American Misconceptions About Germany

October 31, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

I beg to differ. Germany is not dysfunctional. And there was no sensible reason to spy on Angela Merkel, America’s most important ally in Europe.

True, a Washington Post editorial last week in the wake of the shutdown of the United States government  did not apply the dirty word “dysfunctional” to today’s Berlin. But it did worry that in the near future Germany “could swerve toward U.S.-style dysfunction.” Why? Because a month after the general election, no new government is yet in place, and the coalition negotiations between Merkel’s conservative party and the nation’s second-largest party, the Social Democrats, are moving “at a glacial pace” and might not finish until year-end.

Now that fact isn’t wrong. It is, however, irrelevant. Continuity is ensured by the German constitution and rules of the road that keep the old government firmly in office until the new one is selected. “Grand coalition” talks between the two biggest parties always take two to three months, six hours a day, as any frustrated journalist who tries to extract more than a soundbite from a party negotiator during this period can attest. And cross-party cooperation is already far more functional in the collegial German Bundestag than in the warring U.S. Congress.

Moreover, the old chancellor will be the new chancellor, with her formidable dominance of German politics over the past eight years only enhanced by an electoral victory that brought her party within five seats of an absolute parliamentary majority. Any Washingtonian who really thinks that Berlin is in “political limbo” and “treading water” need only look at what Merkel has accomplished in the past week to be disabused of the notion that the German chancellor is putting “major decisions…on hold.”

Already, Chancellor Merkel has confirmed her policy of flexible austerity in the Eurozone crisis. She has begun to lay out her views of what the new European Union architecture of economic governance should look like. And within the space of four days she just put reform of US intelligence agencies back onto the US domestic agenda for the first time since the 1970s.

As for the justifications that various American commenters have advanced for the NSA spying on a close allied leader, these seem as inappropriate as the equation of maddening German thoroughness with American political gridlock.

Congressman Peter King, former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, for example, defended US surveillance of Merkel on the grounds that the “NSA has provided so much intelligence to the Germans and the French and other European countries to save them from terrorist attacks” that they should be grateful and not carp. To press his point, he asserted on CNN that the “NSA has done more to save German lives than the German army has done since World War II.”

A Reuters columnist went further. He contended that “ardent Russophile” Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany and noted that East German spy Günter Guillaume brought down West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1974. For good measure, the pundit added, “Germany has yet to expunge its Nazi past.”

The Wall Street Journal accepted that “nobody doubts Mrs. Merkel’s personal bona fides as a friend of the U.S.” Yet there were “good reasons” for Washington “to eavesdrop on German chancellors,” the newspaper found. “Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder formed a de facto alliance with France’s Jacques Chirac and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to oppose the U.S. over [the] Iraq [invasion of 2003]. After leaving office in 2005 Mr. Schröder effectively went to work for Mr. Putin” as chairman of Gazprom’s majority-owned Nord Stream pipeline consortium.

Perhaps the only thing missing from these indictments of Germany was a resurrection of American fears in the years just before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. A common theme of commentary then was that Germany might again strike a covert anti-West deal with Moscow like the 1922 Rapallo pact that let the Weimar Republic break out of the arms restrictions of the Versailles Treaty.

Without delving too deeply into the quagmire of German history, suffice it to say briefly that the Germans have a stellar record of atoning for the sins of their fathers.  Angela Merkel’s fluency in Russian as a student in East Germany did not make her an “ardent Russophile.” After the wall fell, she entered the politics of united Germany as the protégé of Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whom no German conservative would ever suspect of being a Russian stooge. She became a parliamentarian in the Christian Democratic opposition to Social Democratic Chancellor Schröder, not in support of him. Finally, her party led the cooling of Russian-German relations in recent years as Germans gave up the hope that former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev could modernize Russia and lead it away from its authoritarian past. There is no basis for suspecting Chancellor Merkel here.

QED. In today’s hottest issue, it might even be argued that Germany’s passion for safeguarding citizens’ privacy is a necessary prod to get the democratic balance right between security and freedom. And it’s beyond any shadow of a doubt that German politics is far less dysfunctional than American politics.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification and Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.

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Stupid Intelligence

October 25, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

For an intelligence agency, the NSA is remarkably unintelligent. It’s rather like a new husband who starts hacking his wife’s cellphone on their wedding day, with no inkling that this suspicion itself poisons their relationship.

