BERLIN: Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder escaped humiliatingly booted out of his party on Monday, as the ruling Social Democrats SPD found his ties with Vladimir Putin did not breach its rules.
Schroeder, 78, has been under growing criticism since Russia invaded Ukraine in February over his friendship with Putin and his links to Russian energy companies.
The Hanover branch of the SPD opened a hearing in July to discuss 17 motions from local and regional chapters against his ongoing membership of the party.
The former chancellor was not guilty of a violation of party rules, as no violation can be proven against him The decision can be appealed, but legal experts say there are high hurdles for expelling members.
Schroeder, who was the chancellor from 1998 to 2005, refused to turn his back on the Russian president despite the Ukraine war.
His position has made him an embarrassment for the SPD, which is also the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
He has been widely criticised for holding a number of lucrative positions at Russian energy giants, but it was only after much public pressure that Schroeder gave up his seat on the board of Russian energy group Rosneft.
He later announced he would not be joining Gazprom's supervisory board as originally planned.
In May, Germany's parliament removed some of the benefits Schroeder was entitled to as an elder statesman, stripping him of office and staff.
Schroeder, who was Angela Merkel's immediate predecessor, remained defiant and met with Putin in Moscow in July.
In an interview after the visit, he claimed Russia wanted a negotiated solution to the war comments branded as disgusting by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Schroeder has also called for Berlin to reconsider its position on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was completed but was blocked by the German government in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine.
On Monday, the decision of not to expel him was bad for the SPD, but also bad for our whole country, according to the Opposition's leader, Thorsten Frei, from the centre-right CDU party. It is quite unbelievable in view of what we have seen from Gerhard Schroeder in the past weeks and months, he told Die Welt television.
The move by the Hanover branch of the party was purely a legal decision and Schroeder was isolated within the SPD as a result of his positions, according to the SPD leader Lars Klingbeil.
Germany's SPD has historically championed close ties with Russia, born out of the Ostpolitik policy of rapprochement and dialogue with the then Soviet Union, devised in the 1970s by former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt.
Senior SPD members, including current president Frank-Walter Steinmeier - a former foreign minister, have faced mounting scrutiny since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A survey for the Bild Daily put the SPD on just 19 per cent, lagging behind the conservatives on 27 per cent and the Greens on 21 per cent.