Jan Lämmerhirt stands in front of two special trucks that are being filled with liquid hydrogen. Fine steam hisses from one pipe, another pipe is covered with a layer of ice despite the hot summer day. Plant manager Lämmerhirt and about 450 employees at the liquefied gas producer Linde at the Leuna plant cool the hydrogen down to minus 253 degrees, so that it becomes liquid. There are only four such plants in Europe so far, Linde owns two in Leuna in Saxony-Anhalt.
But to generate the liquid hydrogen, energy is needed. In the future, hydrogen will be able to be liquefied using renewable energy. However, a dozen lines still lead to the Linde premises. It also flows: natural gas from Russia.
Construction manager Lämmerhirt is therefore very worried these days. In the event of an embargo from Russia, from which 100 percent of the gas to Leuna Chemical Park comes via pipelines, production would stop immediately. You may have three hours to shut down the systems. Then the light would go out at Linde. “Financially, it would be better if the pipelines remained open,” says Lämmerhirt, smiling a little tormented and then mumbling, “Of course, morally, that’s a different matter.”
Many people in East Germany currently feel the same way as Lämmerhirt. Horror due to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and not a few felt that they were wrong with Russia. But also concern about the consequences of sanctions.
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An oil embargo against Russia is being planned at EU level. The federal government is opposed to a gas embargo that has been called for time and time again, but here too dependence on Russia must be reduced. Many fear for their jobs and the mood in the East is tense. Saxon Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer (CDU) warned that the consequences of the sanctions should not hit the east harder than the west.
Why has the East had a closer relationship with Russia for so long?
The special relationship with Russia became clear around 2019 when Kretschmer called for an end to the sanctions imposed by the EU on Moscow in 2014 due to Russian actions in Ukraine. It should be noted that there is a separate opinion on this issue in the East German states, Kretschmer said. It also confirms opinion polls. Shortly before the Russian attack on Ukraine, 51 percent of East Germans still believed that Germany should work as closely as possible with Russia.
Raj Kollmorgen is a sociologist at Zittau / Görlitz University of Applied Sciences and comes from Leipzig. He sees three main reasons for the East Germans’ different views on Russia. First: the geographical proximity. Secondly, the economic ties, which were very close until the sanctions began in 2014. Through these business relations, many East German entrepreneurs, especially from the medium-sized industry, also had personal relations with Russia. Third: a specific cultural imprint in East Germany.
The Soviet Union was, in fact, an occupying power until 1989. In the GDR’s education and training system, in magazines, films, fairy tales, in the evening television program – but everywhere a positive image of the “big brother” was drawn. “Even those who were later critical of socialism were not unaffected by this,” says Kollmorgen.
“This diverse dissemination of facts, stories, ideologies that – as we know it today – condensed into a utopian, idealized image of the Soviet Union and its Russian center, is no longer so easy to get out of your head.” It is deep in the brains and hearts of many East Germans. Therefore, there is a cultural automatism of supposed understanding, a basic solidarity with Russia, especially among older East Germans – without being able to mention exactly why.
There is also a kind of “loser solidarity” in the East. After 89/90, many East Germans did not feel sufficiently valued by the West. “They themselves noticed that Russia was also treated from above by the West – and they recognized themselves in this treatment. It created a diffuse feeling of solidarity. ”
Today, the war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine have deeply disturbed many in the East. This changes the picture of Russia dramatically.
What fears do the sanctions evoke?
Concerns about the oil embargo being discussed at EU level are high, says Saxon Prime Minister Kretschmer. The East would be particularly affected because the two major oil refineries in Leuna and in Schwedt in Brandenburg have so far treated Russian oil from the Druzhba pipeline. Kollmorgen calls places like Schwedt “interconnection hotspots”. “The experience of literally closing the tap is combined with experiences of deindustrialization after German unification in 1990.”
For decades, the capital region as far as Lausitz and northern Saxony has been supplied with oil via Schwedt. Here, 12 million tonnes of crude oil are processed every year, nine out of ten cars in Berlin and Brandenburg run on petrol and diesel from Schwedt. In addition, a large part of the petroleum in BER Airport comes from Schwedt, as does heating oil and bitumen for road construction.
