Russia's Gaze Lingers on Germany in its Search for a Western Soul Mate, Russia has--for Better or for Worse--Turned to a Historic Partner

Wines, Michael. "Russia's Gaze Lingers on Germany in its Search for a Western Soul Mate, Russia has--for Better or for Worse--Turned to a Historic Partner." Star Tribune, 3 September 2001, sec. A4.

Those who wonder where Russia's affections turned after its infatuation with the United States soured should go to Kaliningrad--a Baltic enclave that was a prize patch of the German heartland until the Red Army seized it in 1945--and talk to Irina Korobova.

In a three-story factory where Soviet laborers once outfitted fishing trawlers, Korobova, 27, is the deputy director of Grammer AG Kaliningrad, a spotless German plant whose 380 workers produce upholstery for 5,000 BMWs, Volkswagens and Audis daily.

She learned German in high school. Grammer trained her in Germany after college. This year, she completed German business school. "Just working at these enterprises is a great experience. You learn the mentality of Germans; you learn their punctuality," she said. "And we have the German system of quality control."

Nobody doubts that by virtue of wealth and power, the United States will preoccupy Russia's foreign policy thinking for decades. But when Russia seeks a Western soul mate these days, it looks not across the Atlantic, but 230 miles west, where Poland stops and Germany begins.

It is not just that Russia's nouveau nationalists now think that the U.S. giant has clay feet. Russians are trying to rekindle a centuries-old romance. When Germany and Russia were not fighting--often at the cost of central and eastern Europeans--they carried on a torrid affair of heart and mind.

`Big, big hopes'

Germany sent Russia its nobility and expertise--Catherine the Great; the last czarina, Alexandra Fyodorovna; an entire German province on the Volga (the Germans were lured by Catherine to modernize Russian farming, then exiled by Stalin). The Slavs lent the Germans their passion, enticing them with the mystery within Russia's fusion of Europe and Asia.

The relationship has also caused great destruction. Take Kaliningrad itself. It was famous before World War II as Konigsberg, the capital of East Prussia, birthplace of philosopher Immanuel Kant and a center of German culture. Today, it is a squalid and concrete-faced reminder of the Soviet legacy.

President Vladimir Putin, a fluent German speaker who worked for the KGB in the 1980s in Dresden, last year called Germany "Russia's leading partner in Europe and the world." He has showered Berlin with bouquets to prove it, from help for industry to his defense ministry's purchase of hundreds of BMWs.

"Russians today sort of love Germans and hate Americans. A lot of people tell us that," said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "It has something to do with big, big hopes. The Russians think that somehow, in the depths, Germany understands Russia and that Germans will help them out."

Rahr and others say that that is half right.

Germany understands Russia--so well, courtesy of centuries of military, cultural and royal intimacy, that it is not ready to help the Russians any more than it already has.

Schroeder underscored that in April, in an article in the German journal Die Zeit.

"We exclude any German `special way' in the relationship with Russia," he wrote. "We want a new normality in the relationship between the two nations, without illusions, without sentimentality."

He reflects a Western consensus that Russia should not join their exclusive club until it proves it can play by Western rules--and that the proof is still lacking, despite Russia's promises of democratic and economic reform.

`Historic nightmare'

This perception leaves Russia as Germany's jilted lover.

Failure to find a home in Europe would leave Russia with two unpleasant options: isolation or a problematic and precarious alliance with China.

"This is the historic nightmare of Russia, being isolated and surrounded by enemies," said Horst Teltschik, a Russia expert and former national security adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "And if Germany is not interested in Russia--in taking leadership on the vast question of how to handle Russia--then nobody will do it."

Between the World Wars, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, two diplomatic pariahs, found solace and power in secret and public alliances. After the Soviet Union turned a third of Germany into its satellite at the start of the Cold War, West Germany kept top-level diplomatic contacts with Moscow, bought vast amounts of Soviet natural gas and, ultimately, paid the Kremlin billions to defray the cost of removing the Group of Soviet Forces from East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Today Germany is Russia's largest creditor, holding 40 percent of its $48 million in Paris Club debt, and by far Russia's largest trading partner. Next to the United States, it is Russia's second-largest foreign investor, and overall, more German companies have Russian stakes.

It sounds impressive, but it's small change compared with German interests elsewhere: In 1999, German direct investment in Russia--money spent on factories, equipment and such--totaled $727 million. In Poland, with one-fourth the population, it totaled $4.87 billion.

What restrains German businesses is what restrains the German government: trust.

"It's the old question," said one former German diplomat in Russia. "The reform policies are hailed; things have positively changed. But it's not yet enough. They haven't reached the level of reform that we need."

Reprinted with permission of Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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