Russia's Navalny case casts shadow on German politics ahead of election

BERLIN (REUTERS) – Pity Germany’s next chancellor. The poisoning and jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has thrust Nord Stream 2 – a pipeline to take Russian gas to Europe – up Germany’s political agenda.

That has created a serious problem for Angela Merkel’s likely successor before he has even got going, leaving prospects for a viable coalition government after the September election up in the air.

The man in pole position to succeed Dr Merkel after the vote, new Christian Democrat leader Armin Laschet, firmly supports Nord Stream 2 but his would-be governing partner, the ecologist Greens, are stiffening their opposition to it.

The Navalny case has galvanised the Greens into ramping up their demand that the pipeline be stopped, and it threatens to hamstring the next chancellor, who must also contend with US opposition and even doubts from France, Germany’s closest ally.

Navalny, sentenced on Tuesday to three-and-a-half years in jail after a Moscow court ruled he had violated terms of his parole, was arrested on Jan 17 after returning to Russia from Germany where he was treated for poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent.

His sentencing spurred Greens leader Annalena Baerbock to press Dr Merkel’s government to renounce the politically charged pipeline project, whose construction has been largely suspended since December 2019 following a threat of sanctions from the United States and the withdrawal of a pipe-laying company.

“We’ll push hard for that now and in the future,” Ms Baerbock told broadcaster ZDF this week when asked if the project could not go ahead with her party in the German government.

More than 90 per cent of the project has been completed and it is officially due to be launched later this year.

But Greens opposition has the weight of opinion of the United States and many around Europe.

The pipeline’s reliance on services provided by countries flanking the crowded Baltic Sea means there are many pressure points: withdrawals under US pressure by safety certification firms in Denmark and Norway could yet torpedo the project, according to a Greens source.

Omid Nouripour, the Greens’ spokesman on foreign affairs, told Reuters that Nord Stream 2 was “a bet against climate protection, a divisive issue for the European Union, a terrible bet for our energy security”.

The Navalny affair has prompted the Greens to double down on their opposition to the project, which would pipe Russian natural gas into Germany, from where there could be onward flow elsewhere in Europe.

“Novichok, the arrest of the opposition leader, 3,300 arrests in one day, massive police violence – none of that is exactly weakening our position (against) Nord Stream,” Nouripour said.

He refused to be drawn on the prospects of a “Black-Green”coalition in Berlin with the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), saying only: “People talk a lot about Black-Green. People always talk a lot.”

Mr Laschet, contrary to the Greens, said in an interview with Reuters this week that Nord Stream 2 was essential to securing Germany’s energy security.

He professed himself undaunted by the Nord Stream 2 flap, saying he did not think the pipeline would be an insurmountable obstacle to any coalition talks: “I think consensus with the Greens, for example, is possible.”

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Intra-party disputes

Germany’s increasingly fractured political landscape means a coalition of the CDU/CSU conservative alliance and the Greens is the most likely scenario after the September vote, when Merkel is stepping down after four terms in office spanning 15 years.

“Given the new chancellor will have to spend a lot of energy on intra-party disputes and coalition politics, prospects of over-delivering (on diplomacy) are low, at least in the short-term,” said Naz Masraff at political risk consultancy Eurasia.

“A more inward-looking Germany is what we will get (on the) international stage. Merkel will be deeply missed,” she said.

Complicating the diplomatic challenge for Berlin, French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said on Monday France had urged Germany to drop Nord Stream 2, particularly after the mass arrest of Navalny supporters.

German diplomats said they had the impression Beaune was expressing his own view rather than the French government’s, and Berlin’s position was in any case unchanged.

Germany and Russia say Nord Stream 2 is just a commercial project. Washington has long argued the pipeline will dangerously increase Russian leverage over Europe. New US President Joe Biden believes it is a “bad deal for Europe”.

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European Union lawmakers passed a resolution last month calling for the bloc to stop the completion of Nord Stream 2, in response to Navalny’s incarceration.

With so many forces ranged against the pipeline, there is talk in some quarters of Berlin that it may never be finished, instead either suspended forever just a few kilometres (miles) short of German landfall – or completed but never switched on.

“Perhaps the trial of Navalny finally gives Germany an opportunity to make a strength out of a weakness and rethink our position on the pipeline,” the Greens source said.

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