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Germany’s ruling Social Democrats are facing fresh pressure over their links to Moscow after accusations that a regional leader worked with Kremlin-backed energy giant Gazprom to undermine U.S. sanctions and spread Russian propaganda.
The allegations center on Manuela Schwesig, a senior member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD party and the premier of the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The state was the end point of the Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, long championed by Berlin but canceled before it came into service as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine.
The political heat on Schwesig has been growing since documents obtained by Welt newspaper showed her government cooperated closely with the company Nord Stream 2 AG, a subsidiary of Gazprom, as it tried to complete the project in the face of American sanctions. The documents showed that a foundation backed by the company and the regional government, supposedly meant to champion environmental causes, was a vehicle to circumvent the U.S. measures.
The revelations are the latest blow to the reputation of the center-left governing party, which has already come under heavy fire for sticking with close ties to Russian energy interests in recent years, even after President Vladimir Putin’s government fomented a war in eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014.
The policy of banking on cheap gas from Russia was also promoted by longtime conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nord Stream 2 got the green light in 2015 from a “grand coalition” government composed of her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the SPD.
But the policy has been strongly associated with the SPD — not least because former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder became a leading lobbyist for Russian energy companies and took senior positions in their ranks, including as chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream 2. The Ukrainian government has also singled out German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an SPD stalwart and former foreign minister, for criticism over his role in pushing close energy ties with Moscow.
Schwesig, long considered a rising star in her party, was another high-profile proponent of Nord Stream 2. She apologized earlier this month for that stance, saying “holding on to Nord Stream was a mistake”— but that has not satisfied critics, particularly as new details about the extent of her government’s cooperation with the company have emerged.
Opposition lawmakers in the state capital, Schwerin, have called for an investigative committee to examine the matter and national politicians have joined in the chorus of criticism in recent days.
“The entanglement between the Schwerin state government and the Russian state-owned Gazprom corporation has always been disastrous and must now finally be cleared up,” Omid Nouripour, co-leader of the Greens, who are part of Scholz’s national governing coalition, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
“An ‘Oops, this must have been a mistake’ won’t be enough,” he said, referring to Schwesig’s apology.
Tips for tricks
The documents obtained by Welt apparently showed senior officials in Schwesig’s government taking instructions from Nord Stream 2 AG on changes to draft texts and on media talking points. They also reportedly show the company suggested “tricks” to get around U.S. sanctions, such as using the environmental foundation to hire people who would in fact work on finishing the pipeline.
Earlier this year, German media outlet T-Online reported that Schwesig held at least two meetings with Schröder in recent years for which no official records exist.
Green MP Anton Hofreiter, the chair of the Bundestag’s European affairs committee, also sharply criticized Schwesig but called for a broader investigation into the political decisions surrounding the pipeline.
“The fact that the construction of Nord Stream 2 was decided only one year after the annexation of Crimea is a scandal,” Hofreiter told POLITICO.
“The grand coalition’s policy on Russia was misguided and must be dealt with,” Hofreiter continued. “This also includes the links between the Schwerin state government under Manuela Schwesig and the Russian state-owned company Gazprom. This now requires a committee of inquiry [at state level].”
The Greens, the liberal Free Democrats and the CDU — which are all in the opposition in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — aim to launch such a panel next month.
Norbert Röttgen, a prominent CDU lawmaker in the Bundestag, on Monday even suggested that Schwesig should resign: “If the facts described recently in the media are true, then Ms. Schwesig cannot remain in office; that is completely out of the question,” he told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland newspaper group.
Schwesig’s office did not reply to a request for comment.