German Parties' Cohesion Divided Over Ukraine

Background

Berlin has taken a key position in the Ukraine crisis and become the EU’s leading state on regional issues. It has extended its influence deep into Eastern Europe, and takes a primary role in negotiations between Kiev and Moscow. However, it is deleterious to forget the primacy of domestic politics and it effect on foreign policy consideration. Ukraine has revealed a deep rift within parties that crosses ideological lines. Although there are no upcoming federal elections this year, the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen will decide the composition of their local parliaments while the PEGIDA movement and increasing Euroscepticism in Germany threatens to shift the political landscape in these key regions. Further, recent Alternative for Germany electoral victories indicate a growing discontent with the established political class.

 

Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) are the largest faction in the German Bundestag. The CDU traditionally forms the centrist base for German conservatism and follows a critical view of Moscow in a generally pro-American foreign policy. However, CDU relations with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, improved with Moscow’s acceptance of German reunification. Then CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl promoted a partnership with Moscow as the USSR collapsed and secured future German investment in Russia. 

Since Angela Merkel’s election as party leader and Chancellorship in 2005, the Christian Democratic Union revisited its critical approach to Russia in the wake of the conflict in Chechnya and increased concerns over human rights in the country. In the wake of Rusia’s annexation of Crimea, the CDU firmly advocated imposing sanctions against Russia and strongly supports the new government in Kiev.

The Christian Social Union (CSU) is the Bavarian version of the above-mentioned CDU. However, its stance on Russia diverges from the CDU. The CSU is considered more conservative than the rest of the established party system and enjoys the strong support of the Bavarian population. The CSU has controlled Bavaria since 1957 and currently enjoys an absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament. CSU politicians are usually regarded to be pro-American and the region has historically hosted several US military bases that have been downsized in recent years. However, the CSU does not univocally supporting Ukraine. Main party officials, among them Peter Gauweiler, deputy chairman if the CSU, has voiced support for Russia's annexation of Crimea and criticized EU sanctions against Russia.

 

Social Democratic Party of Germany

Germany's oldest party is traditionally perceived as pro-Russian. In fact, the last Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, had a warm relationship with President Putin that has continued past his Chancellorship and Schroeder accepted a position at Gazprom after retiring from politics—a move that has seen its share of controversy. During his term as leader of Germany, several major agreements with Russia were initiated, including the North Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea. Although the SPD is a minority partner within the CDU-led Grand Coalition, the SPD retains a large degree of influence on German foreign policy. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was an advisor to Chancellor Schroeder and Steinmeier’s relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov is largely seen as cooperative. Former SPD prime minister of Brandenburg, Mathias Platzeck, openly endorsed Crimean secession. Although the SPD as a whole has taken a pragmatic stance on Russia, it has backed Merkel’s policy on Ukraine.

 

Green Party

The Green Party is regarded as classical left wing party focusing on environment issues with a critical stance on the United States, but it has recently shifted to a more bourgeois policy. In wake of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the Green Party won a landslide victory in Baden-Wuertemberg, Germany's second wealthiest federal state. The Green Party political concept changed after its victory and indicates a shift toward the center.

However, in wake of Ukraine, Green Party officials, among them Omid Nouripour, speaker of the Green Party for foreign affairs and human rights issues, heavily criticized sanctions against Russia but advocated tougher measures shortly after the shelling of Mariupol. Although the Green Party forms the smallest faction in the German Bundestag and does not participate in the government coalition, it plays an important role in party politics.

 

The Left

The Left political party is the indirect successor of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (the former Communist party of the GDR), and is traditionally regarded as pro-Russian and anti-American. The Left forms Germany's main opposition party, considering its size in the Federal Assembly. After its victory in Thuringia election last autumn, the Left Party candidate Bodo Ramelow has become Germany's first Left prime minister. In wake of Crimea, most Left politicians protested against the EU sanctions on Russia, accusing the EU of hypocrisy, and several party officials openly supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

 

Alternative for Germany and PEGIDA

Germany's youngest party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) recently hit the global headlines after its unexpected election victories in Brandenburg, Saxonia and Thuringia in 2014. In the last German federal election in 2013, AfD nearly crossed the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The AfD platform is largely arranged around a Eurosceptic line (though less radically so than the National Front in France) and is critical of immigration. Major AfD politicians have backed PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) protests against immigration from Muslim countries. Although the AfD is usually considered to be pro-Russian, some politicians are regarded as being pro-American.  Several local committees of the AfD and leading party politicians such as Alexander Gauland have voiced support for Russia's annexation of Crimea. Additionally, many participants at the PEGIDA demonstrations have called for peace in eastern Ukraine and lambasted the possibility of Ukrainian membership in NATO.

 

What to Look For

The persistent conflict in Ukraine has had an immediate impact on Germany's domestic politics and dramatically altered the political landscape. Although mainstream parties continue to support Merkel, parties on both extremes tend to advocate a more conciliatory stance vis-à-vis Russia. However, the individual positions of centrist party officials suggest that the usually cohesive party line is no longer intact over Germany’s approach to Eastern Europe. Further, the protests of PEGIDA have shaken the political landscape in Germany remain a dominant topic in the national news. Although PEGIDA’s origins trace to domestic issues, the movement has featured increasing support for contentious foreign issues like Crimea. In some of Germany's conservative circles, pro-Putin and pro-Russian sentiment is widely spread and polls suggest that a large proportion of Germans criticize Merkel's stance on Ukraine and her sanction policy on Russia.

The combination of Euroscepticism and pro-Russia sentiment will definitely influence the political debate for the foreseeable future. In this vein, the parliamentary elections in Germany’s city-states will be a political litmus test for Europe’s economic powerhouse and driver of concerted EU foreign policy. Increasing Euroscepticism is likely, even outside the fringe PEGIDA movement, amid greater localized support for the AfD and a polarization across political parties over the conflict in Ukraine.