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Eastern Promises

Are Germany and Russia in a relationship? It's complicated.

3:45 PM, Jan 22, 2014 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Now that the Grand Coalition has returned to power, will there be a thaw in German-Russian relations? The Social Democrats (SPD) have retaken the foreign ministry. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, gets along well with the Russians—he was once chief of staff to Gerhard Schröder, a friend of Vladimir Putin's and a pro-Russia natural gas lobbyist. But more interesting is the new German-Russian coordinator, Gernot Erler, whose views on Russia will be considerably softer than his predecessor.

Eastern Promises

"Germany's new Russian affairs coordinator, experts say, will likely tone down criticism of Moscow in the future—at least in public," reports Deutsche Welle. "The Social Democratic Party member of parliament Gernot Erler speaks Russian and is regarded as an expert on Eastern Europe." This is in contrast to Andreas Schockenhoff, the former coordinator and CDU politician, who took a hard stance toward the Russians, particularly when it came to Putin's positions on gays and human rights. (That the previous foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, is gay didn't exactly bring the two sides any closer.)

Then again, Steinemeier has also been critical of Russia's behavior toward Ukraine. And no one seems to be going to Sochi for the Winter Olympics—neither Merkel nor German president Joachim Gauck will be attending, though one suspects the foreign ministry would still like to send someone over.

The installation of Gernot Erler may be a sign that relations between the two nations will get cozy, but as others point out, at the end of the day, Angela Merkel is still the chancellor—and she doesn't quite like Putin. She might even dislike him as much as she dislikes dogs: When Merkel was a child, she was bitten by a dog and has since been wary of them. The Russian president is fully aware of this and yet in meetings in Moscow, Koni, his lumbering black lab, has made appearances by Merkel's side. The chancellor is smiling but there's terror in her eyes. "President Putin loves his dogs, and he appears to use them to intimidate Chancellor Merkel during tough negotiations," Foreign Policy speculates.

In one meeting in particular, Putin gave Merkel a plush toy—a stuffed black-and-white dog.

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