(CNSNews.com) – In his criticism of Germany’s energy ties with Russia in Brussels on Wednesday, President Trump touched on a sensitive issue in Germany – the conduct of a former chancellor whose close ties with President Vladimir Putin, key involvement in lucrative energy deals, and support for Russian policies have long stoked controversy.
Accusing Germany of “paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia” for natural gas even as NATO is meant to be protecting European countries from Russia, Trump noted that “the former chancellor of Germany is the head of the pipeline company that’s supplying the gas.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immediate predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), led Germany from 1998 to 2005.
While in office, he championed and helped push ahead the politically-sensitive Nord Stream project – a pipeline along the Baltic Sea bed to supply natural gas from Russia directly to Germany, bypassing the existing pipeline running through Ukraine.
The project raised concerns in Eastern Europe – and in the United States – because Russia has a history of using its ample energy resources as a political tool. The new route would make it even easier to do so, by cutting off gas to troublesome countries like Ukraine and Poland, while continuing to sell to big customers further west.
Just weeks after stepping down after losing an election in the fall of 2005, Schroeder became chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, a consortium led by the Russian state-owned Gazprom, building the pipeline.
The announcement sparked charges of conflict of interest and unethical behavior in German political circles – and prompted the late U.S. Senator Tom Lantos to label him a “political prostitute.”
Nord Stream has been on line since 2011, and now a further pipeline, Nord Stream 2, is in the works.
Schroeder continues to chair the Nord Stream AG shareholders’ committee, and last year he was additionally nominated as a director on the board of Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company and largest oil producer – and a company under U.S. and E.U. sanctions as a result of Putin’s intervention in Crimea.
Over the years Schroeder has raised eyebrows and caused some embarrassment in his home country by taking stances favorable to his friend Putin – who in 2004 he infamously called a “flawless democrat” – and generally at odds with Europe and the West.
“When it comes to energy policy, only dreamers can pursue the idea that western Europe could become independent of Russian oil and natural gas,” he said in a 2008 interview in which he also dismissed the notion that Russia poses a threat to the West.
Schroeder criticized European recognition of Kosovo after it declared independence from Russian ally Serbia in 2008, and defended Putin’s more recent actions in Ukraine, calling for an end to sanctions against Moscow.
After he compared Russian military intervention in Ukraine with NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in 1999 – to end Serb aggression against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority – Merkel described her predecessor’s comments and attempts to compare Kosovo and Crimea as “shameful.”
Four years ago, just weeks after Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum not recognized by most of the international community, Schroeder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin at a party in St. Petersburg.
After Putin’s re-election earlier this year, Russian television coverage showed Schroeder in the front row at the inauguration ceremony, alongside Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Despite the embarrassment he has caused to Germany over the years, Schroeder early this week represented Germany’s federal government at the swearing-in ceremony for the re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to the foreign office in Berlin.