Merkel in the Middle

The German chancellor is caught between her country’s Amerika-Freunde and Putin-Versteher.

BERLIN — In Germany these days, there are two camps when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin's Russia. They're referred to here as Amerika-Freunde (America-friends) and Putin-Versteher (Putin-sympathizers) and can apply to foreign-policy circles as well as the person on the street. In navigating the Ukraine crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is leading the international community's negotiations with Putin, is currently caught between them. In fact, the fault lines run right through her own cabinet of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

Merkel's task is to chart a middle ground -- or formulate a new vision, if she's up to it -- that will ultimately define not only German foreign policy but the country's function in 21st-century Europe. Is this Germany a steadfast member of the Western alliance, essentially the linchpin in a new, long-term standoff with Russia? Or is it a bridge between East and West, a more neutral negotiator in search of acceptable compromises with the Kremlin? Or is there another way for Germany to navigate between these poles?

Indeed, with the situation on the ground deteriorating from day to day, pressure is building on Merkel to act with resolution and impact. In desperation, she has yanked her country's top diplomat out of retirement to broker enough stability on the ground for Ukraine to hold nationwide elections on May 25. So far, however, she shows no signs of extricating Germany from anachronistic Cold War categories and, at long last, defining a post-reunification German foreign policy for the future.

Let's start with the America-friends, even though they're rapidly dwindling. In the Cold War decades, they were as plentiful as weisswürste at Oktoberfest, usually but not exclusively found in the conservative parties, like the Christian Democrats, and personified by chancellors such as Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. Merkel and her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, are America-friends, even if the NSA spy scandal, the unceasing drone war, and Guantánamo, to name just a few Obama disappointments, have made this alliance considerably less attractive and its ranks thinner than ever before. (Indeed, impressive statesmen of any sort in Merkel's party are hard to find, at least compared with the better-stocked Social Democrats.)

The reflex of dyed-in-the-wool transatlanticists is to believe that, in terms of foreign policy, the United States is almost always right, whatever the issue, be it West Germany joining NATO in the 1950s, deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Northern Europe in the 1980s, or invading Iraq in 2003. America-friends in Germany aren't going to harbor Edward Snowden or even allow him to testify at Bundestag committee hearings as long as Washington objects. This much Merkel will do for her buddy Barack Obama.

The America-friends in Berlin insist that never again will Germany plot a Sonderweg, namely a separate path between East and West. Germany is in the Western camp to stay: a loyal member of NATO, the indispensable military alliance of choice, and of a European Union firmly anchored in the West -- and exclusively so.

In the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the remaining America-friends, like the Christian Democrats' Ruprecht Polenz and Friedrich Merz, more or less echo Washington, demanding tougher sanctions against Russia and sharper rhetoric against Kremlin policies, and gladly see a new raison d'être for NATO. The America-friends are viscerally distrustful of Putin's Kremlin and believe that force is the language it understands best. Putin should be dealt with the same way the West knocked out the Soviet Union: with tough talk, punishment when necessary, and overwhelming arsenals.

Although by nature an America-friend and deeply wary of ex-KGB officer Putin from the beginning, Merkel is understandably hesitant to throw caution to the wind and declare Russia the enemy. Rigorous sanctions would hurt German industry and imperil its shaky economic recovery; the United States, on the other hand, has little to lose. Moreover, it wasn't so long ago that Germany was the front line in the East-West conflict -- and Merkel was on the eastern side of the wall, living under a dictatorship. As someone who profited so immensely from the close of the East-West conflict, she is hard-pressed to redraw the lines of confrontation in a newly divided Europe.

On the other side are the so-called "Putin-sympathizers." Cooperation, not confrontation, with Russia is their mantra, incidentally the same one Obama adopted when he took office in 2009. It's important to note that the members of this camp (with some exceptions) aren't enamored with Putin himself, but rather underscore the necessity of reaching out to Russia and including it in Europe -- but not in the EU itself. Even though there are Putin-sympathizers across the party spectrum in Germany -- from the far left to the far right -- the most important are the Social Democrats, including former statesmen with considerable gravitas such as former chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, as well as the late Willy Brandt's confidant, Egon Bahr.

Indeed, the heirs of Brandt call their approach to Eastern Europe and Russia the New Ostpolitik, after Brandt's visionary Cold War-era policies. The original Ostpolitik of Germany's Social Democrats broke the ice in the emotional, nuclear-charged East-West conflict, reaching out over the Iron Curtain to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and offering rewards -- foremost trade and diplomatic status -- in return for humanitarian concessions, more open borders, and arms control. The idea at its core was Wandel durch Annäherung ("change through rapprochement"), inducing change gradually through diplomacy and dialogue.