By its counterproductive flaunting of distrust as it spied promiscuously on presidents and prime ministers of America’s closest allies, the National Security Agency now risks undermining Washington’s patient building of trust with those allies over decades. It clearly values pointillist information obtained in a hermetic clandestine world of omnivorous technology more than it does knowledge obtained from good-faith conversations between human beings free of coercion. It forgets that soft power arises from making others really want what we want, not from treating them as vassals.

In retrospect, it was foolish to tap the European Union headquarters, as one of the earliest of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed. The EU is so talkative anyway, as many European commentators have noted, that there was nothing further to learn by eavesdropping, except perhaps the name of Commission President Jose Barroso’s favorite take-out pizza parlor. To be sure, NSA spinmeisters could argue that no harm was done. European bureaucrats probably stood a bit taller after having their importance certified by the NSA assumption that they were worth listening to.

It was even more foolish to hack into 70 million French phone conversations in one month a year ago. Again, this choice of target did no lasting harm and gave President Francois Hollande something to fume about that might divert voters from the nation’s sagging economy and his own record low of 24 percent popularity. And cynical European comments earlier this week tended to regard the American action as having been richly earned by France’s own government services, given their reputation for snooping on allies’ commercial secrets.

Most foolish of all was the American spying on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, and—we now know—even German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rousseff postponed a state visit to the United States when the NSA eavesdropping became known. The current Mexican government is moving toward curtailing security cooperation with the US on drug-running, and Calderón, who worked closely with the US on drugs during his time in office, now stands as a warning that foreign friends of Washington earn no special treatment.

For her part, Merkel—America’s most important European ally as leader of the continent’s economic powerhouse and banker—reacted with uncharacteristic sharpness at the reported tapping into her cellphones, which she famously uses as her operations centers. She phoned the White House immediately to say so and told Obama that she “unequivocally condemned” such a “grave breach of trust” as “fully unacceptable” among allies and demanded that “any such practices should be stopped immediately.” Merkel’ spokesman said the chancellor now expects the United States to “finally answer the questions that the German government asked months ago” about its eavesdropping operations in Germany. Other government officials added that they also expect Washington to fulfill its earlier promise and reach a “no spy” agreement with a codex of behavior.

The European Parliament too has chimed in by demanding an end to Europe’s participation in the SWIFT arrangement for global financial transfers because of NSA’s access to the data. The European Parliament is further resisting the transatlantic trade deal that the US and European Union are now trying to negotiate to give their economies a needed boost.

The depth of Berlin’s fury today is explained in part by the special sensitivity of privacy in a land of intrusive past Gestapo and Stasi spying on citizens. It is explained even more by the betrayal Germans feel after decades of affection for their post-World War II mentor and protector. In its first 40 years Germany (in the form of West Germany) traded loyalty to US leadership of NATO for US protection of it against intimidation by the 20 Soviet divisions surrounding Berlin. This partnership culminated in the end of the East-West cold war in 1989, the withdrawal of Soviet forces 1000 miles to the east in the mid-1990s, and the luxury of a united Germany surrounded by friendly states thereafter.

Germans’ appreciation for the US in the post-war years far transcended a transactional pact. America’s faith in human capacity to make a new start went well beyond lingering French and British suspicions of post-Hitler Germans and even helped these new Germans to trust themselves in ways they hardly thought possible. The new Germans atoned for the sins of their elders in deep reconciliation with Israel, with other members of the European Community, and with Poland. When the Berlin Wall fell and East Germans clamored to join the free, democratic West Germany, it was Washington that overrode British and French resistance to German unification.

This wellspring of German affection for America survived even the aversion of the 1968 generation to the American war in Vietnam and of the 1989 generation to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was manifested most recently in the restraint Chancellor Merkel displayed last summer when Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s vacuuming up of worldwide telecommunications first came into the public eye. She downplayed the issue, and the blogosphere today is full of taunts that the chancellor ignored the rights of ordinary German citizens and protested only to violation of her own privacy.

“We are allies, but such an alliance can only be built on trust,” Merkel told reporters as she arrived at the trimonthly EU summit in Brussels this weekend. European Council President Hermann von Rompuy echoed her in inviting other EU members to join Germany and France in seeking a trust-based “understanding” with the US in intelligence gathering by the end of 2013.

