Merkel caves in on Russia appointment
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday (9 January) accepted the appointment of a pro-Moscow veteran as special coordinator for Russia policy, a concession made to her coalition partner.
Gernot Erler, who will turn 70 this year, is a close ally of Social Democrat leader and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, himself a pro-Russian politician.
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Erler coordinated German-Russian relations in the foreign ministry at the time when Steinmeier was chief of staff to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Together they secured the construction of a direct gas pipeline from Russia to Germany (Nord Stream) which bypassed Poland and the Baltic states, increasing their vulnerability to Moscow gas politicking.
When Steinmeier took over the foreign minister post in Merkel's first cabinet (2005-2009), Erler was promoted to state secretary and helped draw up the "modernisation partnership."
This was supposed to bring about more democracy to the eastern neighbour through an increased presence of German companies in Russia.
Steinmeier was again sworn in as foreign minister in December and admitted that the partnership programme he championed had not worked very well.
He insisted in coalition talks with Merkel on replacing the current special Russia coordinator, Andreas Schockehoff, who was a vocal critic of human rights abuses in Moscow.
According to Spiegel magazine, there was a row within the Grand Coalition on whether to keep Schockenhoff or replace him with Erler. As for Schockenhoff, he refused to step down, Spiegel reported.
The Erler appoinment can be interpreted as signaling a thaw in German-Russian relations after the release of Putin critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of the punk band Pussy Riot.
Olaf Boehnke, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted on Thursday that the appointment will trigger "kind of ease in Moscow for the time being."
And Joerg Forbig, a central and eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund of the US, another foreign policy think tank, tweeted: "Not good: Gernot Erler (SPD) succeeds Andreas Schockenhoff (CDU) as Russia envoy of German gov't. Will Merkel stick to critical engagement?"
The appointment also signals that Steinmeier will be a more powerful foreign minister than his predecessor Guido Westerwelle.
However, Merkel is set to continue to call the shots on major foreign policy decisions - a set-up she has consolidated in her eight years of chancellorship.