I spent much of February and March in Berlin, interviewing numerous German officials about the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, more commonly know there as the Baltic Sea pipeline. For those who aren't familiar, the pipeline is controversial for a number of reasons. First, it makes Germany heavily dependent on Russia's state-controlled energy monopoly Gazprom, a firm that in the past has been accused of playing "pipeline politics." But the main controversy surrounding the deal, in Germany at least, centered on former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who pushed hard for the deal before leaving office, only to be named chief of Nord Stream's shareholder's committee after leaving office. This position pays quite a large paycheck.
In 2005, when the Schroeder controversy took place, German opposition parties were outraged, with the issue gaining international traction when the Washington Post and some individuals on Capitol Hill condemned Schroeder. The indignation in the United States has quieted, but the people I talk to in Washington still widely view Schroeder's decision, as the recently deceased Tom Lantos called it in 2007, "political prostitution." This judgment comes from the widely held belief among American politicians that Russia will use Gazprom as a foreign policy tool. They envision a situation in which Russia will hold a European customer hostage if they do not acquiesce to a Russian position, or support a Russian policy. They see Gazprom as the instrument Russia will use to again conquer territory lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. Whether or not this is the case is a different conversation entirely, but it is widely believed on Capitol Hill.
In Berlin I expected outrage over Schroeder - and in turn, the Baltic Sea pipeline - to be alive and well more than two years later. I also expected to find some fear about being so dependent on Russian energy imports. I've found neither. What I have found is widespread acceptance of the deal. Yes, there are some people I've spoken with who are still quite upset about the deal's circumstances, and everyone agrees the Nord Stream job will affect Schroeder's legacy, but the outrage has disappeared. As one person told me the pipeline and Schroeder's role in creating it have been accepted by the German public.
Fear of Russia is also rare. Many of the people I've spoken to view the Russians as a "strategic partner." The relationship may not be ideal, but it is not one-sided - Russia needs European money as much as Europe needs Russian gas, they argue. They do have a point, but that's an issue that is more nuanced than that simple explanation implies.
This strikes me as very curious. Seven years later, many people in the United States are still outraged by Dick Cheney's ties to Halliburton and George Bush's ties to big oil, and how these ties might have affected U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps it's the nature of the Bush presidency that his opposition is not likely to forget any of his missteps. Either way, conflict of interest issues within the Bush administration are still very much talked about in Washington, even if they've been accepted as a reality. Why isn't Schroeder's role in the Nord Stream deal more a part of the public debate in Germany? Why doesn't there seem to be any public concern over the nature of the deal? Does it exist, and am I talking to the wrong people? Why is everyone outside of Germany worried about Nord Stream, while people in Germany seem okay with it? I suspect it is because it's easier to ignore reliance on imported energy than it is to confront the problem. Look no further than the United States for proof of this. But I suspect there is more to this than that. I doubt Germany and Russia will ever form any real alliance, but I do get the sense that people in Germany accept the authoritarian steps soon to be ex-Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken to secure the country. At the very least, they are more accepting than the Americans, who view any departure from democracy as a cardinal sin.
David Francis received a John C. McCloy Journalism Fellowship to report on the European Union's growing dependence on Russian energy and its effect on transatlantic relations. He is conducting interviews in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Italy and France. Learn more about him at his homepage.