“In Brandenburg alone, 130,000 flats are fired with oil,” said Jan Redmann, CDU’s parliamentary group leader in Brandenburg’s state parliament. “If prices change permanently, then we in the East will suffer.” It would also hit the region at the wrong time, he explains. “We are currently in a process of reindustrialization.” If you suffer from long-term location disadvantages here, it would abruptly interrupt the transformation process. CDU MP Sepp Müller emphasizes that an oil embargo will particularly affect those regions that have undergone structural changes in the last 32 years.
The East can also quickly get disadvantages when it comes to gasoline prices. Because if the oil no longer comes from Russia, but from Poland and the German oil reserve by ship to Schwedt, prices are likely to rise. In addition, the refinery probably can not run at full capacity. There may be bottlenecks. CDU politician Redmann warns of queues at East German gas stations.
Inflation also affects people. That the east is affected differently than the west is also due to the fact that a larger proportion of the poorer live here, says the sociologist Kollmorgen.
What does the economy want?
Christof Günther stood in front of the Total refinery in Leuna chemical park last week and warned Minister of Economic Affairs Robert Habeck (The Greens), with whom he had just visited the 1,300-hectare area for two hours. ‘A gas boycott on our part would have devastating consequences. You should definitely not do that, ”says Günther, who has been CEO of Leuna since 2012. 100 companies with more than 10,000 well-paid jobs are currently located in the chemical park. When oil and gas run dry here, the production lines do not just stop in Leuna. “If we can no longer produce basic chemicals, all subsequent industries will be affected.”
Should gas become scarce, politicians should therefore consider the location by rationing, says Günther. The arguments are the same in many other industries. The glass industry, traditionally based in the low mountain range and in the Thuringian Forest, warns: If the furnaces go out there, the glass threatens to solidify and the melting tanks may break.
The German Glass Industry Association therefore demands that the industry be secured at least about 70 percent of the usual amount of gas. However, this is not actually stipulated in the federal government’s emergency plan. It states that households will be given priority, while the Federal Network Agency will then ration gas to industry. A distribution battle that the industry will avoid at all costs.
What are the politicians’ plans?
The story that Federal Economy Minister Habeck is spreading these days during his visits to Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia is hopeful. He observed a “dynamic,” he said at all three visits. Specifically, Habeck hopes to be able to take advantage of the location advantage in the east. As there is more free space here, more renewable energies must be created with wind and solar parks. In the future, companies will also be located where energy is produced.
In addition, there is still room for large buildings. Tesla in Grünheide names Habeck, but chip maker Intel, which is to build a factory in Magdeburg for 17 billion euros, is also one of the lighthouses. “This will result in a cluster economy that goes into science, research and crafts,” Habeck said during his visit to Magdeburg. In fact, more than 10,000 jobs are expected to be created.
But much still lies in the future. Habeck must provide oil and gas to the East. The Minister promises that the ports of Rostock and Lubmin will also play an important role: “We will take great care to ensure that the new import opportunities that are created are given equal importance in eastern Germany.”
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However, the East German prime ministers remain skeptical. You asked Habeck for an emergency meeting, says Michael Kretschmer. He defines the terms of an oil embargo against Russia. It can only happen, ”if it is guaranteed that the quantities lost will be 100 percent replaced by other sources. And at reasonable, competitive prices, ”he explained at the end of last week. Kretschmer also wants to address other energy supply issues in conversation with Habeck: floating gas terminals in the Baltic Sea, lignite as a bridge technology and the possible continued operation of the three remaining nuclear power plants in Germany.
Are new East German protests threatening?
Sociologist Kollmorgen has the impression that the government is addressing the concerns of people in East Germany. It was also perceived here positively, “that Scholz was initially reluctant to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine”. How it goes now depends to a large extent on whether the government’s relief measures reach the population. “When East Germans have the feeling that they – in their view: once again – are being thought of at last, disappointment and distancing can grow.”
Kollmorgen does not currently expect a new wave of protests. “In the East, many are exhausted by the struggles and strains of the past five years, not least the pandemic,” he says. But if there was a clear loss of prosperity, then protests could arise where a relevant section of the population would ask the system question. However, it is unclear whether AfD would benefit from this. “For many protesters, the party is no longer the central point of reference. Many now see the party as one actor among many. The connection to the party is crumbling. ” It is also connected with the internal quarrels in AfD.