Merkel breaks her silence… and does not regret her policy towards Russia | International

“Did you like our conversation?” Angela Merkel was asked by the journalist who had just interviewed her in a theater full of spectators amid enormous expectation. Just after the talk, with which the former chancellor returned to public life this week after six months of silence, Alexander Osang was still nervous, recounted in Der Spiegel. Merkel did not answer: “We’ll see tomorrow.” She had to wait for reactions. As pleased as she was with her performance, in which she was very talkative, eloquent and even sly, she was aware that Germany was going to judge her basically for one thing: her policy towards Russia during the 16 years that she was chancellor.

If someone expected a mea culpa public, he must have felt very disappointed. That was almost never Merkel’s style, and neither will she be now, when Christian Democrat politics has ended her break and she is rejoining political life as a statesman, retired but active. She gave some clues, few, about the role that she is going to play. He is not going to interfere in the management of the new tripartite government led by the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, giving his opinion publicly on current issues. He didn’t do it in the interview. He was very careful to give it about things like the rearmament of the German Army, the shipment of heavy weapons to the Ukraine or the nine-euro transport ticket and the other measures to combat inflation and help reduce energy consumption. If he is asked for advice, he will give it, but in private.

What Merkel did not disappoint were the expectations of those who wanted her to openly review her four terms in power. He recounted things that were not known, or rather that he had not explained before, such as that he played an active role in denying Ukraine the status of a candidate country to join NATO at the Bucharest summit in 2008. Ukraine was not then the country which is today, he said. It was dominated by oligarchs and was not “democratically stable”. According to her assessment at the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have been provoked and would have retaliated against kyiv.

Poster announcing Angela Merkel's first public interview after leaving office last December.
Poster announcing Angela Merkel’s first public interview after leaving office last December.JOHN MACDOUGALL (AFP)

The only hint of self-criticism was the moment when Merkel acknowledged that after February 24, when Putin launched the invasion, she has often wondered if world leaders did everything in their power. “Of course I have wondered if enough was done. If more could have been done to prevent this tragedy, because for me it is a huge tragedy. Could it have been avoided? ”, She inquired on the stage of the Berliner Ensemble, in a talk that had much of a show, with a packed theater that applauded her and laughed at some jokes throughout 90 minutes. Public television, aware that it was not just any interview, broadcast it live on prime time. Some analyst joked the next day that Merkel spoke more in that theater than in all the interviews she gave while she was chancellor.

Merkel left active politics of her own free will, after a 30-year career, without having lost an election and with an enormously positive perception among citizens. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown her legacy into question. Her 16 years in power cemented her energy dependence on Russian oil and gas, and her lukewarmness with Putin is now judged from another perspective. The missiles that began falling on February 24 also symbolically exploded in Germany, which has had to rethink a decades-old consensus on foreign, security and energy policy.

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Looking back, Merkel doesn’t think she should apologize for her policy of appeasement with the Russian leader. In essence, she believes that she did what she could and that diplomacy is always good, even if it doesn’t work. “I don’t see why she should tell myself it was a mistake and I’m not going to apologize for that,” she told Osang, an East German like herself. “In hindsight, I’m glad I don’t have to blame myself for not trying to prevent an occurrence like this. On the contrary, fortunately I have worked hard enough together with successive French presidents and this gives me a certain peace of mind”, assured.

The interview is part of the plan that the former president has drawn up to reposition herself in German public life. No one expects that she will dedicate herself to private activity, as her predecessor did, the one today turned outcast by his support for Putin Gerhard Schröder. And it doesn’t seem like she aspires to flashy public office either. In January she turned down an offer from UN Secretary-General António Guterres to take over a UN body, the Advisory Council on Global Public Goods.

Like all former chancellors – except Schröder, whose privilege was withdrawn by Parliament last month – Merkel is entitled to an office, staff and driver. In December, as soon as she left office, she asked for nine employees (two directors, two specialized advisers, three administrative staff and two drivers), which seemed to confirm that her activity was going to be intense. The day after leaving through the door of the Chancellery, she entered her new office, the same one Helmut Kohl occupied, at 8:20 in the morning.

Then he did take the break he said he dreamed of. She told it in the interview. She spent five weeks on the Baltic Sea coast; She spends time in her house in the rural district of Uckermark, near Templin, the East German city where she grew up, and she also vacationed in Italy, where she was photographed admiring monuments like any other tourist. Her Italian journey provoked criticism in Germany, because it occurred shortly after the Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha were known. The Germans missed the former chancellor speaking out and leaders like the Italian Matteo Renzi asked her to act as a mediator.

the tabloid bild entitled on the cover: “Guest to kyiv, on a trip to Florence” and echoed the fierce criticism of the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, who made him ugly for having chosen the Italian sun over the bleak landscape of Bucha. “I knew it would cause problems, but I wanted to make it clear that I am no longer chancellor. This trip was very important for my process of decoupling from politics, ”she was honest in the theater. “Now I have to be allowed to travel beyond the Uckermark,” she said, to applause from the audience. Merkel also confirmed in the talk that she is preparing a four-handed political memoir with one of her closest confidants, Beate Baumann, her uninterrupted chief of staff since 1992. The war will undoubtedly influence how she recounts the decisions she made regarding to Vladimir Putin.

“Settling down again and finding a new role in German political life is going to be complicated,” says Ursula Weidenfeld, a journalist and Merkel biographer, who, however, believes that she is going to try to find a place without interfering in the management of the new Government, with which she said she was satisfied in the interview. “It seemed very intelligent to me that he did not want to comment on the daily news,” he adds, and recalls that during his 16 years at the head of Germany his motto used to be “I want to serve my country”, so he hopes that, also as a former chancellor, 67 years will contribute in some way to it. “There’s definitely some of that left.”

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