BERLIN (Reuters) – The co-leader of Germany’s Social Democrats called on former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to quit the party after he defended his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, exposing a rift at the heart of government in Berlin over the Ukraine crisis.
Schroeder has refused, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to step down from the posts with Russian energy companies from which he has earned millions of euros since leaving office in 2004.
In a weekend New York Times interview he said Germany had also benefited from his ties to Putin, though he said he would resign if Russia ever stopped sending Germany gas.
Saskia Esken, the party’s co-leader, said it was time to stop seeing Schroeder, who held the top job for five years, as a former chancellor and see him merely as a businessman.
“We called on Gerhard Schroeder to step down from Russian companies,” she told DLF public radio on Monday.
“Sadly he didn’t follow that advice. Schroeder has worked for years as a businessman, and we should stop seeing him as an elder statesman, as a former chancellor,” she said, adding that he should quit the party.
Schroeder heads a faction within Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s party that championed close ties to Russia as a way of binding it into a peaceful European order.
Scholz has repeatedly said Schroeder does not speak for the government, but has remained silent on whether he should quit the party.
Still, many in that wing of the party remain reluctant to send Ukraine the heavy weapons Kyiv says it needs to turn the tide in the war, something Scholz has been reluctant to do despite his coalition partners’ urgings.
In his Times interview, Schroeder said he could not have been expected to return to being a lawyer “dealing with rental contracts” after having been chancellor. Instead, he lobbied for pipeline projects that critics said heightened Germany’s dependence on Russian gas.
Russia faces some of the toughest economic sanctions in history from Europe and the United States, but continues to receive millions of euros every day in energy payments from Germany.
The row poses a headache for Scholz, whose Green and liberal coalition partners are as divided over Russia and on sending heavy weapons to Ukraine as they are in agreement on the ambitious domestic policy agenda they agreed last year.
“Germany should stop telegraphing signals about its economic vulnerability to Moscow,” senior liberal legislator Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann told a party congress at the weekend.
Friedrich Merz, the conservative leader whose party lost office in December, is preparing to capitalise on the disarray, promising to table a motion in parliament to send heavy weapons to Ukraine that could split the coalition.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Paul Carrel; Editing by Alex Richardson)