If you ask Social Democrats today, they'll tell you that it was the Cold War-era Ostpolitik that paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent and set the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. (If you ask former Central European dissidents, however, they'll say that Ostpolitik caused the German Social Democrats to ignore them, opting instead to be chummy with the communist leadership.)

Germany's Social Democratic foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is the man in Brandt's shoes today. By far the most influential Putin-sympathizer, though a comparatively moderate one compared with the likes of Schmidt and Schröder, he is Merkel's partner in Ukraine crisis management. Steinmeier began plotting a New Ostpolitik for Germany during the 1998-2005 Social Democrat-Green government, when he served as Schröder's chief of staff, by putting Germany-Russia relations on a new footing. These ties deepened from 2005 to 2009 when Steinmeier was foreign minister in the first grand coalition under Merkel and persisted behind the scenes even when the Social Democrats left office for a term. Although he's considerably more Putin-friendly than Merkel, she obviously trusts and relies heavily on Steinmeier, who has been racing around Europe without pause to halt Ukraine from falling apart.

The Putin-sympathizers insist that Germany has to understand where Russia is coming from and judge it by relative criteria, not those, say, of European Union members or presumptive candidates. In the spirit of Brandt's Ostpolitik, they argue that through intensive trade and diplomacy, Germany and its EU peers can turn Russia into an indispensable partner, which implicitly lends Europe leverage to sway Moscow. The more closely linked, the more clout Germany has. Sanctions and isolation are thus exactly the wrong way to deal with a contrary Kremlin. Even when Russia goes astray, such as by jailing gays, punk rockers, and opposition business tycoons, or by violating international borders, the Putin-sympathizers call for patience, condemning Moscow in soft tones, if at all. The priority is to keep Moscow in the game at all costs.

In relations with Russia, Germany has a special role. Through a 21st-century Ostpolitik, Germany can craft a new identity: Instead of the belligerent Deutschland of the past or the Western foot soldier of the Cold War era, a new, peaceful, conciliatory Berlin will broker peace on the continent. In contrast to the America-friends, the Putin-sympathizers don't see "Europe" as exclusively a club of liberal democracies rooted in the West. Like it or not, they reason, there are also authoritarian democracies like Russia in play. Germany simply has to deal with it. This is the essence of realpolitik, another term handed down from the postwar years.

In the German media as well as on the floor of the Bundestag, the Putin-sympathizers are quick to "explain" Putin, even if it can sound more like an apology. They point out again and again that Russia objected to the eastward encroachment of NATO and the EU every step of the way -- and was willfully ignored. The same goes for the missile systems deployed in Central Europe. They also concede that Moscow has legitimate special interests in Eastern Europe -- even a "sphere of influence." They condemn Russia's annexation of Crimea -- but are quite understanding about why Putin did it.

Since the New Ostpolitik began in the late 1990s, the Social Democrats have bent over backward to accommodate Putin. Although no longer an active politician, Schröder personifies this course, having struck up a friendship with Putin and serving as a paid lobbyist for Russian gas giant Gazprom since leaving office. Even many of his fellow Social Democrats cringed when in April he gave Putin a warm hug at the Russian president's birthday party in St. Petersburg, an image that made it into every newspaper in Germany. But many also confessed that Schröder's visit could be a legitimate means to get Putin to bend on Ukraine -- not pretty, but effective. Again, realpolitik. (Schröder did speak to Putin about the OSCE hostages, who were released shortly thereafter.)

The Schröder-Putin embrace, and Russia sympathy in general, galls no one more than the Central Europeans, who are among the staunchest critics of a new German Ostpolitik. (Indeed, they're first-row America-friends.) The Visegrad states and the Baltics are invested heavily in this debate, knowing full well that their interests will be sacrificed if Berlin and Moscow negotiate over their heads. This is exactly what happened in 2005, when Schröder, as chancellor, and Putin signed off on a new natural gas pipeline (Nord Stream) that directly linked Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea, skirting Poland and all of Central Europe. The message was clear: Regardless of what happens in Central Europe, Germany will get its gas. The Poles screamed foul at the top of their lungs, but to no avail. (When he left office, Schröder became the chairman of Nord Stream, a joint venture between Russia's Gazprom and two German companies.)

So, if the proof is in the pudding, then what has all this painstaking diplomacy (and groveling) brought Germany? It seems next to nothing. Putin looks intent on upending the European order and refuses to budge on even the smallest German requests from Merkel, like allowing observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) into Crimea or getting the eastern Ukrainians to call off their phony referendums. He lies to Merkel and Steinmeier over the phone in one conversation after another: about joining a contact group, about Russian special forces in Crimea, about stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine. The list is long. Indeed, these days Germany doesn't appear to have any more clout in Moscow than France or Britain.

