How Merkel is trying to hold on to power, and who profits from Steinmeier's presidency?

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

Source :

The election of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as German President reminds us the "honorary exile" which is in the interests of the ruling coalition. In political establishment, he is perceived as a second person in German politics after Angela Merkel.
21:48, 16 February 2017

112 Agency

Presidential election was held in Germany on Sunday. According to German law, the head of state was elected by the Federal Assembly, a special constitutional body, which forms the Bundestag (German Parliament). Most of the German legislators (931 out of 1239 votes) supported the candidacy of the former foreign minister and member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His candidacy was proposed to the post of the president by Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and the SDP – parties that form a coalition. Steinmeier's candidacy was also supported by some opposition parties - "Greens" and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). A total of 5 candidates participated in the elections.

In his new position, Frank-Walter Steinmeier replaced the 77-year-old President Joachim Gauck. German President has limited powers. His functions are reduced to the signing and disclosure of laws, monitoring of legislative activities, approval and release of the chancellor, ministers, judges and military officers. The lion's share of powers in the sphere of executive power is in the hands Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the everyday life the president in Germany is called the "conscience of the nation", as in the German political system he performs the function of an arbitrator. However, German media write unanimously - none of the presidents had so large problems, which Steinmeier has now.

"Honorary exile"

The election of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as German President reminds us the "honorary exile" which is in the interests of the ruling coalition. In political establishment, he is perceived as a "second person" in German politics after Angela Merkel. In the parliamentary elections in Germany in September, Frank-Walter Steinmeier could become the "face of SDP" and compete for the post of chancellor, making a competition to the Christian Democratic Union, which is represented by Angela Merkel. According to the February sociological research of ARD agency, at his rating in German society (79%), Frank-Walter Steinmeier is ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel (55%). The majority of citizens in Germany trust Steinmeier. Well, now he can become the "conscience of the nation."

About 44% of Germans negatively assess the activity of Angela Merkel. The ratings of chancellor were knocked down by a number of unresolved problems. Merkel's government failed to make progress in resolving the immigration crisis. Last year, 280 thousand foreigners expected to receive asylum came to Germany. In 2015, Germany had already accepted 890 thousand refugees. Together with refugees on the territory of Germany appeared some Islamic extremists. In 2016, there were several terrorist attacks with casualties in German cities.

Related: Germany calls for Normandy Four Foreign Ministers meeting in Munich

Particularly resonant was the "Christmas Massacre" (a truck crashed into the fair) in Berlin on 19 December. Then 12 people were killed and 48 - wounded. ISIS terrorist organization has assumed responsibility for the attack. German security forces can’t improve the safety of German society. The representatives of German business are also unhappy with Angela Merkel’s presidency, because during the anti-Russian sanctions regime they had lost $ 20 billion profit.

According to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, around 30 thousand German companies have investments in the Russian economy. Bilateral trade of Germany and Russia decreased from EUR 60 billion in 2014 to 41 billion in 2015. German exports to Russia fell by EUR 18 billion. German business supports the abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions and normalization of relations between Germany and Russia.

On these issues speculates "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) Euroskeptic party of entrepreneur Frauke Petry. The party takes place in local authorities of 10 of 16 states. “Alternative for Germany” is considered to be the third political force by popularity in Germany, and it acts in favor of the abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions, toughening of migration regime, normalization of relations between Germany and Russia. One of the functionaries of the party is a citizen of Russia Irina Smirnova, a political analyst and professor at the Faculty of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University. The party enjoys the support of immigrants from Russia and East Germans from the former GDR. In the recent presidential elections AfD has put forward its own candidate - Albrecht Glaser, who gathered 42 votes of support. They voted against Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The ruling coalition of CDU, CSU and SDP seems to have decided to join forces against a common enemy in the face of AfD and to prevent Eurosceptics took a significant number of seats in parliament. Frank-Walter Steinmeier became president of Germany, because he doesn’t create unnecessary competition to the CDU, which is the core of the ruling coalition. The Coalition is interested in votes of conservative strata of German society in favor of Angela Merkel’s party in the absence of a suitable alternative. If the influential social democrat Steinmeier heads the SDP election campaign, the CDU supporters would be finally disillusioned with the ability of the party to influence the political development of the country. AfD could take votes away from the Christian Democrats. The ruling parties expect to maintain the ruling coalition following the results of the parliamentary elections.

Inconvenient Minister to cancel the anti-Russian sanctions

Until September, the ruling coalition has to earn bonuses in order to take the part of AfD electorate. To do this, the CDU, CSU and SDP can create conditions for normalization of trade and economic relations with Russia and the partial lifting of sanctions, to maintain the support of the business. For this purpose, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is not very convenient figure as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany. During his diplomatic position, he learned the specifics of the aggressive policy of the Kremlin in the post-Soviet space. He participated in the development of a three-stage plan for a cease-fire between the warring parties during the Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008. In 2014, Frank-Walter Steinmeier was one of the guarantors during the signing of an agreement on the resolution of the political crisis in Ukraine between the former President Viktor Yanukovych and participants of Euromaidan. Within the  framework of Norman format he offered his vision of the settlement of Donbas conflict. According to the "Steinmeier’s formula," Ukraine must adopt the amendments to the Constitution of the special status of Donbas and local elections in ORDLO. Russia is obliged to simultaneously withdraw its troops from the territory of Donbas.

