Gerhard Schröder's extraordinary career seems based on the so-far successful premise that whatever he does, nobody remembers for long, and that his personal alloy of metallic charm, chutzpah and feel for his countrymen's instincts takes care of the restwrites John Vinocur as he — again — reminds us that anti-Americanism did not start with a president named George W Bush.
Who recalls Schröder's two visits to Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in 1980 and 1982, sandwiched between the invasion of Afghanistan and the targeting of Western Europe with Soviet SS-20 missiles? And Schröder saying then that Brezhnev looked more disposed toward talking peace than the Americans?Why am I still living in this God-forsaking sewer mess called Europe?
Or that Schröder opposed German reunification and the creation of the euro? And, with a certain consistency of reflex, once backed the proposed sale of German tanks to Saudi Arabia before its rejection by Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic government, and last year, as chancellor, pushed the European Union to lift its arms embargo to China?
Here is a man, said Helmut Kohl, remarkable for consistently standing on the wrong side of history.
Now, Schröder is going with his instincts again.
Less than a month after leaving office in November, he's taken a job as the chairman of a Gazprom subsidiary, at time when the Russia of Schröder's close friend Vladimir Putin is intent on turning the enormous energy reserves Gazprom controls into a foreign policy lever that would reinstate Moscow as a center of world influence.
…During [the 1998] campaign, Schröder, in spite of a contact ban recommended by the EU, went out of his way to meet with President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, then and now a man described as Europe's last Stalinist dictator.
Who remembers? For sure, the Kremlin.
…Putin's clear goal in recruiting Schröder, reverberating in his failed attempt to hire the former U.S. commerce secretary Donald Evans to head another Gazprom offshoot, is to sign up tactical intelligence and political leverage - not just amiable front-men to shellac the conglomerate with an aboveboard sheen for Western investors.
Yet check this for Gazprom's presumptive probity:
The manager in charge of the company Schröder will chair is Matthias Warnig, a former major in the East German secret police, or Stasi, who currently serves as chairman of Dresdner Bank ZAO, a Russia-based unit of the German bank. A Wall Street Journal article, published 10 months ago, quoting former colleagues of Putin and Warnig, said Warnig helped Putin recruit spies in the West when the Russian president served as a KGB man in East Germany in the 1980s. The same article reported a Kremlin spokesman's denial that the two men knew each other as Stasi and KGB agents.
More: The new pipeline company itself is headquartered in Zug, Switzerland, a town known as a tax paradise sometimes associated with companies run by the "capitalist locusts" Schröder's Social Democrats love to denounce.
…Reporting from Zug, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the leading Swiss newspaper, has investigated a Swiss lawyer who is the lone administrative board member of Schröder's pipeline corporation. It said he was previously an officer of a Swiss firm shown in Stasi documents to have furnished East Germany with strategically sensitive electronics from Western embargo lists during the 1980s.
Talk of an accumulating sense of discomfort! Just days before the German elections in September that propelled him from power, Schröder signed the pipeline deal that will carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, bypassing American allies like Ukraine and Poland. Announcement of his new Gazprom job followed weeks later.
…All alone in the great, big-bucks world, Schröder is likely to find his marketability as an international go-between discredited. Eastern Europe frankly does not trust him. Western Europe, in its calculating way, could be described as more than a little disturbed by his new associates.