But Schroeder no longer speaks as a politician -- he is chairman of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream, a consortium working to build a new "gas supply route to Europe." The Moscow-supported project aims to lay a pipeline on the floor of the Baltic Sea to deliver gas from the northern Russian city of Vyborg to Greifswald, Germany.
Many consider Nord Stream to be a front for Gazprom, the Russian energy giant that is trying to expand its presence in Western Europe. Nord Stream's hiring of Schroeder in 2005 was seen as aimed at boosting the image and credibility of the project. During a question-and-answer session with students and faculty of Columbia University, Schroeder worked hard to dispel impressions that he is a Gazprom lackey.
"I am not working for Gazprom, that is a misconception," Schroeder said. "I am working for a company that has a joint venture and one of the partners within that joint venture is Gazprom. There are also two German companies and one Dutch company in that joint venture. So it is a club of four within which Gazprom is just one. And their sole purpose is to build the Baltic Sea gas pipeline, which is tremendously important for Europe."
Schroeder said that Europe currently consumes 500 billion cubic meters of gas annually. At the current rate of gas-consumption growth on the continent, another 200 billion cubic meters of gas will be needed by 2015. The Nord Stream pipeline, he says, will be able to provide more than a quarter of that amount (55 billion) when at full capacity.
The Nord Stream pipeline "is not trying to contend with other existing pipelines, such as the one in Ukraine, such as the one in Baltics or in Poland or wherever," Schroeder said. "It will be coming as a complementing, not as a competing factor. The opposition to this pipeline stands on two pillars: one is environmental concern, and the other is sheer political counterpressure."
Schroeder said that he strongly supports the idea of publicly discussing valid environmental concerns regarding the pipeline's construction. As for political opposition to the project -- notably from the three Baltic states and Poland -- he said that their opposition is to a large extent based on historical suspicion of Russia and less on pragmatic considerations. Historical burden is important, he said, and one has to transparently deal with it. At the same time, it cannot be accepted as a kind of a veto factor when discussing the real-life energy needs of Europe.
Speaking For Russia Or Europe?
Asked repeatedly whether he represents Gazprom or Moscow, the former chancellor said that he represents neither and that his main function within Nord Stream is to assure the most favorable conditions for meeting Western Europe's energy needs.
"I am doing my job very much in the interest of the European gas suppliers, and I think as long as I am completely free in my decision making in the job that I am doing there within that joint venture, I do not see why anybody should come and criticize me for it," Schroeder said.
The supervisory board of Nord Stream consists of eight members, four of them appointed by Gazprom. Schroeder holds one of these Gazprom votes and thus in a split decision he serves as the deciding vote. He says that he sees this as a sign of trust in him by Moscow.
Asked about the degree of trust and reliability Western Europe can have in Russia as a gas supplier, Schroeder said that there are various opinions on the subject but in his capacity as chancellor (1998-2005), he didn't have problems with that.
"Let me base my answer on the experience that we as Germans have had in dealing with Russian energy suppliers," Schroeder said. "That experience has certainly shown that Germany has never had a problem with the supply and integrity with the energy imported into Germany from Russia, not during all of the fickle times of the Cold War, not right now, and I personally don't see them in the future."
Concluding his remarks at Columbia, Schroeder said that Russia is not happy with what he characterized as persistent attempts by Western powers to denigrate Moscow, to not accept it as an equal partner, and to isolate it. This attitude is apparent, he says, in the proposed U.S. missile-defense system to be based in the Czech Republic and Poland.
"The Russian side very much feels that the reason given for it, namely that they were to be against the threat coming from Iran that needs to be fended off, the Russians feel that that is not really the point that they see, certainly after the disclosure recently about the threat from Iran being not as hot as portrayed before," Schroeder said.
Moscow, Schroeder said, feels that this is rather a policy of encirclement against Russia -- politically and economically -- and they are certainly not happy about it.