Gerhard Schröder: The ex-German Chancellor turned public pariah

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) has once again been hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons amid the Ukraine crisis. But who is Schröder, and how has he become so problematic in German politics? Here's what you need to know.

Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin
Gerhard Schröder hugs Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Alexei Druzhinin

On February 24th, as Russian troops rolled deeper into Ukraine to start what has become an increasingly bloodthirsty war, several eyes turned back on a man who exited German politics almost 17 years prior: former chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

“In the rare moments when Gerhard Schröder is sober, does he feel anything akin to shame, or regret?” the editor of German VICE wrote in a widely shared tweet the morning that war broke out. Others speculated that “egotists don’t feel shame,” while some claimed the former politician lived in an “alternative reality”. 

News reporters waited for statements from Schröder on the escalating crisis; opposition leader Friedrich Merz referenced him scathingly in a speech during an emergency session in the Bundestag on February 27th, and on Tuesday, March 1st, it emerged that every member of staff in Schröder’s office had dramatically quit their posts in protest. 

So, why has this ghost of Germany’s political past re-emerged at this time of deep global crisis? And why is he viewed so negatively in the public eye? Here’s what you should know about the former Chancellor and his involvement in the Ukraine-Russia crisis. 

Who is Gerhard Schröder and why is he important?

Gerhard Schröder is a former SPD politician and ex-Chancellor who currently works as a lobbyist and consultant in the Russian energy sector. In 1998, he steered the Social Democrats to victory for the first time in 16 years and replaced conservative Helmut Kohl as Chancellor of Germany. 

Charismatic and dogged, he has often been compared with the UK’s former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who rose to power in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative leadership. Shortly after Schröder became Chancellor, the pair co-authored a manifesto on third-way politics, or ‘Die Neue Mitte’ in German, which set out a vision for a ‘new’ type of social democracy that saw a shift away from the welfare state towards individual responsibility, lower taxes and entrepreneurship.

Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder hold a joint press conference in Berlin in 2005. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Michael Hanschke

In his ‘Agenda 2010’, Schröder made good on his promises, overhauling the welfare system with cutbacks to social benefits and pensions and introducing the controversial ‘Hartz IV’ unemployment benefit – which the current SPD-led government has pledged to scrap. He also eliminated capital gains tax on foreign stocks to encourage investment from abroad, liberalised the system for gaining citizenship through naturalisation and diverted funding into renewable energies.

A further break from previous norms was in his approach to foreign policy. Discarding the apologetic stance of the previous post-war German governments, Schröder spoke of Germany as a “great European power” that should pursue its interests internationally.

In 2005, his party dramatically lost against Angela Merkel’s conservatives – a fact which he famously refused to acknowledge on the night of the polls. After spending a number of weeks negotiating a Grand Coalition between Merkel’s CDU/CSU parties and the SPD, Schröder announced that he would not be serving another term in German politics. 

Why has he become so controversial?

While the policies he pursued in power certainly weren’t uncontroversial, public opinion of Schröder has largely been shaped by what he did next. According to Nick Zoack of the Washington Post, the former Chancellor hastily signed a deal to supply Russian gas to Germany just before he departed office – a few days after he had been voted out.  

The name of the project was Nord Stream, and the company behind it was Kremlin-linked Russian energy giant Gazprom. Inviting consternation both at home and abroad, Schröder then swiftly accepted Gazprom’s nomination to head up the shareholder’s committee of Nord Stream AG. 

“It’s one thing for a legislator to resign his job, leave his committee chairmanship and go to work for a company over whose industry he once had jurisdiction,” the Washington Post seethed. “It’s quite another thing when the chancellor of Germany leaves his job and goes to work for a company controlled by the Russian government that is helping to build a Baltic Sea gas pipeline that he championed while in office.”

He has since gone on to take up a number of other positions for Russian energy behemoths – mostly notably as manager of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and as director of the board of Rosneft, an oil giant owned by the Russian government. As recently as this year, Schröder received yet another accolade from the Russia government as he was mooted to join to supervisory board of Gazprom from June. 

These business dealings have led many to raise questions about the level of Schröder’s impartiality while heading up Europe’s largest economy. Significantly, the Nord Stream pipelines also soured relationships with the Baltic states and – in the case of Nord Stream 2 – with Ukraine. That’s because the pipelines were designed to bypass these countries, stripping them of their ability to earn money from the business transactions between Russia and Germany.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

What about his links to Vladimir Putin?

That’s another highly problematic issue. During his term as Chancellor, Schröder infamously described the authoritarian leader as a “flawless democrat”, and the two have developed an intimate friendship spanning two decades. 

The pair’s “bromance” extended as far as the former SPD leader being treated to a Christmas sleigh ride with Putin in Moscow in the early 2000s, and the Russian President is also believed to have visited Schröder’s house in Hanover to celebrate his 60th birthday.

If there were any remaining doubts about Schröder’s sympathies, the former Chancellor has repeatedly refused to place responsibility for events like Crimea, Donbas or poisonings of Putin opponents on foreign soil at the door of the Kremlin. 

Gerhard Schröder Vladimir Putin

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder shakes Putin by the hand as he greets him in the Kremlin in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/POOL SPUTNIK KREMLIN/AP | Alexei Druzhinin

Incidentally, his nomination to the Rosneft board came at a time when the oil giant was facing sanctions for its part in the annexation of Crimea, but he has also defended Putin’s attempts to interfere with elections in Ukraine and failed to apportion blame for the poisoning of Putin opponent Alexei Navalny. Explaining why Schröder refused to link the Kremlin with Navalny’s poisoning in 2017, former SPD politician Gernot Erler said it was about a friendship that had little regard for negative consequences.  

