February 26. 2024. 4:54

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Schroder holds on to SPD party membership despite Russia ties

Critics of former German chancellor Gerhard Schroder have failed in a bid to expel him from the ruling Social Democratic party (SPD) over his close friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

An SPD arbitration committee in the city of Hannover upheld a decision made in August last year not to revoke the membership of the one-time German leader after more than a dozen party branches sought to expel him on the grounds of his support for Moscow.

Mr Schroder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has become a symbol of the close ties forged between parts of the German political and business elite and Russia in decades past – a relationship that imploded when Mr Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine last year.

As well as driving negotiations for the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline that made Germany heavily dependent on Russia for energy, Mr Schroder later served as chair of the shareholder committee of Nord Stream AG.

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While he has criticised the invasion of Ukraine, Mr Schroder has refused to renounce his friendship with Mr Putin, saying last year: “I have condemned the war many times, you know that. But would it really help anyone if I were to personally distance myself from Vladimir Putin?”

The current German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, himself an SPD member, urged Mr Schroder to step down from the boards of Russian state-owned energy companies a week after the invasion in February last year. “It is not correct for Gerhard Schroder to hold these offices,” he said in early March 2022. “And I think it would be correct for him to give them up.”

The following month, one of the SPD’s co-leaders, Saskia Esken, called on him to leave the party. “Gerhard Schroder has been acting for many years now only as a businessman, and we should stop seeing him as an elder statesman, as a former chancellor,” she said.

In May, Germany’s governing parties decided to strip the former chancellor of some of his parliamentary privileges, including funding that he had previously received for his office and staff — a move that prompted him to sue the Bundestag.

Mr Schroder finally gave up his role as chair of the board of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company, two days later.

Responding to the complaint by the party branches, the SPD arbitration committee in Hannover found that it could not be “established with sufficient certainty” that Mr Schroder had violated the SPD’s statutes or principles or was guilty of a dishonourable act, according to a text of the ruling obtained by the German press agency DPA.

While it conceded that “top German politicians have misjudged the dangers of dependence on Russian energy supplies over the past 25 years”, it said that the same could be said of other politicians from the SPD and other parties. “However, to accuse the defendant of such a misjudgment is going too far,” it said.

A party spokesperson said the decision did not change the fact that Schroder’s position on Russia made him “politically isolated” within the SPD. Nonetheless, the party retains a wing that is suspicious of the US and uneasy about Berlin’s increasing military support for Kyiv.

The SPD branches that had pushed for Mr Schroder’s expulsion can appeal against the decision at the party’s federal arbitration commission, but a person familiar with the process played down the prospects of success. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023