25th Oct 2016

Steinmeier disagrees with German business chiefs on Russia

  • Steinmeier (l) added 'law' to the goal of creating an economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok (Photo: SPD in Niedersachsen)

German politicians are divided into two broad categories: 'Russia understanders' and 'Russia critics'.

The doveish Social-Democrats (SPD), including two former chancellors - Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt, who voiced understanding for Putin's annexation of Crimea - are broadly considered to be 'Russia understanders'.

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But SPD foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday (9 April) surprised an audience of businessmen, diplomats and politicians from Russia and former Soviet countries in Berlin by disagreeing with speakers from the German business community.

The event called "East Forum Berlin - opportunities for an economic area from Lisbon to Vladivostok" - was sponsored by Italian bank UniCredit, whose boss, Giuseppe Vita, cited Lenin in his opening speech and received scattered applause when he said no economic sanctions should be imposed on Russia.

Eckhard Cortes, former CEO of Metro, the German retailer, now in charge of an association of German firms doing business in eastern Europe, also said the blame for the Ukraine conflict is shared by all parties - Russia, Ukraine and the EU.

Steinmeier disagreed. "There cannot be a parallel economic world doing business as usual with Russia," he said.

"With all self-criticism that we can accept, it was illegal for Russia to redraw borders seven decades after the end of World War II. This not something we can accept and the vote in the UN Security Council proved that Russia alienated many friends," he added.

He said he could understand the business community's desire not to impose economic sanctions on Russia, but said the German government was determined to take that path if Russia continued to stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine.

"The news from eastern Ukraine indicate that the situation is about to escalate, there are massive Russian troops on the border. Risk of open violence is very high," Steinmeier said.

He pointed to the "superhuman task" of stabilising Ukraine's political and economic systems, given the years of corruption and mismanagement.

"There are no economic or political reasons for Russia to want the collapse of Ukraine," he noted.

German efforts are now focusing on the creation of a contact group so that Ukraine and Russia can find a diplomatic solution.

"This is not about Germany being there in the room - it makes no difference who is the third party. The most important thing is to get this contact group, we are not there yet," Steinmeier said.

Meanwhile, Moldovan Prime Minister Iurie Leanca noted that he was grateful to the EU commission and Romania for having started work on a multi-million euro interconnector which will allow Romania to export gas to Moldova. Currently, Moldova is 100 percent dependent on Russian gas imports.

In another positive development, Moldovans will be able to travel visa-free to Europe just three weeks' time.

"Few thought this would be possible so quickly, but it is Moldova's reward for implementing all the requirements," Leanca said.

He said Moldova's EU integration "is a modernisation project, not something directed against someone," even though the country has no EU membership perspective at the moment.

The eastern Moldovan region of Transniestria, where Russia still has at least 10,000 soldiers, has submitted a request to be annexed by Russia. But Moscow has not yet replied.

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