(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 7, 2018 Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as outgoing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stands nearby during a ceremony inaugurating Vladimir Putin as the new Russian President at the Kremlin in Moscow. - Germany's ruling Social Democrats launched proceedings July 14, 2022 that could see former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expelled from the party over his close ties to Vladimir Putin and Russian energy companies. The SPD's Hanover branch opened a hearing to discuss more than a dozen motions from local and regional chapters against Schroeder's ongoing membership, with a decision expected in three weeks. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP)

For many years, Gerhard Schröder was the face of the SPD, a guarantee of success and vote catcher – first as Prime Minister in Lower Saxony, then as Federal Chancellor. His no to the Iraq war may have brought him sympathy, his yes to Hartz IV criticism. In retrospect, however, it is the policy of the “Russia understander” that shapes the image of Schröder’s chancellorship.

So much so that many comrades now want to get rid of Schröder. Even party leader Saskia Esken has asked him to leave. On Thursday, the arbitration commission of the SPD sub-district of the Hanover region will negotiate a possible party expulsion. How could it come to this?

Schröder’s close ties to Vladimir Putin date back to a time when Russia’s president was still being celebrated with standing ovations in the Bundestag. “It was a different time, a time of hope that after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, something would grow together,” Schröder’s ex-wife, Doris Schröder-Köpf, recalled in March after Russia’s attack on Ukraine . “That has nothing to do with today, today it’s a different world, unfortunately.”

In the old world, in the year 2000, Schröder and Putin announce a restart of German-Russian relations. It is a historic step, a sign of reconciliation, and even then there was a central topic: gas. In the presence of the top politicians, contracts for several billion-dollar projects of the German economy are signed with the Russian energy company Gazprom.

Less than two weeks before the federal elections in 2005, Schröder and Putin were also there when a consortium of large energy companies agreed to build a gas pipeline on the bottom of the Baltic Sea – the Nord Stream 1, which was shut down today for maintenance. Germany is securing its energy supply in partnership with Russia Decades, Schröder explained at the time.

Shortly afterwards he lost the election, handed over the chancellorship to Angela Merkel in November – and in December he was already being discussed for a position with Gazprom, which he also accepted in March 2006: as chairman of the shareholders’ committee of the operator of the new Baltic Sea pipeline Nord Stream AG.

Allegations of corruption and nepotism are immediately raised. But Schröder stuck to the cooperation, and did so for years.

This is followed by engagements as Chairman of the Board of Directors at Nord Stream 2 (appointed in 2016), as a member of the Supervisory Board of the Russian oil company Rosneft (2017-2022) and as a member of the Supervisory Board of the British-Russian oil company TNK-BP (2009-2011), which now belongs to Rosneft.

Schröder’s proximity to the corporations is repeatedly criticized. However, both the SPD and Chancellor Merkel were very willing to rely on Russian gas at the time.

In 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, Schröder stated that Putin was violating international law. Nevertheless, he does not want to condemn Putin, who has “fears of encirclement”. He rejects an intermediary role. He will keep the post at Nord Stream.

Even after Russia’s attack on all of Ukraine in February 2022, it would be months before Schröder pulled out of Rosneft. The former chancellor has already rid himself of his office and his staff following a decision by the Bundestag, and his attempt at mediation in Moscow, without consultation with the federal government, has failed.

He also rejects a position on the board of directors of Gazprom. But his statements on the Ukraine war remain comparatively pro-Russian. Schröder states that it is the “responsibility of the Russian government” to end the war. However, the ties to Russia should not be completely severed.

Schröder is still following this line: Just a few days ago, the 78-year-old told the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” that he wanted to keep in touch with Putin and did not believe in a military solution in Ukraine.

“The war can only be ended through diplomatic negotiations,” Schröder is quoted as saying, garnished with some criticism of Ukraine.

Many in the SPD are deeply disappointed by this, disappointed by their pithy but successful idol, who once led them from election victory to election victory. “Sad” – this word is heard more often in the party when it comes to how Schröder is behaving today.

A total of 17 formal applications for exclusion from the party bear witness to this disappointment, as well as others that did not meet the requirements.

A decision on a party penalty – a reprimand or more – will probably not be made this Thursday. The Arbitration Commission intends to comment on this in the course of the next three weeks. From a legal point of view, however, it can be heard behind closed doors that the expulsion of the former chancellor from the SPD is extremely unlikely.

The oral hearing in the procedure for expelling Schröder from the SPD began in Hanover on Thursday. Schröder himself did not come to the start of the proceedings.

The deputy SPD federal chairman Thomas Kutschaty sees no future for the ex-chancellor in the party. Schröder had “decided himself that the financial and personal dependence on Putin is more important to him than his commitment to the SPD or the legacy of his chancellorship,” Kuschaty told the “Rheinische Post” (Friday edition).