In Germany, a political crisis erupted against the backdrop of a scandal over the election results in the East German state of Thuringia, inflated by the top of the ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had a reputation as Chancellor Angela Merkel's successor, announced she was about to resign as party leader. She abandoned her ambitions to lead the German government in the future. The election of the new CDU leader will be held in April.
Germany is entering a period of political turbulence, and it is an intrigue who would replace Kramp-Karrenbauer as the leader of the CDU and compete for the post of chancellor in the parliamentary elections in 2021. Ukraine is closely following the political crisis in Germany, a participant in the Normandy Format of negotiations to resolve the armed conflict in Donbas. In two months it will become clear what changes might occur in German foreign policy, including on the Ukrainian issue. Preliminary conclusions could be drawn right now, starting from the views of the main applicants for the post of head of the CDU.
Brawl in Thuringia
The fuss in the CDU arose as a result of the cold calculation of the separation of this party in Thuringia - in one of the least developed socio-economic lands of the former GDR. None of the parties won enough votes to form a government in the elections to the local parliament in October 2019. The most votes went to Die Linke party (31%), whose representative Bodo Ramelow has served as head of the regional government since 2014. For the CDU, the election ended in failure - the third place with a result of 21.8% of the vote. This is less than the result of the far-right anti-migrant party Alternative for Germany (23.4% of the vote), which advocates the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions and the rapprochement of Germany and the EU with Russia.
Christian Democrats decided to act on the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" and entered into an alliance with members of the faction Alternative for Germany" the liberal Free Democratic Party (gained only 5% of the vote). They elected to the post of head of the government of Thuringia a compromise figure - a member of the Free Democratic Party Thomas Kemmerich. For the first time, the irreconcilable antagonists in the CDU Bundestag and Alternative for Germany successfully joined forces in the struggle against a common political rival in Thuringia, where there is a problem of unemployment, where young people are trying to leave for other regions of Germany, and the gross product per capita was $ 35,000 in 2018 (in Kyiv it amounts to $ 9 thousand). However, this combination caused shock in German society. Protests rallied in 50 cities, including Berlin and Erfurt (the administrative center in Thuringia). Christian Hirte, the German Government Commissioner for Eastern Affairs, resigned. CDU Secretary-General Paul Ziemiak condemned his party members from Thuringia for a deal with Alternative for Germany.
It may seem that the Germans set off alarm bells. However, a feature of the vast majority of German society is a complex of guilt feelings for the crimes of the Second World War, passed down from generation to generation. Most Germans are extremely negative about the manifestations of racism, xenophobia, radical nationalism. The Alternative for Germany, which calls for restricting, tightening the migration regime, closing the borders for refugees and reducing the influence of Islam in German society, evokes in the CDU associations with Nazism, Hitler and the crimes of World War II. Kramp-Karrenbauer sacrificed herself to remove from the agenda the issue of early parliamentary elections in the wake of the scandal. In the understanding of the CDU electorate, the party has discredited itself as a political force professing tolerance, multiculturalism, and advocating a liberal migration policy.
In the current conditions, a change in party leadership is a less painful test for the CDU than early parliamentary elections. Party popularity is falling. Despite the fact that most Germans want to see Merkel as chancellor. Christian democrats lost the last local and regional elections in Hamburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony. There is confusion in the party itself. Some members are inclined to roll to the right, tighten their migration policies and take part in the electorate from the Alternative for Germany.
Other Christian Democrats are centrists and want to continue Merkel’s policies. In any case, the Merkel party is competing with the Free Democratic Party, Alternative for Germany, and may show worse results than in the previous parliamentary elections in 2017.
Events in Thuringia are a conflict of the center and the periphery, disagreements of like-minded people. Leader of the Christian Democrats in Thuringia Mike Mohring was appointed at the discretion of Merkel. He was born and raised in the GDR, where Merkel was established. In addition, Moring is opposed to the election of the leader of the CDU, Friedrich Merz, Merkel's long-standing opponent. He put at stake the party’s reputation for personal ambitions in the struggle for power in his homeland. At the end of 2019, he urged Berlin not to poke its nose into the affairs of Thuringia. In any case, the obvious advantages of the current situation are drawn by representatives of the CDU right-wing, who have a chance to compete again for leadership in the party.
The heirs of Merkel and Ukraine
The most likely candidates for the post of the CDU are a lawyer, businessman and former leader of the Christian Democrats faction in the Bundestag, Friedrich Merz, chairman of the Bundestag Foreign Relations Committee, Norbert Röttgen, and the head of the North Rhine government, Westphalia Armin Laschet.
