Monday, July 25, 2011

A trace of the illusions, dreams, and ambitions that have dominated German thinking about Russia over the centuries can be seen in Merkel’s stance

How does the leader of an admirably democratic country offer a seeming endorsement to a presidential hopeful from an authoritarian state
asks John Vinocur (the most conservative commentator working for the New York Times) in the International Herald Tribune
— all the while knowing its top job will be decided privately and in advance?

Ask Angela Merkel. The chancellor let on at a German-Russian symposium in Hanover this week that her man in the Russian election next March is President Dmitri A. Medvedev.

At an annual event whose persistent coziness and lack of vigorous exchange — call it a tone of connivance — gets frequently targeted by the German news media, the Russian president was talking about academic titles when the word “candidate” popped into his remarks.

Mrs. Merkel snatched it up. No artful or subtle mention of the barriers to real political expression in Russia followed. Rather, the chancellor said, “Candidate — that’s lovely to hear.”

The meeting’s participants, according to one newspaper, grinned in unison. When it comes to how Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Mr. Medvedev decide between themselves who will be the Russian president, (they have said the country prefers a single candidate), the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote: “Merkel’s favorite’s name is Medvedev. Anyone who observed the chancellor relating to her guest couldn’t miss it.”

Or, with a little close reading, couldn’t overlook how very aware the Merkel government is of the embarrassing aspects of seeming to tighten links to Russia at a time when Moscow is about to demonstrate how far in the last decade it has retreated from democracy.

…there’s no immediately visible yield in backing Mr. Medvedev.

The chancellor seems to think he is a modernizer, but Mr. Putin is widely regarded as the most likely future president.

In all of this, the arguably greatest error in terms of international reality would be Mrs. Merkel’s appearing to suppose there is some major strategic differentiation between the two Russian leaders, and to cast Mr. Medvedev as a relatively benevolent force.

Is there a difference? While Mr. Medvedev was president, Russia invaded Georgia and, shortly afterward, he proclaimed the countries along Russian borders, in the manner of the Brezhnev doctrine, to be of vital “strategic interest.”

Under Mr. Medvedev’s leadership, Russia also designated NATO as the single greatest threat to its security, menaced eastern Europe with new missiles, and has refused to negotiate reducing Russian supremacy in tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

A trace of the illusions, dreams and ambitions that have frequently dominated German thinking about Russia over the centuries could well be present in Mrs. Merkel’s current positioning.

An excellent book (not for beach reading), Der Russland-Komplex, looks into these issues. Its author, Gerd Koenen, has warned of recurring German delusions concerning Russia and said Germany was again an object of Russia’s “refreshed world ambitions.”

As a former East German, Mrs. Merkel’s personal view of Russia has been hard to track.