The new lobbyist generation
Franziska ended up in Sochi thanks to a friend. A committed member of the FDP, the German liberal party, recommended her to the organisers and thus ensured her an invitation to the event. The circle is elite, everyone knows each other, and they recommend each other. “Superficially, it was about exchange between young people, who, by the way, were often much older than 30. In reality, however, it was a very shady lobbying event – for the Russian government, for Gazprom,” says Franziska today.
Everything was pompous and extravagant: at the first reception in the evening, vodka and champagne flowed, the tables groaned under the weight of the food, whole animals – suckling pig, salmon and lobster – were served, and everything was in excess – the guests could only eat a fraction of everything on offer. There were workshops on only one of the three days. Everything else was a “luxury binge”. But the organisation left nothing to chance: the seating arrangements were fixed, the rooms in the luxurious 5-star hotel with a view of the Black Sea were pre-assigned – a German man would always share a room with a Russian man, and a German woman with a Russian woman, a tradition stemming from Russian youth groups. Even the exact dress code was prescribed. When Franziska appeared in a trouser suit instead of the stipulated evening gown, someone whispered to her that she was “very brave”.
Conversely, Franziska found the speeches and workshops not very brave at all. There was no space for criticism of the country that had annexed Crimea three years earlier – and would then invade Ukraine just a few years later. From Franziska’s point of view, “Nobody was really interested in political exchange there.” This is also confirmed by Ludwig Fenn, whose name we have also changed, and who attended the conference a few years earlier in 2013 in St. Petersburg. There was hardly any exchange with Russian participants. It was obvious that this was a gathering in which a self-proclaimed elite met to party and network. And, incidentally, to put everyone in a good mood to do business with Russia.
Guests like Franziska were the exception. In 2016, for example, out of 200 participants only five were explicitly listed as students; in 2013, the number was similarly low.
The conferences, which sometimes took place in Russia, sometimes in Germany, were organised by the German association “Deutschland-Russland – die Neue Generation” (“Germany-Russia – the New Generation”). From the very beginning, the association brought in representatives of energy companies, and gathered supporters from the likes of the circles surrounding former chancellor Schröder and Russian company Gazprom, to contacts close to the Kremlin itself. The political foundations of the German conservative party CDU and liberal party FDP were also supporters. Gazprom and McKinsey were conspicuously close. But the association still tells a different story to the outside world.
The association – a diplomat from Putin’s government supported the conference
A brief look into the history of the association is worthwhile.
In 2010, the children of well-connected businessmen and ambassadors met in a Berlin pizzeria. Their professed goal: to promote international understanding between Russia and Germany through an association. It would enable young people to meet each other. One of them was Nico Raabe, the then 31-year-old project manager at McKinsey, one of the largest management consultancies in the world, a man well connected in Berlin circles. Today he is still an expert on the gas industry at McKinsey.
Also at the pizzeria were then 24-year-old Christoph Herzog von Oldenburg and 22-year-old Anne-Marie Großmann. Von Oldenburg comes from an aristocratic family with many connections to Russia, and he would later become the face of the “Young Leaders” conferences. Großmann is the daughter of Jürgen Großmann, the former boss of the German power company RWE. The association was registered in her name. Today she is a managing director at the Georgsmarienhütte steel company, which her father, a friend and skat-playing chum of Gerhard Schröder, once chaired.
The case of Vladimir Kotenev is also remarkable. The then 28-year-old son of the former Russian ambassador was also one of the association’s founding members. The association was supported by the Russian state envoy, as stated in a letter from the association’s lawyer obtained by CORRECTIV.
Von Oldenburg and Raabe had at times had a very close relationship with Kotenev Senior, the Russian ambassador in Berlin at the time. His wife was on the board of trustees of the conference. Kotenev Senior also played an important role at the conference, according to participants’ observations. Some of the first meetings in 2009 and 2010 took place at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. The 2010 programme also included a meeting with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
When the ambassador took up a position at Gazprom in 2010, he helped Gazprom co-sponsor the conference the following year. However, the association later fell out with Kotenev, Oldenburg, the association’s founder, told CORRECTIV. Gazprom and McKinsey forged close ties during the same period. But more on that later.
The association apparently sought proximity to Russia’s centre of power. One of the women who sat on the board of trustees is, according to an FAZ investigation into the association, the godmother of Vladimir Putin’s first daughter.
Politics – German prime ministers joined in the party
German politicians were also willing to get involved: prime ministers of the conservative CDU, the Bavarian counterpart CSU and the democratic SPD regularly gave the welcoming address. Stanislaw Tillich, former CDU Minister President of Saxony, became a patron of one of the conferences. Former office worker for Schröder and now the current SPD party leader Lars Klingbeil was on the conference’s board of trustees, as was Heino Wiese, one of the key figures for the SPD’s contacts with Russia. The FDP and CDU also supported the “Young Leaders Conferences” through the party-affiliated foundations Friedrich Naumann for the liberal party and Konrad Adenauer for the conservative party. Even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Adenauer Foundation did not withdraw its support. The Naumann Foundation did briefly suspend its involvement in 2014, but returned as a supporter in 2015. Today, no one wants to be self-critical. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed the “political framework”, writes a spokesperson for the Adenauer Foundation. However, civil society contacts and corresponding formats have remained unchanged.
Good business with Russia, change through trade: that was the German position, which shocked many other European countries. Especially when it came to energy: the Nordstream pipeline was planned, which would allow ever increasing amounts of climate-damaging gas to flow from Russia. There was hardly any criticism of it in Germany. Yet 2014 could have been a turning point.
Crimea is occupied and Scholz extends an invitation
As the world held its breath and started to sanction Russia for occupying Crimea, the conference planning carried on as normal. Three months after the invasion, the “Young Leaders” met in Hamburg, under the patronage of Olaf Scholz. At that time, he was still the first mayor (SPD) of the Hanseatic city, today he is the Chancellor of Germany. He gave his welcome speech on the museum ship San Diego, and the next day he again welcomed his guests onto the Elbe. He praised German-Russian relations. There was, he said, no room in the medium nor long term for alienation and thinking in terms of spheres of interest – and that also applied “when the circumstances are more complicated and political differences come to light”.