The Social Democrats are obviously crestfallen, but they intend to keep their course, arguing that there is no other way forward. In a recent interview, Brandt's former aide, Bahr, a top Social Democratic strategist, told a German daily: "I think Putin is a rational person. Chaos in Ukraine is not in his interests." Bahr's recommendation, just when everybody else is trying to lessen dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, is to build yet another gas pipeline from Russia to Germany in order to intensify ties further.

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Merkel is hamstrung between two ostensibly irreconcilable paths that divide her own government: the Amerika-Freunde on the one side and the Putin-Versteher on the other. But neither track has born results. The sanctions already imposed and the threat of more to come, NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics, booting Russia out of the G-8 -- none of this seems to faze Putin in the least. Nor have the carrots -- Germany's close relations with Putin and immense trade and energy linkages -- moved him either. The pillar of the Social Democrats' foreign-policy vision, namely making Russia a "strategic partner," has obviously failed. Indeed, it didn't slow the radicalization of Putinism over the last decade one bit.

The impasse has prompted Merkel and Steinmeier to reach out to one of Germany's most respected and able statesmen, Wolfgang Ischinger, to head up a round table that will bring together Ukraine's government, the opposition, and Russian-speaking regional representatives. The round table is part of an OSCE mission to Ukraine that is ramping up and will try to smooth the way to free elections on May 25. Coming out of retirement for the posting, the 68-year-old Ischinger is a career diplomat widely respected in both Moscow and Washington. Ischinger played a key role in negotiating reunification, which is how the Russians know him. And he helped U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke end the Balkan wars, as well as served as German ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2006.

Ischinger might be just the person to aid Merkel and Steinmeier in the ongoing crisis management. In the short term, the Germans need to help Kiev hold legitimate, nationwide elections on May 25. Once elected representatives are in place, then hopefully Russia will join in talks.

But even if this eleventh-hour crisis management bears fruit, which seems increasingly unlikely, it doesn't answer the big questions about the nature of Berlin's relationship with Moscow or of Germany's role in Europe, issues that loom over Merkel and her coalition government. The current fiasco is, in part, a consequence of Berlin's not having a foreign policy in place. Merkel isn't one for sweeping, big-picture decisions. But these are the old German Questions, which no German leader can escape. As the Ukraine crisis shows, they can't be put off any longer.

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'The Regime Could Collapse Quickly'

As anti-Chinese protests roil Vietnam, a domestic pro-democratic opposition is quietly gathering steam.

HANOI, Vietnam — When journalist Pham Chi Dung quit Vietnam's Communist Party in December, he was so angry he published his letter of resignation on the Internet. One of the country's leading dissidents, Pham accused the party of rampant corruption and monopolizing power against the wishes of a growing number of Vietnamese. "Never before have specific groups and political cronies benefitted so profoundly from their cooperation [with the party]," he wrote. Plainclothes agents, he claims, have watched him ever since. "If I go anywhere, two of them follow me," he said in a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's economic hub in the humid south of the country. It was too dangerous to meet at his office or home, Pham explained.

For 16 years, Pham worked as a member of the Ho Chi Minh City security bureau, the local party-affiliated police force, collecting information on activists, writers, and dissidents perceived to be regime opponents. But when the authorities found he had for years been secretly writing articles critical of the party for overseas Vietnamese-language news sites, they imprisoned him without formal charge in July 2012. Since his release seven months later, and subsequent sacking from the security bureau, Pham has emerged as one of Vietnam's leading regime critics. He wrote anonymously before his arrest; now he writes under his own name for outlets like the BBC's Vietnam service, and more prolifically than ever. "Before I believed in the party," he said. "But after what happened, I felt that the Communist Party is not faithful to the people."

If views on the street and online are anything to go by, Pham's change of heart is reflective of mounting public frustration with the Vietnamese government. Economic stagnation and failure to introduce greater political freedoms have prompted growing dissent -- particularly online -- threatening the party's legitimacy. Anti-China protests in mid-May injured at least 129 people, and captured international headlines. But for many Vietnamese, it is exploitation by their own government -- not their northern neighbor -- that is at the heart of internal unrest.

The country's poor economic performance is one of the driving forces of discord. From one of the world's poorest countries after the Vietnam War, the party introduced economic reforms in 1986 known as Doi Moi -- "renovation" -- and by the 1990s, Vietnam's economy was one of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia. Between 2006 and 2009, the country's annual GDP doubled to more than $90 billion.

Yet since then, the economic outlook has been gloomy. This is partly due to the global financial crisis, but mostly arising from structural problems originating from the hybrid capitalist-communist system. Growth driven by easily available credit and top-down, inefficient state-owned companies led to rising inflation -- reaching 18.7 percent in 2011, the highest in Southeast Asia. As a result, Vietnamese have seen their spending power reduced in recent years as banks have tried to clear bad debts, said Eugenia Victorino, a Vietnam economic analyst at ANZ Bank.