The question now is how many years it will take Washington to restore the German-American and European-American trust that the NSA has so foolishly squandered.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification and Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.

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Srebrenica’s Demographic Aftermath

October 16, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Yet again government leaders in Bosnia seem determined to act against their own interests. Their latest opportunity to do so was provided by this month’s census, the first approved by feuding politicians since the massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim boys and men by Serb soldiers at Srebrenica during the 1990s Yugoslav wars.

As the survey ended on October 15, it looked as if the headcount would harm rather than help post-war reconciliation in the land that suffered the most in the fighting, with 100,000 war dead, two million refugees out of a population of four million, and brutal ethnic cleansing. Elites of all three of the South Slav peoples on Bosnian territory—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims—used the census to dramatize disputes between the three rather than search for common ground and try to restore the easy coexistence and intermarriage that marked vibrant, cosmopolitan, pre-war Sarajevo.

This doesn’t mean that Bosnia’s South Slavs risk plunging the region into war again. But it does mean that the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (as those of Muslim heritage now call themselves) are prolonging their deadlock of the past seven years in a system that gives each of the sub-ethnicities a well-used veto over the other two in political decisionmaking. The system, set up in the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the fighting in Bosnia, accorded collective rights to the three “constituent peoples” in a way that the European Court of Human Rights has since ruled incompatible with the democratic concept of individual rights. Attempts to correct this constitutional birth defect over several years have failed because of constant squabbling among the three sub-ethnicities.

The peace treaty further gave Bosnia a gridlocked state system of two “entities,” one the Republika Srpska of  Serbs and the other consisting of Bosniak and Croat cantons—along with a top-heavy bureaucracy of 180,000 political and civil service posts that will be redistributed when the final census results are announced early next year. Hence the lobbying by leaders of each group to increase its own share of patronage by pressuring offspring of mixed marriagesto identify themselves with the favored sub-ethnicity rather than just checking off “other” on the questionnaire. Unlike in the last census of 1991, there is no box this year for an over-arching identity of “Yugoslav.”

A generation ago that earlier survey counted a total Bosnian population of 4.4 million, with 43.7 percent Bosniaks, 31.4 percent Serbs, and 17.3 percent Croats. Today’s Croats fear they may have shrunk as low as 10 percent because of the exodus of many of their number to the newest EU member of Croatia. Bosniaks too fear that they may have reduced their share, as half of the two million war refugees have remained abroad. For their part, voters in the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska follow President Milorad Dodik in circling their wagons even against the greater prosperity that would follow from compromising with Bosniaks and Croats to gain access to EU largesse and a larger pie for all.

The West, which basically ran Bosnia as an international protectorate in its first decade of post-war existence, originally hoped that self-interest would eventually compel the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats to join together and start on the long road to EU membership. This would have qualified the state for generous EU subsidies and benefited all citizens of Bosnia. Instead, with few exceptions, Bosniaks voted for Bosniak, Serbs for Serb, and Croats for Croat parties, and their bickering politicians made tactical partisan decisions rather than cooperative strategic decisions. Typically, after the 2010 election it took 14 months to form a government—and that government collapsed after half a year.

As a result, Bosnia now lags behind all the other Yugoslav successor states in striving for the prosperity and security—and substantial financial and technical aid—that EU association offers the Balkan states. It is the only country in the region that has not won visa-free entry for its citizens to travel in the EU. It is also the only nation not to have concluded even the first formal step on the way to full EU membership.

By contrast, Slovenia became a full member of the European Union in 2004. Croatia entered the club this year. Even Serbia—after refusing for 16 years to meet the precondition of sending the commanding general at the Srebrenica slaughter, Ratko Mladic, to The Hague to stand trial for genocide—has this year detoxified its ultranationalism and joined in pre-negotiations for EU accession.

By now the European Union is losing patience with Bosnia and threatening, if  the elites don’t compromise soon and set up a united central government that can speak for Bosnia in negotiations, to halve the €90 million it already allocated for the state this year.

