Sunday, February 25

‘Almost invisible’: Germans lose patience with Olaf Scholz as he hesitates over Ukraine | Olaf Scholz

GRAMGermany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz bids farewell to the honeymoon period of his term as his “inaudible” stance on the looming crisis on the Ukraine border fails to impress not only Russia’s hawks in abroad, but also to the most ambivalent voters at home.

Scholz, whose left-liberal “traffic light” coalition was sworn in less than two months ago, has been criticized by Kiev and other central and eastern European capitals for sticking to his country’s restrictive stance on arms exports to crisis regions. and seem slow to spell out the possible sanctions that could be triggered by a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This week, however, Scholz has also had to face similar criticism in Berlin. “What does it feel like when allies classify Germany’s attitude as unreliable?” the Social Democratic politician was asked in an interview on German television on Wednesday night.

When Scholz denied that was the case, the host interrupted him, pointing out that even his ambassador to Washington had warned in a leaked memo that “Germany, we have a problem.”

While Angela Merkel rarely stood out as a speaker or rhetoric, Scholz “seems to want to surpass her in the art of disappearance”, the weekly Der Spiegel wrote, describing her successor’s performance in recent weeks as “almost invisible, inaudible”.

A poll by polling firm Infratest Dimap published on Thursday showed support for Scholz’s SPD falling to 22%, surpassed by the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at 27%. His personal approval rating fell 17 percentage points in the same poll.

One factor that has undermined the chancellor’s authority in particular is the behavior of his last centre-left predecessor in the chancellorship, and former boss, Gerhard Schröder, who continues to comment on global affairs in his role as chairman of Russian energy companies Nord Stream and Rosneft.

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In his television interview, Scholz was urged to clarify that he was not following the advice of the former chancellor-turned-lobbyist. “If I understand the constitution of the German federal republic correctly, there is only one chancellor and that is me,” Scholz said with characteristic understatement.

Yet another factor that may explain the German leader’s paralysis is that he is adjusting to the often contradictory views the German public has on Russia.

Germans traditionally identify the United States as their most important partner. a November 2021 survey by the Körber Foundation found a resurgence of faith in transatlantic relations after the election of US President Joe Biden. Less than 5% of those surveyed believe that Russia is an important partner.

But as a whole, the German public does not perceive Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a direct threat either. The same poll, conducted before the Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border last December, shows that only 16% of Germans surveyed identify Russia as a threat to German values. More than 80% said the country was a minor threat or no threat at all.

In the conflict on the border with Ukraine, German pacifism is not simply a partisan-political compromise: the Infratest Dimap public poll showed a clear majority in favor of granting security guarantees to Russia by NATO and even a small majority against economic sanctions.

Restricting arms exports to crisis regions in principle is not only supported by all parties in the Bundestag, from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland to the leftist Die Linke, but also by a 71% majority of the electorate.

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These trends are even more pronounced among older generations and those living in the eastern regions of the country. A survey by pollster Forsa published this week found that 43% of those living in former socialist East German states blame the United States for the escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, while only 32% blame Russia. . In western Germany, 52% blamed Russia, and only 17% said the problem was in the US.

Holding such differing viewpoints in balance is a particular problem for Scholz and his party: The SPD currently rules in all five states of the former east, whose prime ministers wield influence through the Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany’s parliament.

One of these states, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the SPD won an outright victory in direct mandates in last year’s elections, is also where the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline arrives from Russia. The completed but unapproved infrastructure project, criticized by most of Europe for making Germany dependent on Russian gas, is hugely popular with locals and has the support of social democratic politicians in the region.

However, Scholz’s disappearing act is not going to satisfy these voters, said Liana Fix, a Russia expert at the Körber Foundation and a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“Time and again, what we find when we survey the German public on attitudes towards Russia is that independence matters: people don’t like the feeling that they’re being talked into something,” Fix told The Guardian.

“German voters may not want their country to supply weapons, but they want their leader to be visible in the diplomatic effort. And that is something that should be within Scholz’s reach.”

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