Limited reform efforts have failed to jumpstart Vietnam's stunted economy. The country's GDP rose just 5.4 percent in 2013, a rate economists say remains too weak to prompt a full recovery. All of Vietnam's developing neighbors reported higher GDP growth in 2013: Laos hit 8 percent; China 7.7 percent, and Cambodia 7 percent.

In October 2012, under pressure to account for the country's stagnant growth, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a rare admission of "faults" over the struggling economy. His mea culpa was also, in part, a response to a spat of graft scandals that have emerged under his watch.

Since then, the party has been increasingly public about their efforts to suppress what continues to be widespread corruption. As of November, Vietnamese courts had held 278 corruption trials in 2013, according to a government report. In the past six months alone, Vietnam has sentenced at least three bankers to death on graft charges after they were found to have collectively stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from state-owned companies, including Vietnam Agribank, the country's largest commercial lender. But corruption crackdowns are a mixed blessing for the Communist Party: announcing ever-wider probes of corruption has drawn greater attention to graft in Vietnam's state-owned companies.

These injustices are increasingly disillusioning many of the one-party state's 90 million people, says Chu Hao, a retired deputy minister of science and technology and among the most outspoken of Vietnam's former senior officials. "Despite government attempts to reinforce its authority and foster [faith in the government], its numerous limitations and shortcomings remain, prompting people to believe less and react more," he said.  

In January 2013, Hanoi invited the public to give feedback on proposed amendments to Vietnam's constitution -- the first time, according to a number of dissidents and former party officials, it has consulted its citizens on proposed political changes. In response, tens of thousands of high-ranking party members, army officials, intellectuals, priests, students, teachers, and lawyers signed online petitions calling for a multi-party system -- a proposal quietly ignored when Vietnam's parliament passed only minor constitutional changes in November. 

During this period, the government also ramped up efforts to silence its critics: The number of dissidents convicted of subversion and other politically-motivated charges increased from around 40 in 2012 to at least 63 in 2013 according to Human Rights Watch. Although the pace of arrests has slowed in recent months, according to a Western diplomat based in Vietnam who asked to speak anonymously, the government's detractors remain at risk.

Two bloggers were sentenced to prison in March for criticizing the government under Article 258, one of a number of new directives passed over the past two years designed to curtail criticism on the web. The media remains largely controlled by the state, yet without an effective firewall like neighboring China, the party has struggled to put a lid on online dissent. The number of Facebook users in Vietnam climbed from about 10 million in Dec. 2012 to 24 million in April 2014, as citizens easily circumvented lackluster state filtering.

Meanwhile, a haphazard effort by the state to crackdown on online dissent has left many Vietnamese increasingly emboldened and angry. Nguyen Thu Trang, a 20-year-old Hanoi barista said she has been questioned and harassed by state agents over her critical posts on politics and Vietnamese society. But despite warnings from her parents that she could end up in jail, Nguyen said she would not keep quiet. "Democracy cannot be established immediately," she said during a break from working at an upscale Hanoi café. "It requires a long-term process and people are the key factor." 

Nguyen says she has friends even younger than her that are airing their critiques online -- a new generation of dissenting voices that have emerged with the popularity of social networking platforms like Facebook. Although these younger web-based activists and more high-profile regime opponents like Pham say they plan to coordinate what appears to be a growing movement, the state still faces little in the way of organized opposition.

Direct political action challenging the one-party status quo remains all but impossible. Only 8.4 percent of representatives in Vietnam's unicameral parliament are independent of the party. And while their presence has allowed greater debate in how the country is run in recent years, ultimate decision-making remains an opaque process at the highest echelons of the party. The vetting process to even get on the ballot remains strictly controlled by the central government. Nguyen Canh Binh, CEO of private Hanoi-based publishing house Alpha Books, was among a handful of Vietnamese who tried to run as independents in the last parliamentary elections, in 2011. A pragmatic and outspoken reformer, Nguyen Canh Binh is hardly one of the regime's most aggressive critics. Yet still, he says, the party rejected his candidacy, refusing to approve his application to run on the ballot, without giving a reason.  

Nguyen Canh Binh favors what he calls a "middle way" for Vietnam -- a non-confrontational approach. He is starting a new educational program outside the state system to teach the country's future elites how to lead, and has so far printed hundreds of Vietnamese translations of books on Western politics, philosophy and culture. He wants slow, steady change -- not a Vietnamese Spring. "We don't have good knowledge or understand fully the other side of democracy," he said. "We see what's happening with crises in Thailand and the Ukraine."

Retired deputy minister Chu, however, is pessimistic. Although the government is hearing more about how ordinary Vietnamese feel, it's not really listening, he says, and that could be the party's undoing. "They have two choices: get closer to people's lives and be more democratic. Or, to continue the crackdown and lack democracy," he said. "If the latter is chosen, the regime could collapse quickly."

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