Last spring some European observers drew fresh hope for Bosnia as ultranationalists in Serbia proper suddenly turned moderate and the most adamant of the Bosnian politicians, President Dodik in Republika Srpska, lost the political patrons in Belgrade who had once humored his periodic threat to secede from Bosnia and unite with Serbia. Instead of mellowing, however. Dodik has just stepped up his separatist demands. Bosnia, he said this week, is “a would-be country that is not consolidated and is fraught with many problems.” Only the entity of Republika Srpska, he proclaimed, has met all the requirements for starting talks with the EU, and he announced that his rump country would soon open an embassy manqué in Washington to match his representation offices in Serbia, Russia, Greece, Israel, Brussels, Vienna, and Stuttgart.

The 2013 census may help the European Union calculate where to subsidize roads and water purification plants in Bosnia, should Sarajevo ever get its act together. But on present evidence, it won’t help Sarajevo get that act together.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Endgame in the Balkans.

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Ukraine Emerges From The Kremlin Shadow

October 11, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

The two-decade-long struggle over Ukraine’s soul has now ended—in favor of Europe rather than the East Slavs.

This is bad news for Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is good news for Ukraine, the European Union, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister who will probably now be freed from prison and dispatched to Berlin for medical treatment. It is surprising news in what it says about Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko’s archfiend and one-time pal of Putin.

Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, put it most bluntly in calling this game-changer the “Ukrainian escape from the Russian embrace.” She wrote, “[T]he Ukrainian elite has reached consensus on what it does not want—to be suffocated” by the Kremlin. Twisting the knife, she specifically blamed Russian “intimidation” for finally uniting “the conflicting Ukrainian elite clans on a pro-European basis.”

She’s right.

To understand why, it is worth reviewing Ukraine’s lurches between the two poles in the generation since the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Ukraine became a self-sustaining, independent state for the first in a  millennium.

Immediately after the country’s post-cold-war birth in 1991, the hot question was whether or not the infant country could remain unified. There was a serious possibility that the nation might split, with Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented citizens in the west and Russian-speaking, Moscow-oriented Ukrainians in the east going their separate ways. This dichotomy provided the mental map on which oligarchic clans and politicians fought their personal feuds—with weapons that included lethal poison—over the booty of privatization of state assets.

Initially, it was the old Soviet cadres from the entwined Russian-Ukrainian political networks who ran the country. They quickly signed a pact with Moscow leasing Sevastopol as a marine base for the Russian Black Sea fleet for 25 years.

Deference toward Moscow faded, however, with the electrifying Orange Revolution in the bitter winter of 2004/5. Viktor Yanukovych, from the gritty industrial town of Donetsk in the east, claimed victory in the presidential election, despite exit polls running 11% in favor of his west Ukrainian rival. Russian-speaking Yulia Tymoshenko, from the gritty central city of Dnipropetrovsk cast her lot in with the westerners and became the glamorous star of the half-million to one million protesters who occupied Kyiv’s Independence Square for a tense two months. Yanukovych finally gave in, called a new vote—and decisively lost the election that was monitored this time by international observers.

Tymoshenko then became prime minister. Yanukovych supporters, after threatening to secede from the new country to rejoin Russia, finally acceded in the result. The new government pivoted toward the West, agreed with the EU to open talks on an “association agreement,” and signalled its intention to join NATO as soon as possible.

Putin retaliated by quadrupling the price the Gazprom monopoly charged Ukraine for the energy that Kyiv depends on, while not simultaneously quadrupling the price Gazprom paid Kyiv for gas pipeline transit to European customers. Inflammatory headlines in both Moscow and Kyiv even  talked of approaching war between the two East Slav countries.

By the time of the 2010 presidential vote, the pro-West coalition was riven by feuds between factions that loathed each other. Yanukvych bounced back to win the Ukrainian presidency in a reasonably fair election. He promptly extended Ukraine’s lease of the Sevastopol base to the Russian Black Sea fleet beyond its 2017 expiry date to 2042, with additional berths to be provided for 18 new warships. He further saw to it that Tymoshenko, who had made her pre-government fortune on energy imports and distribution, was imprisoned on quixotic criminal charges that she as prime minister had contracted to pay too high a price for imported Russian gas.

Since then, Tymoshenko has languished behind bars, despite the EU’s insistence in on and off association talks that it would never sign even this beginner’s agreement with Ukraine as long as Kyiv’s most prominent political prisoner remained in jail. And ever since—until last summer—Ukrainian government officials have blandly maintained that they could have it both ways. Why, they kept asking EU officials, couldn’t they just conduct their own Ukrainian-style politics and economics without meeting the EU’s strict democratic and market demands? Why couldn’t they continue practicing what the EU called “selective justice” and concluding murky deals with Russian tycoons and still be allowed to join the fringes of the rich and stable Western club?