“I am fully convinced that we will never see Gerhard Schröder agreeing to criticism or accusations against Putin, precisely because he attaches great importance to this male friendship and understands it in such a way that, no matter what the facts are, one protects the other and stands by the other,” he told Deutschland Funk

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the Ukraine crisis could impact Germany

How did he respond to the Ukraine invasion?

In the first 24 hours of the war in Ukraine, there was an eerie silence from Gerhard Schröder’s camp. Then, on Friday, he published a cursory LinkedIn post in which he said “the war… must be stopped as soon as possible” and said that it was “the responsibility of the Russian government to do so”.

In the next breath, however, he pointed to the West’s “failings” and Russia’s desire to protect its “security interests” – a narrative also peddled by spokespeople for the Kremlin. “Much has been said in recent years about mistakes and failures in the relationship between the West and Russia,” he wrote. “And there have been many mistakes – on both sides. But Russia’s security interests do not justify military intervention.” 

He had previously dismissed calls to send arms to Ukraine as “sabre-rattling”. 

Despite growing calls for him to distance himself from his Russian business interests, he has so far refused to step down from any of his roles on the boards of Kremlin-linked oil and gas companies. 

Does he still have support in the Social Democrats?

Increasingly little, it seems. In recent days, SPD leader Lars Klingbeil has been among the prominent voices in the party asking for Schröder to step down from his posts. On Monday, Klingbeil sent a message that sounded like an ultimatum. “The ball’s in Schröder’s court,” he said. “The clock is ticking.” 

Meanwhile, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has drawn increasingly strong lines of division between himself and the former SPD Chancellor in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. When asked about Schröder’s comments on the Ukraine’s so-called “sabre-rattling”, Scholz told ZDF’s Heute Journal: “If I understand the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany correctly, there’s only one Chancellor, and that’s me.” 

In a move that surprised many, Scholz also halted the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline after Russia sent troops into the separatist regions of Ukraine, in the days leading up to Putin’s invasion. The subsidiary behind it has since declared itself insolvent.

Scholz has also agreed to go beyond the two-percent defence spending mandated by Nato and send weapons into the conflict zone, marking a sea change in German foreign policy.

Gerhard Schröder Olaf Scholz

Gerhard Schröder takes part in an event at the launch of Olaf Scholz’s biography, “The Way to Power” in December 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

That’s not to say that Schröder does not have any allies in the party: Manuela Schwesig, the state premier of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania who has championed Nord Stream 2 in the area, is believed to be one of them.

However, Schröder – like the Russian government – is facing increasing isolation and external pressure. On Monday, four members of his team resigned from his taxpayer-funded office, including a speech-writer who had worked for him for 20 years.

In addition, the former Chancellor is said to be facing pressure from Borussia Dortmund – a Bundesliga club that he is an honourary member of – and politicians of all stripes, including his own party. 

“Putin is threatening us with nuclear weapons and Schröder still hasn’t managed to break away from his warmongering friend,” Bremerhaven’s SPD chairman Martin Günthner told Spiegel.

“This is not good for the SPD. It should immediately declare Schröder a persona non grata who will no longer be invited anywhere.”

READ ALSO: Pressure grows on ex-German Chancellor Schröder over Russia links

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Facing uncertain future, Ukrainians struggle to adapt in Germany

In her previous life in southern Ukraine, Tetiana Chepeliova was an accountant. In Berlin, she is unemployed, like the 16 other Ukrainian women with whom she is learning German in a course aimed at helping them integrate into society.

Facing uncertain future, Ukrainians struggle to adapt in Germany

The 47-year-old is one of more than a million Ukrainians who have fled to Germany since Russia’s invasion in February. Among the European Union countries, only Poland has welcomed more.

The influx has put huge pressure on local authorities with Interior Minister Nancy Faeser recently describing the situation as “tense”.

But unlike in 2015, when huge protests stoked by the far-right erupted over the arrival of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war, this time there have been few dissenting voices over the influx.

Instead, a key challenge is turning out to be the “major uncertainty” faced by the Ukrainians, said Benjamin Beckmann, who oversees integration programmes at Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees.

For many of them — mostly women and children — it remains an open question whether or not they will return to their homeland once the war is over, he added.

Qualifications not recognised

At a language school in a residential district of the German capital, Chepeliova is among a group of Ukrainians learning to navigate the German language.

When AFP visited, she was learning basic terms to express herself during a visit to the doctor.

The courses consist of three hours of classes a day, offered free to Ukrainians for nine months.

“The are extremely motivated,” said teacher Petra Schulte. But Schulte also senses the frustration of her class, which has just one male student. They include a mechanical engineer, a dentist, a doctor, nurses,
and a piano teacher.

“They have worked for years… and suddenly, their qualifications are not recognised, and they cannot practise” their professions, the teacher said.

Chepeliova fled the southern city of Kherson after it fell to the Russians in March. Today, she sees her future in Germany: “It is the best place for me. The country is super welcoming towards Ukrainians.”

Her 12-year-old son found German school difficult at first but “after spending a weekend with his class, it is as if a wall fell — he was no longer frightened of speaking German”.

Other women however want eventually to return to Ukraine, where they have left loved ones behind.

“None of them seem happy in the role of housewife,” observed Schulte, 63.

She even questioned sometimes why she was teaching them when they might end up returning home, she admitted.

For now, while the Ukrainians weigh up their future in Europe’s biggest economy, Schulte and others like her can only support them in their journey to adapt in Germany.

“The will to help has not weakened,” she said.