreas Schockenhoff - even though Schockenhoff is not only the German government representative for civil society dialogue with Russia, but also deputy parliamentary group leader of Merkel's CDU/CSU.

This thunder seemed to herald a heavy storm in German-Russian relations, but it never came to that.

Merkel shows composure

Before the actual government consultations, Merkel, appearing together with Putin before German and Russian participants of the so-called Petersburg Dialogue, let it be known that she broadly shared the critical view expressed in the resolution, but did not want to worsen relations with Russia.

Calmly and confidently, she simply declared that mutual criticism in politics is normal. And Putin had no interest in aggravating the situation. Instead, he praised the bilateral - especially economic - successes and benefits and objected strongly to the impression of a morose atmosphere in German-Russian relations. Then suddenly all the excitement surrounding the parliamentary resolution seemed like a storm in a teacup. So, everything as it was? No, there's more to it than that.

Contours of a new German policy toward Russia

Instead, the Putin-critical parliamentary resolution acts as an important step in Merkel's Russia policy. Especially since, in Berlin, insiders are saying that the chancellor's office was involved early in the drafting of the resolution and is partly responsible for it. The intention was to break away from the Russia policy of recent years and the hopes of the Medvedev presidency from 2008 to 2012. The current Merkel government no longer seems to think a comprehensive modernization of Russia is forthcoming.

Merkel has now made it clear in domestic and foreign policy terms what she thinks of the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency. She did it without damaging a business-like and pragmatic foreign policy toward Putin's Russia, with which Germany works together on many global issues.

Free from the pompous burden of a "modernization partnership" or "strategic partnership," Merkel can now pursue a new Russia policy that allows her to push forward with the good bilateral economic relations that are beneficial for both sides. It was not by chance that a number of economic agreements between Russian and German companies were signed in the presence of Merkel and Putin during the consultations.

At the same time, Merkel was distancing herself politically from Putin and put an end to Germany's role as an advocate of Russia in Europe for good. Proof of this is that now the German government has reservations about eliminating visa requirements for Russians and instead is only offering simplification. This is certainly a disappointment to Putin, who has made the issue of visa-free travel for Russians in the Schengen area a major theme of his foreign policy.

Normality instead of deterioration

On the other hand, Putin may well be able to live with the small but important correction in Merkel's policies, because the slight changes in German policy toward Russia does not threaten his proclaimed core objective: the technological and economic modernization of Russia with German expertise. It would therefore be wrong to talk about a "deterioration" in political relations between Berlin and Moscow. Rather, both parties have adapted to the new reality of a third Putin presidency. A new normality in the German-Russian relations has begun.