The recent German corruption scandals are about the health of democracy in Germany and the EU as much as they are about money. A series of corruption scandals have rocked Germany recently, forcing numerous members of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to quit and the party’s poll ratings to plummet ahead of the September general election.
Some of the MPs disclosed had accepted bribes from authoritarian governments such as Azerbaijan and North Macedonia in exchange for lobbying on their behalf in Berlin and Brussels. However, the events raise broader questions about authoritarian attempts to exercise influence in German and European politics, in addition to demonstrating a surprising proclivity for corruption among elected officials, which has been the primary focus of German media in recent months.
Relationships between some politicians from Germany’s two traditionally largest parties, on the one hand, and authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, to name a few, are tangled in a web of interests.
This can take the shape of lucrative contracts for individual lawmakers or influencing the European Parliament through party groups. Autocrats from within and outside the European Union have long been able to exploit loopholes in German law and weaknesses in financial control to weaken European attitudes on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, regardless of the vehicle of influence. The use of questionable “consultancies” linked with members of parliament and previous top-level politicians is a common practice.
Fees for such activities are often uncapped, and MPs are not required by law to reveal such income to the Bundestag. In many cases, MPs who engaged in such behavior only got into difficulty if they tried to avoid paying taxes. One of the most recent scandals involves payments made by former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski while he was in government. Gruevski’s administration apparently engaged a consulting firm controlled by MP Tobias Zech to arrange meetings for the then-prime minister in Berlin and Munich in 2016. The goal of this lobbying was to rally political support for the government ahead of the elections. It happened at a time when Gruevski’s government had previously been accused of mass democratic and human rights breaches. It also happened in the wake of huge scandals that exposed his government’s high levels of corruption and criminality.
One example from 2015 was the eavesdropping of 20,000 Macedonian journalists, politicians, and religious officials’ telephone calls, as well as political involvement in the courts, media, and administration. Gruevski’s excursions to Germany therefore gave an autocrat an aura of legitimacy, and they may have harmed the US government’s and the EU’s efforts at the time to facilitate democratic regime change and help put in place conditions for free and fair elections. The US and EU efforts eventually paid off, resulting in a democratically elected government and the historic Prespa Agreement with Greece, which altered the country’s name and allowed it to join NATO. Setting up organizations like the “environmental foundation” founded by the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to fight for the building of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is another way to gain influence in Germany.
The foundation’s revelations have sparked a similar debate over the insufficiency of current compliance and transparency regulations. The foundation, which is de facto controlled by Gazprom, promises both attractive positions and financial resources to promote the Russian state-owned company’s interests (and the Kremlin in general). Politicians in Germany should act rapidly to address the problem of “strategic corruption.” Top-level politicians moving readily from high-level government employment to executive positions in firms owned by authoritarian regimes provide another conduit for unlawful foreign influence. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who sits on the board of Russian oil major Rosneft and uses his status as a well-liked politician to support controversial Russian state-sponsored projects, is the poster child for such clout. Some former German politicians now run consultancies that generate enormous sums of money by connecting German companies to political decision-makers in totalitarian regimes.
The encouragement of Germany-China business by Social Democrat and former defense minister Rudolf Scharping, as well as the consulting of former East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maizière, are two examples. The latter is a vocal opponent of Russian sanctions. Those who work for the Petersburg Dialogue or the German-Russian Forum are especially vociferous in their support for Russian interests. Azerbaijan appears to have utilized the Germany-South Caucasus parliamentary exchange group to groom particular members of the Bundestag by providing them with travel, gifts, and other privileges. Further journalistic investigations revealed that interns with ties to the Baku dictatorship had been placed with both CDU, SPD, and opposition party representatives in parliament, propagating regime interests, following a scandal involving Azeri payments to members of the Bundestag. The Azeri regime has also funded a chair at Berlin’s prestigious Humboldt University, whose holder promotes the state’s own political views on the Southern Caucasus. Finally, foreign politicians have been able to exert significant influence in EU institutions through exchanging favors.
In order to enhance his relations to the CDU and its usual coalition partner, the Christian Social Union, Hungary’s prime minister has long advocated the interests of German automakers in the European Council. Critics claim that these relationships are maintained in exchange for the European People’s Party (EPP) and its European Parliament group tolerating rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding in Hungary. While Fidesz was suspended from the EPP in 2019, before leaving for permanently in March 2021, Hungary’s democratic decline has been aided by the reluctance to act sooner. Budapest would not have been able to count on the support of Poland’s Law and Justice government after it retook power in 2015 if the EU had moved to use Article 7 procedures (which are used when a member state violates key principles like as democracy and human rights).