By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hit back at criticism of his planned new job at Russian oil producer Rosneft on Thursday, accusing his foes of political maneuvering to help get Angela Merkel re-elected.
The nomination of Social Democrat Schroeder to the board of Rosneft, subject to Western sanctions over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis, has caused an outcry in Germany, especially in a climate of fear about any potential Russian interference in the Sept. 24 vote.
Combative Schroeder, 73, who makes no bones about his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, defended his decision and said it would not damage the SPD.
"This is a political campaign for Mrs Merkel. People want to help her by slandering me," he told Swiss newspaper Blick.
Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, Schroeder said he knew his new role would cause some comments but he had not expected such "one-sidedness" in the reporting.
"I don't think my post will have a negative impact on the election. Germans have a big interest in having sensible ties with Russia," he said.
Schroeder is already a divisive figure in the SPD thanks to his labor market reforms and some members have distanced themselves from their former leader.
SPD leader Martin Schulz is holding no further joint campaign appearances with his predecessor although in June, Schroeder addressed the party's pre-election conference, urging them to keep the faith and fight for victory.
Earlier this week Schulz said he would not do what Schroeder had done. "Even after my time as German chancellor, I will not accept jobs in the private sector," he said on Facebook.
Whether Schulz will get the chance to serve as chancellor, however, is doubtful. The SPD are trailing Merkel's conservatives in most polls by around 15 percentage points though many commentators expect them to again join a right-left "grand coalition".
Top-selling Bild has splashed headlines lambasting "Gazprom Gerhard" for his involvement with Russian companies in the past few days. Schroeder told Blick he expected a salary of about $350,000 on which he would pay German tax.
Russia owns 50 percent plus one share of Rosneft and some conservatives and Greens have also criticized Schroeder for his "shameless" behavior.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that if Schroeder accepted the post, "a former German chancellor would be a stooge of an authoritarian system".
Schroeder is already chairman of the shareholders' committee of Nord Stream AG, a Gazprom-led consortium established for the construction of a pipeline carrying Russian natural gas across the Baltic.
It is not the first time Schroeder has been attacked for his ties to Russia. Just weeks after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he drew criticism for giving Putin a bear hug at the Russian leader's birthday party in St Petersburg.
Schroeder, whose father died in World War Two fighting the Red Army, is also still ridiculed for saying back in 2005 that he agreed with a description of Putin as a "flawless democrat".
(Additional reporting by Holger Hansen; Editing by Alison Williams)