Friday, December 16, 2005

BERLIN — Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faces mounting accusations of “disgusting” sleaze after accepting a top job on a Russian-German gas pipeline project that he helped set up in his final weeks in office.

The Bundestag lower house of parliament yesterday held a special session to debate the issue, which threatens to tarnish Mr. Schroeder’s reputation weeks after he handed over the chancellorship to Angela Merkel.

The affair “compromises Germany as a state,” European Union Commission Vice President Siim Kallas said.

State-owned Russian gas firm Gazprom announced last Friday that Mr. Schroeder will become supervisory board chairman of the North European Gas Pipeline Co., a joint venture between Gazprom and German firms E.ON and BASF to build a pipeline through the Baltic Sea and pump Siberian gas to Germany.

Analysts and politicians from all parties, including Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats, balked at the notion of a German leader taking Russian paychecks and said the move smacked of favoritism, given Mr. Schroeder’s close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Schroeder and Mr. Putin were instrumental in arranging the joint venture, announced two weeks before Germany’s September election.

The affair also revived criticism that Mr. Schroeder’s ties with Mr. Putin led him to overlook abuses of democracy and human rights in Russia.

The $6 billion project has caused a diplomatic row with Poland and the Baltic states, which are being bypassed by the pipeline and stand to lose gas transit revenues as a result.

Mr. Schroeder did not attend the debate yesterday in the Bundestag, where Greens Member of Parliament Matthias Berninger called the job “politically disgusting.”

“Herr Schroeder, reject this dubious job; you don’t need it,” he said.

Mr. Schroeder has dismissed press reports that he could be paid between $239,000 and $1.2 million a year for the position. He said pay had not been discussed and that he regarded it as a matter of honor to accept the position.

“It creates the appearance of a link between his own personal interests and politics,” the conservative minister-president of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, said in a newspaper interview published yesterday.

Some called for a code of conduct for top government officials who leave office.

Mrs. Merkel has made no public comments on the controversy, but her spokesman said she could understand why Mr. Schroeder’s move provoked questions. Guido Westerwelle, leader of the opposition liberal Free Democrats, called Mr. Schroeder’s decision embarrassing and “more than tasteless.”

Some of Mr. Schroeder’s allies defended him by saying that having a prominent German in charge of a strategically important project to secure the country’s long-term gas supply could be beneficial.

Mr. Schroeder, 61, has said he is too young to retire and wants to keep working. He receives a state pension of $9,200 a month and stands to receive substantial fees from Swiss publishing group Ringier, which has hired him as a consultant to help establish political contacts worldwide.

He also has opened a legal practice in Berlin.

Confusion over when Mr. Schroeder was informed of the job also fueled the debate.

Gazprom Chief Executive Alexei Miller told Bild newspaper that Mr. Schroeder was approached “when it became known that he was leaving high politics and Germany would be getting a new chancellor.” That was more than two months ago, so Mr. Miller’s statement contradicted Mr. Schroeder’s implication that he had been offered the job last Friday.

Yesterday, Bild said the German public has a right to know the details.

“Schroeder cannot claim to be a private citizen now. The office of German chancellor has a dignity that must be preserved beyond the duration of its tenure,” the mass-circulation daily said.

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