However, Russia refuses to withdraw its troops from Donbas and implement the Minsk agreement neither in accordance with above mentioned "Steinmeier’s formula," nor with Ukrainian vision of the conflict settlement (first withdrawal of Russian troops from ORDLO and transfer of border control to the armed OSCE police mission, and only then conducting of local elections and solution of a special status issue). This is evidenced by the recent escalation of the conflict in Avdiivka area and continuing of shelling the positions of the Ukrainian army. Russia deliberately does not fulfill the Minsk agreement and delaying resolution of the conflict in Donbas. Kremlin expects to force European countries to unilaterally cancel the anti-Russian sanctions due to business interests.

Related: "German Trump:" How Kremlin's friends disrupt Merkel’s victory

Apparently, Germany decided to go this route. Steinmeier, who offered options for resolving the conflict, and not its freezing, was elected president in order to free a chair of Foreign Minister to the chairman of the SDP Sigmar Gabriel, a more suitable person for establishing relations with Russia. As a former Minister of Economics and Energy, Sigmar Gabriel is familiar with the negative effects of anti-Russian sanctions for the German business. Prior to his appointment, Gabriel supported the idea of the gradual abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions in process of implementation of the Minsk agreements. He can push this scenario during Normandy format talks.

Theoretically, Russia could fulfill some conditions of the Minsk agreements - to stop the shelling, to withdraw heavy weapons, to make an exchange of hostages and prisoners, but at the same time maintain its military presence in the occupied territories of Donbas and the 400 km section of the Ukrainian-Russian border. European countries cancel individual sanctions in the financial and economic sphere. Anti-Russian sanctions could be lifted in regard to Russian companies that operate in the European market. Restrictive measures may be preserved for visibility in relation to legal persons and collaborationists of Crimea, which are in international isolation and work on the Russian market. As a result of the partial lifting of sanctions will benefit European and Russian business. German and Russian companies will be able to restore trade and economic relations, foreign banks will return into the financial sector of the Russian Federation.

In these circumstances, the German business will vote for the usual parties, including the CDU, SDP, CSU, which is more predictable as unfamiliar eurosceptics, who are characterized by their direction of right-wing radicalism, which is painfully perceived in German society. Recently, from the AfD party was expelled Bjorn Hёke, who condemned the presence of the monument to Soviet soldiers in Berlin and accused Merkel that young people in Germany do not accept patriotism (in Germany patriotism is sometimes associated with Nazism). As a result, the coalition parties will be able to take away votes from the pro-Russian eurosceptics, and the meaning of existence of this party will disappear.

There is another point that is associated with autumn elections. If they do not give clear results (which is quite likely), Steinmeier will have to offer the Bundestag a Chancellor candidacy. And then whom will he choose: Angela Merkel, with whom he always had a good relationship, or his fellow party Martin Schulz? Then Steinmeier will have to deal with more important issues than the questions of power. In extreme cases, he can even disband the Bundestag.

Consequences for Ukraine

For Ukraine, the anxiety around the autumn elections in Germany is not strongly linked with their results (there should be no surprise that Merkel and Schulz are ready to work with Ukraine), but with the composition of the new government, in particular the name of the new Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the spring and summer Kyiv will be watching closely how far will go the current government of Berlin, flirting with its own electorate. Partial cancellation of anti-Russian sanctions and restoration of full-fledged Russian trade and economic relations with Germany, and then with other EU countries, would mean freezing the conflict in Donbas to uncertain prospects. Separatist formation DNR and LNR will continue to exist like Transnistria in the conditions of international isolation. These regions will become hotbeds of illegal arms trade, drug trafficking and smuggling for many years.

Ukraine will not be able to follow Russia in partial execution of the Minsk agreement, since performing of its political conditions depends on us - providing a special status to Donbas and holding local elections there. It is not possible until ORDLO area and a separate area of the state border will be controlled by the Russian military. Otherwise, Russia will be able to legalize the power of pro-Russian separatists, who will be elected to public office under the monitoring of the Kremlin biased observers.

Related: Steinmeier becomes new President of Germany

Concessions to Russia in Donbas from Germany named the peaceful settlement could mean the further fragmentation of Ukraine. Earlier, Sigmar Gabriel has called for the federalization of Ukraine, which is also in Russia's interest. Russia will promote a variant of ethno-cultural and economic autonomy for the Russian-speaking regions of the south-east of Ukraine. Until the start of Russian aggression in Ukraine, some industrial enterprises in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhya, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa region carried out orders for Russian clients. Russia will be able to return to its orbit of influence a significant part of the territory of Ukraine. The question of the return of Crimea after this will not be considered by Russia and the West.

Ukraine should resist such changes of approaches to resolving the conflict in Donbas. Ukraine must  carry out a balanced international information campaign about the threat to its sovereignty in case of a partial cancellation of anti-Russian sanctions at least by the one of EU countries. If the economic lever of pressure on Russia disappears, the conflict in Donbas won’t be resolved and will be exacerbated by Russia to blackmail Ukraine. For the return of Russia's foreign policy in a predictable direction it is necessary to tighten anti-Russian sanctions, rather than mitigate them.

Related: Germany invited Ukraine to hold meeting of Foreign Ministers in Normandy format

Related: German MFA called Ukrainian deputy’s actions inappropriate

Related: Russian troops had no influence in Germany in 1990 unlike in Donbas, - former GDR foreign minister


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