In late 2011, the plot thickened as Putin launched his own pet plan for a mercantilist Eurasian Union of those former Soviet republics (other than the Baltic states) that became independent as the Soviet Union collapsed. This quickly became the centerpiece of his foreign policy; he planned for it to become operational in economic aspects in 2015. It could, he prophesied, become “one of the poles of the modern world.” Kazakhstan and Belarus signed on. Armenia, which depends on Moscow for backing in its border disputes with Azerbaijan, equivocated. Azerbaijan and Georgia said no. All the other candidates balked, suspecting eventual recreation of a Soviet-type entity subservient to Moscow.

Increasingly, Putin has portrayed his Eurasian Union and the half-century-old European Union as rivals. The top prize in this competition is still Ukraine, the historical birthplace of the whole Rus identity in the Middle Ages, with a population today of 46 million whom Russians tend to regard, somewhat dismissively, as their little brothers. American foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees  on the strategic importance of Ukraine. So do ardent Ukrainian nationalists, who argue that post-Communist Russia will never turn democratic until it consents to shed quasi-imperial control over Ukraine.

In early summer of this year, as Carnegie’s Shevtsova pointed out, Putin increased pressure on Armenia, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine to reject EU association agreements and join his Eurasian Union instead. Succumbing to the pressure after Russia threatened to cut off its military aid, Yerevan agreed last month to join the Eurasian Customs Union. Moscow has had less success with its menacing measures of blocking imports of Moldovan and Georgian wine as unsanitary and with its “fertilizer war” with Belarus (not over the Eurasian Union, but over Russia’s attempted takeover of Belarusan potash deposits).

Most important, as Shevtsova suggested, the Kremlin’s carrot-and-stick threat to raise the pricetag on its gas exports to Ukraine if Kyiv signed an EU association agreement—or lower its price if Kyiv chose the Eurasian Union instead—triggered a backlash. It alienated all the Ukrainian elites except for the minority Communist Party. It brought popular support for joining the EU up to 50 percent.

This week in Berlin all speakers at a panel that included Ukrainian ambassador to Germany Pavlo Klimkin and Mikhail Pashkov, head of the foreign policy program at the Razumkov thinktank in Kyiv, took this new Ukrainian consensus as a given. They pointed out that the government has already demoted the prosecutor who put Tymoshenko into prison—and after two years of stiff resistance, has passed new legislation that will bring its institutions closer to the EU’s democratic and market norms.

Participants advanced several possible explanations for the new consensus after two decades of vacillation. One is that eastern Ukrainian businessmen seem to have pocketed the profits available until now in the Russian market and decided that greater enrichment requires access to the bigger and wealthier European single market. A second reason is that Yanukovych has been boxed in by a sluggish economy. Then too, suggested Mikhail Pashkov in conversation after the event, “there is a new generation that has grown up in an independent Ukraine that orients itself to European values. Nostalgia for Soviet paternalism remains among older people, but the middle and young generations orient themselves to Europe and strive to go in this direction.”

A final deal that can save face for the two arch foes, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, is not yet in place. So far Tymoshenko is not willing to foreswear any eventual return to Ukraine and to Kyiv politics. Nor is Yanukovych willing to let her return to challenge him in the next presidential election. German and EU officials are holding firm and telling Yanukovych that there will be no EU association agreement for Ukraine at next month’s EU-neighborhood summit in Vilnius, though, unless he frees Tymoshenko to go to a Berlin hospital for humanitarian reasons. And in Moscow, contrarian Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Center, is even advising President Putin that he would benefit if he lets Ukraine leave Moscow’s sphere, and thus Russia frees itself “to become a multi-ethnic nation state rather than a posthumous version of the defunct empire.”

Forget the tactical success of Vladimir Putin over the US in Syrian diplomacy, Lilia Shevtsova urges. His strategic loss of the biggest single chunk of the Soviet Union other than Russia itself to a Western identity is the real historical turning point this fall.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of From the Yaroslavsky Station.

