Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of the German Christian Democrats, is increasingly under scrutiny by statements he has made in the past in defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime in Syria.
Mr. Laschet, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, beat rival Friedrich Merz in a digital leadership election on Saturday. It is seen as representing continuity with Angela Merkel’s moderate policy.
But in the past, Mr Laschet, who has a strong chance of succeeding Merkel as Chancellor after the September Bundestag elections, has expressed views on Russia and Syria that have put him outside the mainstream. of the CDU and which have now come back to haunt him.
Omid Nouripour, a Green MP, said he has received countless messages from friends in Eastern Europe and the Syrian opposition expressing concern over Mr Laschet’s views.
“It’s bad enough that he has these views as governor of one of the German federal states, but if he continues to marry them as head of the CDU, then it is a risk to the security of Germany and Europe, “he said on Tuesday.
However, a person close to Mr Laschet insisted that his views on foreign policy were CDU orthodox. “As far as Russia, the Middle East and especially transatlantic relations are concerned, he thinks in the same way as Merkel”, he declared.
One of the controversial interviews that have resurfaced in recent days is the one he gave in March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, criticizing what he described as “marketable anti-Putin populism” which was spreading in Germany. He quoted Henry Kissinger as saying, “The demonization of Putin is not a policy, but an alibi for the absence of a policy.
Interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung established Mr. Laschet as one of the most important in Germany Putinversteher or supporters of Mr. Putin. He noted that there were 1,200 companies in North Rhine-Westphalia that traded or invested in Russia, and stressed the region’s dependence on imports of Russian natural gas.
Four years later, Mr Laschet, in a Twitter message, said there was a lack of evidence to prove that Russia was behind the novichok attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018.
Observers have argued that the governors of Germany’s 16 regions are generally more pro-Putin than the federal government, largely because of the influence of large corporations in their states that have invested heavily in Russia.
The person close to Mr Laschet said that, unlike other regional leaders, such as Markus Söder, Prime Minister of Bavaria, and Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, Mr Laschet had refused to travel to Russia to meet Mr. Putin.
Mr. Laschet has become much more circumspect since the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist and the murder of a Chechen veteran in a Berlin park in 2019, whom German authorities blamed on the Kremlin. The two incidents had, he told reporters last month, “very strained” Russian-German relations.
However, he added that it was still possible to work with Russia on issues such as climate change and on academic and economic exchanges. “We need to stick to our guns, but also look for areas where we can improve our relationship. . . and avoid triggering a new confrontation, ”he said.
Perhaps his most controversial foreign policy intervention came in 2014, when accused the United States support for the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. At the time, he frequently described Mr. Assad as a potential ally of the West in the fight against Islamist terrorism and praised Russia for its support for the Syrian regime.
The person close to Mr Laschet said in the 2014 Twitter post he simply called for “a more nuanced approach to the Syrian opposition, which was much more heterogeneous than people realized.”
But the re-emergence of the message angered some in Syria. “Armin Laschet is pro Assad and pro Putin,” Anis Hamdoun, theater director and former anti-Assad activist, wrote on Facebook. “Very recent history teaches us again and again that leaders who support dictators in other countries will only wreak havoc on their own people.”
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon