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Germany

A New Era in Future Russian-German Relations?

Russia's new president is making his first official visit to Germany on Thursday. But news that the German foreign minister recently met the lawyer of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky may bring a note of discord.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

It will be Medvedev's first visit to a western state since he took office

The highlight of Dimitry Medvedev's visit will be his first-ever speech on foreign affairs -- the biggest indication yet of whether he'll follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, whose speech at a security conference in Munich last year was reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric.

Berlin has been hoping for an improvement in relations with Moscow and Medvedev's pledge to strengthen the rule of law during his term of office has already been well received in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to take up the issue during their meeting.

Merkel has adopted a more critical stance towards Moscow than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, and, accordingly, relations with Putin had been distinctly frostier.

The chancellor will also address issues that have recently brought Moscow into conflict with the West, such as Putin's opposition to independence for Kosovo and Washington's plans to deploy elements of its missile defense system in Europe.

Nevertheless, one Russian paper was optimistic about the future of German-Russian ties: "Quite probably, personal relations between the new Russian president and the chancellor will develop more warmly," the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote this week. "His career has taken place entirely under new Russian geopolitical realities, as has Merkel's."

Steinmeier's visit could be controversial

Former Yukos oil company CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky seen behind bars at a courtroom

The issue of Khodorkovsky is expected to resurface

However, things could become touchier with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. While he is on good terms with the new president, whom he got to know when he was chief-of-staff for then Chancellor Schroeder, his meeting with Mikhail Khodorkovsky's attorney in mid-May could become a fly in the ointment.

According to information obtained by the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Steinmeier had discussed the possibility of getting the former oil magnate transferred from his Siberian jail to Moscow during the talks.

Many regard Khodorkovsky's fate -- he is currently serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion -- as the result of a Kremlin-led vendetta against him for his having shown political ambitions. In an interview with the Sunday Times last month, he said only a "complete idiot would have swallowed the case" against him in an independent court.

One of the things that Medvedev has promised to do ahead of his visit is to reform Russia's judicial system. He has also turned down a bill that would permit the authorities to stop the media from criticizing officials.

Economic ties to top agenda

Medvedev, who chairs energy monopoly Gazprom's board of directors, will also meet with German President Horst Koehler and speak before a large gathering of business executives, underscoring the prime agenda of the trip -- attracting more German investment.

Germany is already Russia's number one trading partner, with an annual turnover of $53 billion (34 billion euros). Germany also depends on Russia for oil and gas, and the countries are building a joint pipeline for future deliveries under the Baltic Sea.

The North Stream pipeline project is headed by former Chancellor Schroeder, who was Medvedev's first foreign visitor following his inauguration on May 7.

Around 4,500 German companies have set up shop in Russia and constitute a key part of the economic relationship between the two nations. One of the important items on the agenda for his Berlin visit is expected to be Russian investment in Western Europe.

Visit sign of positive ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, background

Will Medvedev really be his own man?

Opinions are divided on whether Medvedev will actually be more liberal than Putin. Vladimir Pribylovsky, the head of Moscow-based think tank Panorama, is pessimistic. "I think no changes can be expected here regardless of who is in the Kremlin -- Putin or Medvedev," he said.

But Alexander Rahr, an expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), took a more upbeat approach. "Relations could improve further if, from Merkel's point of view, Medvedev were to make small steps towards strengthening civil society," he said.

Medvedev is expected to highlight the importance of his policy toward European while in Germany. The new president's maiden foreign trip was to China, and analysts say the visit to Berlin is intended to show that Russia is still interested in Europe.

"Medvedev is going to Germany to demonstrate that good relations are still on track," Pribylovsky told Reuters news agency.

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