Where Is It Headed?

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Can Germany's Social Democrat Party, the SPD, still be passionate? In Great Britain, the wrinkled Labour boss Jeremy Corbyn managed to become the star of a new generation of left-wing voters. In the U.S. primaries, thousands of young Americans celebrated Democrat contender Bernie Sanders, when he spoke of his ideas for a more just world. Both succeeded in achieving what Sigmar Gabriel's party has long ceased to do: to combine politics with emotion, with themes close to the heart and with enthusiasm.

At first, the SPD looked cluelessly at Corbyn and Sanders. Now party leaders have found a subject they can get passionate about: How to move forward with Russia? This question is set to shape the federal elections in 2017 because of the Syria and Ukraine conflicts, and because of the rising anxiety among many Germans that the crises on Europe's outer borders could spread to the Continent's center. According to a recent survey, a third of Germans fear another war with Russia.

That's why in the coming elections the Social Democrats want to position themselves as the "peace party." That means "no" to new sanctions against Russia, "no" to a heightened conflict with Vladimir Putin, and "yes" to further talks. In this way, the party aims to differentiate itself from Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). That the Social Democrats could attract angry pro-Putin citizens from the left and the right is part of the plan. But they don't want to get caught playing this double game.

The test phase to find out which Russian tone of voice best suits the party faithful has already begun. A few weeks ago, SPD members received an email from the party chair, with the subject "Dialog instead of arms races." It contained the electronic signatures of Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and welcomed feedback.

Both condemned the Crimean annexation, calling it a violation of human rights, although they spread the blame astonishingly equally between Moscow and the West. "The old ghost of bloc confrontation seems to have reawakened," they wrote. "Old enemy clichés, long thought dead, are being stoked up again, unfortunately on both sides."

Even the email’s closing sounded if the party were already using the vocabulary of 2017. The party leaders reminded members of the Ostpolitik under SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt. They wrote that no other party has supported German-Russian relations in a similar way, and that the party has been criticized for that. "Back then, we didn't allow ourselves to be diverted from our course, nor will we allow that to happen today," the email stated– a line right out of the box of template Social Democratic campaign speeches.

Indeed, one sees in the SPD leadership the seductive side of a friendlier relationship with Russia. We know peace; the others don't. Nothing, it is said, motivates party members more in an election campaign than conviction. From the point of view of leading Social Democrats, party history also speaks in favor of a policy more understanding of Russia. Core voters would buy it as the natural continuation of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik. And wouldn’t foreign minister Steinmeier, a leading SPD member, be perfectly positioned to express the party's untiring readiness for a dialog with Putin's Russia? One just needs to sharpen the entire message for the elections, party insiders say.

The strategy could go down well with the party base, due to an ugly phenomenon that is well-known in the SPD but reluctantly discussed: Many party members harbor strong anti-Americanism. A move closer to Moscow is not a break with but an affirmation of their political worldview. On this point, some Social Democrats are hard to distinguish from followers of the Left Party, or from the far-right AfD.

"A new policy of détente that eases tensions and concentrates on peace in Europe should be among our five big election platforms," says SPD party vice chairman Ralf Stegner. He is willing to say what many SPD strategists have long thought and indeed planned in the party’s Berlin headquarters in the Willy-Brandt-Haus, but no one other than Stegner is willing to be mentioned by name.

Party strategists have long discussed how the Russian question could turn into a debate about peace and disarmament in Europe, similar to the earlier discussion about the Iraq war. Former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder ran an anti-war campaign in 2002, making the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq his primary election theme. Back then, as strategists fondly note, frustration with the government's miserable situation and the desolate search for themes of hope resolved itself in the question of war and peace. "The Iraq war is the best proof that the SPD was on the right track when it presented itself as a peace party," says Mr. Stegner.

Rapprochement has become an end in itself

And now, Russia. The relationship between the SPD and Moscow has always been special. The policy of "change through rapprochement," at the core of Ostpolitik, was conceived by Egon Bahr and implemented by Willy Brandt in the early 1970s. It released tensions in the confrontation between the West and the Eastern Bloc, paving the way to the end of the Cold War and ultimately to German reunification. It was the Social Democrat's foreign policy credo. And for Chancellor Brandt, the emphasis was always on the first word of that creed – "change." His long-term goal was to democratize the dictatorships of the East.

In the speeches of today's Social Democrats, however, "change" doesn't really play a role. "Rapprochement" has become an end in itself. This interpretation was most strongly expressed in Gerhard Schröder's friendship with Vladimir Putin and the gas lords. Would ending sanctions automatically lead to a better relationship with Russia? To argue that, one must overlook the logic behind Russia’s aggressive foreign policy: It serves to secure Putin’s power. The mobilization against foreign enemies has significantly increased the Russian president's popularity. So why lift the sanctions?

The last Social Democrat who ran a Russian-friendly election campaign was Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's State Premier Erwin Sellering. Squeezed between the right-wing AfD and a Putin-friendly electorate, Mr. Sellering invited former Chancellor Schröder to the Baltic Coast and pleaded to abolish sanctions immediately. "Erwin did a lot of things right," the party has been saying ever since.

Party deputy Stegner says he feels a "massive desire to deescalate tensions with Moscow" not only in the East but also on his home turf in Schleswig Holstein. Other leading Social Democrats report on campaign events where people ask about the refugee situation but are more concerned about the question: Why is the relationship with Russia is so bad? Pressure from below is becoming a weight at the top.

There are doubts, but they are mostly of a practical nature. "How do we turn the focus of an election campaign to these issues?" asks one high-ranking party member. Back in 2002, it was easier for Schröder, because there was a simple yes or no answer on the table: Should Germany take part in the Iraq war? In the 2017 election campaign, the focus is far more diffuse. The Social Democrats need to drive home their campaign message across that they are serving the interests of peace to become friendlier with Russia's aggressive president.

The biggest risk in a Russia-friendly election campaign is Russia itself. According to a recent survey, 48 percent of Russians fear that their relationship with the West because of the war in Syria could trigger a Third World War, which would more than likely be a nuclear conflict. But if Vladimir Putin remains true to himself, he will deliver more gloomy surprises and new forms of escalation in 2017. How long can the SPD maintain its deference to Russia if Vladimir Putin continues the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria, or finds a new way to escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine?

When one asks leading Social Democrats this question, they seem as clueless as ever.

Translated by Carl Holms