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© Elizabeth Pond

The Tale of Ivan Ivanovich

10 October 2013
by Elizabeth Pond

Once upon a time there was a very, very clever KGB spy called Ivan Ivanovich. He inherited real KGB genes. He was born in the United States to a mother and father whom Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov, in his dying breath, had sent to the US to be sleepers, build a successful immigrant life, found a company or two, cultivate the New York elite, and be ready to serve the fatherland when the superpower apocalypse finally came.

In fact, the apocalypse came, at least for the Soviet superpower, when little Vanya was in kindergarten. It happened so fast, however, that the KGB didn’t manage to activate his mother and father in time to stave off collapse. The couple became hedge fund managers instead. Yet they never deserted their goal of serving the fatherland, and they inculcated in Ivan a burning desire to fulfill their own original dream.

Indeed, they explained to him that, as a native-born American with an American passport, he was much better prepared than they had been to become the ultimate Russian super agent. His “L” was a New York “L.” He had no trouble remembering when to use “a” or “the” in front of a noun. His cadence was pure Bronx. And, should any suspicious G-man try to trick him by challenging the depth of his cultural knowledge, he could, in an instant, recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Milo and Tock, and “How to Give a Killer Presentation” from the latest Harvard Business Review.

Ivan (who pronounced his name EYE-van when he wasn’t at Harvard) grew up with the tragic demise of the Soviet Union, the dumping of Gorbachev, the onset of Yeltsin, and the advent of Putin. And although he masked his rage and lust for revenge well, he never lost sight of the Main Enemy, or, in Khomeini’s lingo, the Great Satan. He coolly analyzed what Mikhail Sergeevich and Boris Nikolaevich did wrong in the 1990s – putting too much trust in the West and letting Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania slip the leash. He appraised Vladimir Vladimirovich as a non-entity. But he retained his faith that the descendants of Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky at the KGB – now called FSB – would eventually restore the proper world order. And he vowed to do his part.

His chance came in 2009. His acute Leninist eye noticed that Tea Party activists, disgruntled after they failed to derail the presidential hopes of the obscure black Senator from Illinois, were changing their tactics, preparing for the long haul, and, with laser-like precision, infiltrating the Republican Party. He joined them, organizing primaries, writing tracts to prove that Obamacare was a Communist plot, and gerrymandering sinecure constituencies for right-thinking candidates. By a combination of elbow grease, eloquence, and luck, he swiftly worked his way up the ranks. He devised his own master plan, one so diabolical that he never even dared commit it to paper.

By 2013 he was one of the party’s key strategists. He could begin implementing his wily plan. He would not confront the American industrial juggernaut in a frontal arms race that the Kremlin could never win, as Brezhnev had foolishly tried to do. Nor would he detonate iconic Manhattan architecture as Al Qaeda had done, winning a momentary Pyrrhic victory but subjecting itself to pesky drone assassinations for years to come.

Instead, Ivan Ivanovich would destroy the world’s one remaining superpower from within, without risking one Russian life. He would simply hollow out America’s brain, the government in Washington, by sucking out its money. With one blow, this would ground US jets over unpaid J-P8 fuel bills, cause US stock markets to collapse, and prevent children from going with their suddenly jobless parents to see the Chinese panda at the suddenly shuttered National Zoo.

Ivan’s plot worked beyond his wildest imaginings. But he made one cardinal mistake. He was still so obsessed with the Russian-American ideological confrontation of the old Cold War that he never stopped once to think about China.

For lack of cash, President Obama had to cancel his visits to Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia to counter new superpower China’s growing might. They took umbrage at hosting no one higher than the US Secretary of State and, buckling under the unremitting pressure of the People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyers, pulled up their offshore gas rigs in disputed waters, thus letting bullying Chinese State-Owned Enterprises come in instead.

Emboldened, the PLA activated its own sleepers in Siberia, seized control of Russia’s oilfields, made itself totally energy independent, and lured all of Central Asia out from under Moscow’s sway. Rumor has it that President Putin, who initially awarded Ivan Ivanovich a secret FSB medal for Distinction in Special Operations for his brilliant plan, later rescinded the award and personally tore the medal off Vanya’s deflated chest.

Or at least this is the fairy tale that is making the rounds in Berlin these days.

ELIZABETH POND lives in Berlin and is the author of From the Yaroslavsky Station.

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How Long Will the Center Hold in Germany?

