Merkel Must Keep Eastern Europeans Out of Putin’s Clutches

 In World
This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Now that the German elections are over and the victorious Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing for coalition talks with potential partners, two important questions arise: how will the political changes in Germany affect German-Russian relations, which have become embittered in the last few years?

And what impact could the election have on Germany’s influence in Central Eastern Europe, its traditional stronghold within the EU, when plans of a more integrated core-Europe are formulating?

While the picture is far from clear, one can make some cautious predictions.

The tradition of Ostpolitik—Germany’s political and economic partnership with Russia—is still strong within the German political and economic mainstream ; even the annexation of Crimea and some aggressive efforts by Russia to interfere in the German political landscape could not overwrite this.

The most likely scenario at this point is that the Jamaica coalition—including the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, the Free Democratic Party, and the Greens—will govern Germany.

The Social Democratic Party, which has pressed for revising sanctions and returning to business as usual with Russia, is out of the coalition; this could mean that Russia will lose an important ally in the executive branch.

And while the business-oriented Free Democratic Party has supported a revision of the sanctions policy, the issue does not seem to be of central importance for the party.

GettyImages-166033416 Valdimir Putin and Angela Merkel arrive to pay tribute to 526 prisoners of war, including 154 Soviet soldiers, murdered by the Gestapo in the final weeks of World War II at a cemetery on April 8, 2013 in Hanover, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty

For the Greens, it is just the opposite: they want even stricter sanctions ; they are strongly critical of Russia’s human rights violations, territorial aggression, and energy policy, and will likely be able to strongly articulate these positions during the coalition talks.

While German security services warned that Russia can try to influence the coalition talks, it is unlikely after Russian attempts to interfere in the election process have been rather unsuccessful. In sum, it is highly unlikely that Germany’s relations with Russia will be substantially changed for good—rather the opposite.

But Germany’s relationship with Russia will strongly influence its position with the Visegrad countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Czech Republic), a region that belongs to Germany’s sphere of influence and is more important than France in terms of trade relations.

And there are definite challenges for Germany in this region. A study by Globsec Institute this year (with the participation of Political Capital Institute among others) showed that in three out of four of the Visegrad countries, the public is more sympathetic to Vladimir Putin than to Merkel.

In Slovakia, the results are particularly shocking, with 41 percent of the population finding Putin sympathetic; only 21 percent said the same for Merkel. In Hungary and Slovakia, sympathies toward Putin also exceed the popularity of Donald Trump. Furthermore, a considerable size of the population thinks that the country should belong to the East or should be somewhere in between the east and the West.

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