Friedrich Merz represents the right-wing of the CDU, advocating the revision of Merkel’s policies. At the beginning of the 2000s, he lost to her in the struggle for influence in the CDU, after which he left politics, was engaged in business, headed the German-American organization Atlantic Bridge, whose goal is to improve Germany’s image in America. In 2018, Merz fought with Kramp-Karrenbauer for leadership in the CDU but lost. The politician decided to try his luck for the third time. He earned the image of German Donald Trump because he advocated the revision of the provision in the German constitution for political asylum, positioned as a candidate suitable for business, especially for the financial sector. As a Catholic, Merz supports the idea of protecting Christian values in Germany, strengthening the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism. The Alternative for Germany even accuses him of plagiarism.
Merz takes an ambiguous position on foreign policy issues. He advocates strengthening transatlantic relations with the United States. He endorsed the idea of signing an agreement on the Transatlantic free trade zone between America and Europe, which was proposed by the team of Barack Obama. However, Merz is critical of the protectionist policies of US President Donald Trump, who did not sign this agreement and increased duties on European steel and aluminum. The German politician approved a reciprocal increase in duties on American jeans and motorcycles. Merz shares the views of French President Emanuel Macron regarding the construction of a strong integrated European army.
Merz has a double attitude towards Russia. He criticized Russia for the aggression in Ukraine, questioned the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline after the crisis in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in 2018 when Russia captured Ukrainian boats. However, during a visit to Apolda in Thuringia in February 2020, Merz said that in the 21st century the EU should go closer to Russia and strengthen cooperation. Merz believes that Russia complicates the life of Germany, but without this cooperation, it would not be possible to achieve long-term stability in Europe. In his opinion, the policy of rapprochement with Russia will be successful after the end of the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Thus, the candidate for the post of head of the CDU wants to enlist the support of residents of East German lands who have a warm attitude towards Russians and to take part in the electorate from the Alternative for Germany. Merz defends the interests of German business, which has experienced the negative effects of anti-Russian sanctions and is interested in trade with Russia. The politician sends a signal to the United States, making it clear that if they continue to put pressure on his country and the EU on trade and economic issues, on the issue of defense spending, he will follow Macron’s example, building a situational alliance with the Russian Federation.
However, Merz is mistaken. The regime of the United Russia party, which is based on the symbiosis of natural monopolies and the power bloc, will exist even after Putin leaves politics. The Russian leader has already refreshed the Russian government: at the beginning of the year, personnel shifts took place in a number of ministries, and party bureaucrat Dmitry Medvedev was replaced by technocrat Mikhail Mishustin as prime minister. Even if Putin is not the president, the entire power will remain with the United Russia party. Foreign policy will not change.
Merz is trying to fit into the mainstream mood that prevails in some political circles of the European Union. Similar rhetoric about Russia comes from Macron, with the difference that the French leader wants to establish relations right now, despite continued aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Merz’s rhetoric once again confirms the drift of a number of European countries towards Russia amid a crisis of Atlantic unity and differences between the EU and the USA. In this regard, Ukraine faces unfavorable prospects.
Another challenger, Norbert Röttgen, is a typical centrist and has a reputation as an ally to Merkel. He advocates strengthening European integration, increasing the role of the EU as a center of power in the modern world, but at the same time emphasizes the importance of strengthening transatlantic relations with the United States and overcoming disagreements with the Trump administration. Röttgen condemns the annexation of Crimea and sees Russia as a threat to European security. According to Röttgen, anti-Russian sanctions are a manifestation of Atlantic unity. Röttgen is cautious about the initiatives of French President Emmanuel Macron and does not agree with his opinion about the inefficiency of NATO.
At the same time, he supports the strengthening of the Franco-German alliance within the EU, and also advocates the rapprochement of Germany and Britain in the field of security after Brexit. However, Röttgen is not inclined to tighten the pressure on Moscow. In 2019, he did not support the US proposal to impose sanctions against companies that are building Nord Stream 2, since it is supposedly too late to stop the project.
As for Armin Laschet, he has a reputation as a moderate politician, a supporter of Merkel, but he is excessively provincial and not involved in global political processes. He earned the nickname "ace evasion" due to his flexibility and ability to evade unnecessary obligations. Laschet advocates strengthening integration processes within the EU. The candidate avoids criticizing Russia. In 2018, he said that anti-Russian sanctions should remain in effect until progress was made in implementing the Minsk agreements.
Laschet previously took part in the Petersburg Dialogue forum of civic communities of Russia and Germany. In 2015, he emphasized that North Rhine-Westphalia was interested in dialogue with the Russian Federation. He managed to achieve this. The agency NRW.Invest, which provides advisory support to foreign investors in North Rhine-Westphalia on tax and legal issues, has opened its offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg. North Rhine-Westphalia is considered one of the most densely populated, technologically developed German lands, and 400 Russian firms work there.
Among the candidates for the post of head of the CDU, there are no obvious favorites of the United States, Russia or Ukraine. Rather, there are opponents of Merkel in the person of Merz, and her supporters in the person of Röttgen and Laschet. They have one thing in common with the current chancellor - they are not ready to take the path of toughening anti-Russian sanctions and will take into account the interests of German business, which is interested in working with the Russian Federation.