October 1, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Germany’s party system is on the cusp of something. The big question is whether that something might be erosion of the stable political center that the country has enjoyed over the past six decades.

The suspense goes well beyond the short-term issue of whether conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel will now put together a governing coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) or the Green Party. The long-term question is how long Germany’s two big “people’s parties,” the SPD and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (in tandem with its sister Christian Social Union in Bavaria) can still maintain consensus in the political center.

On the face of it, the potential decay of political consensus would seem like a bizarre worry, given Merkel’s huge victory in last week’s election and her astounding two-thirds public approval as she enters her third term as chancellor. This week The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne even posits the German polity as a cooperative model that a gridlocked Congress should emulate.

Yet Germany’s center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is already warning about the risks in the post-Merkel era beginning in 2017 and fears that Berlin might then go the way of Vienna. Austria’s election on September 29 gave a narrowed margin to the incumbent “grand coalition” of the main conservative (24 percent) and Social Democratic (27 percent) parties but reinstated the radical right Freedom Party (21.4 percent) as the third largest political force and also admitted to parliament the rank newcomer New Austria Party (4.8 percent) of Austrian-Canadian billionaire Matthias Strolz.

The danger the newspaper sees for Berlin is not that a radical right fringe party might grow strong enough to join and radicalize a coalition government as the Freedom Party did in Austria in the 1980s. It is instead that the two big German parties might shrink to the 20s percentile in popular support as their Austrian counterparts have already done—and eventually face the Belgian or Italian dysfunction of splintered parties that makes it hard to form coherent democratic coalitions.

Already the conservatives have shrunk from their high of 50.2 percent (and their only absolute majority) in 1957 to 41.5 percent in last week’s election in Germany. The Social Democrats have sunk even lower, from their high of 45.8 percent in 1972 to last week’s 25.7 percent. Together with their on-and-off partners of the FDP and the Greens, they have gathered enough votes to keep the middle predictable and stable over the past half century. The very big conservative tent of Angela Merkel stretches from the Bavarian Christian Social Union on the right to her own progressive adoption of Social Democratic and Green issues on the center-left, and the conservatives have always co-opted and smothered the far right. The Social Democrats have performed the same service on the left.

Yet the chancellor’s domination of her conservative troops has depended in part on her skill at seeing off anyone who aspired to be her heir apparent. Nasty fights to succeed her when she steps down in four years could chip away at the unity she has enforced. And if the SPD now enters a grand coalition with Merkel, as it did from 2005 to 2009, it will have to mute its distinctive voice and can expect the same loss of disillusioned supporters that it experienced in 2009.

More hints of potential fragmentation came in last week’s parliamentary election.  The Free Democratic Party (FDP) was ejected from the Bundestag for the first time since 1949. The gentrified Greens won one less seat than the Left Party that was formed after German reunification in 1990 around a core of former East German elites.  And the new anti-euro splinter party called Alternative for Germany drew 4.8% away from the political center.

In the enduring pattern since World War II the small FDP’s contribution to political stability has usually been to tip the scales to determine which of the two large parties could form a majority government. The Free Democrats could switch easily from the conservatives to the Social Democrats and back because of their own mixed platform stressing civil rights, entrepreneurial interests, and moderate nationalism. In this year’s election, however, they fell just short of the 5 percent minimum needed to win any seats at all in the Bundestag.

It will be hard for them to claw their way back to parliament and to their key role in deciding the ruling majority. Their lacklustre leaders today no longer match the FDP’s former giants. They will lose the government subsidies granted to Bundestag parties, and they now face robust competition from other small parties for floating votes.

As for the Green Party, after 20 years in the Bundestag it has evolved from its “funadmentalist” leftist beginning to become a pragmatic middle-class party. It already served a term in government in coalition with the Social Democrats after the 1998 election, and it could conceivably replace the FDP as the swing party, if it did not have to split the votes of the growing number of defectors from the people’s parties with the growing number of other small parties. The rival upstart Alternative for Germany, for example, has now made an impressive beginning, even if it fell short of the Bundestag minimum. It will surely meet the lower hurdle of 3 percent to enter the European Parliament in next spring’s elections and will use this as a base for poaching German voters from conservatives in 2017.

The long-term structural question, then, is a serious one. Just how long can Germany’s political center hold once Angela Merkel has left the chancellory?

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification (Brookings).

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond