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Europe

Dealing with Medvedev Won't be Easier, Putin Warns Merkel

Meeting with Chancellor Merkel, President Putin warned the West against expecting a thaw in relations with Moscow under his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who he said will defend Russian interests on the world stage.

Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to President Vladimir Putin

Medvedev told Merkel he would seek continuity in foreign affairs

In the first visit by a foreign leader since Dmitry Medvedev was elected last weekend to succeed Vladimir Putin as president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Moscow on Saturday, March 8 to assess possibilties for a shift in policy and repair frayed relations with Russia.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin dispelled Western hopes of a softer tone in foreign policy by his successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Angela Merkel and Vladmir Putin

Tension was palpable between Merkel and Putin

"I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to stop exercising my powers so that they can deal with another person," Putin said. "I am long accustomed to the label by which it is difficult to work with a former KGB agent."

"Dmitry Medvedev will be free to demonstrate his liberal views," Putin said after talks with Merkel with whom he has a frosty relationship due to the German chancellor's frankness in addressing human rights and lack of freedoms in Russia.

"But he (Medvedev) is no less a Russian nationalist, in the good sense of the word, than I am, and I do not think that with him the partnership will be more simple."

"Open doors" to Medvedev

Medvedev's statements seemed to confirm Putin's predictions about Russia's next president. A 42-year-old former lawyer, Medvedev told Merkel he intended to seek continuity in foreign affairs.

"I am assuming we will have a continuation of that cooperation which you have had with President Putin...You have had big negotiations and that makes my task easier."

Merkel said she saw Medvedev as her "immediate partner in dialogue" ahead of the Group of Eight's meeting in Japan later this year. The German chancellor underscored that Medvedev would find "open doors" in Germany, adding an open and critical dialogue was important.

Putin hits out at NATO

There are hopes that Medvedev's controversial election may yet usher in a more diplomatic and construction stance in Moscow towards the West after clashes with Putin over Kosovo independence and US plans to place a missile shield in central Europe.

But Putin, who is expected to wield considerable influence when he steps down in May to become Medvedev's prime minister, lashed out at the Western military alliance NATO, which he accused of attempting to become a "substitute for the United Nations."

"An endless expansion of the military bloc under modern conditions where there is no confrontation between two hostile systems -- we can that is not only unfeasible but harmful and counterproductive," Putin said.

Kosovo Albanians

Russia, a strong Serbian ally, refuses to accept Kosovo's indepedence

The Russian president was equally belligerent on Kosovo's recently declared independence, warning it would encourage separatism in Europe. He warned Russia would only recognize Kosovo in accordance with international law.

"Separatism in Europe has received an additional push. This has (relevance) for Britain, for Spain, for Belgium," Putin said at a news conference with Merkel. "This is... a harmful and dangerous precedent."

Merkel wants Russia, Europe to work together

Merkel adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying Russia and Europe needed to improve cooperation both with regards to Russian energy exports to Europe and other major international issues.

Germany is Russia's single biggest trading partner and relies heavily on Moscow for gas and oil supplies.

Employees work at a pipeline valve at the main Hungarian gas company, the Mol Gas Transport Corp. at its process plant in Hajduszoboszlo, some 220 kms east of Hungary

Germany is heavily reliant on Russia for gas supplies

"Germany and Russia, Europe and Russia, are interdependent. We must find a way to go forward together. There are many things to do," she said at the start of talks with Putin just outside Moscow.

However Merkel also alluded to East-West strains that have worsened during Putin's tenure.

"Since I've been in power we've found a way to discuss together and to raise critical issues in an open and sincere way," she said. "It's always a joy and sometimes a challenge."

High hopes Medvedev may herald new era

Earlier this week, Merkel congratulated Medvedev on his landslide victory, while expressing concern about alleged election irregularities.

"The chancellor would like to form an impression of what the Russian political landscape will look like in future," German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said ahead of Merkel's one-day visit to Russia. "She is looking forward to learn more about Dmitry Medvedev's stated plans to entrench the rule of law and to modernise the Russian state and economy," he said.

"The chancellor will certainly raise the domestic situation after the election, as well as the election itself, where we have criticised a whole range of aspects."

In Berlin too, expectations are high that Merkel may open a new chapter with Medvedev.

Medvedev and Putin

Despite a flawed poll, Europe hopes to build better relations with Russia under Medvedev

"There's hope the new start will mean a move away from some of the tough tones, whoch might have been due to election campaigning," Gernot Erler, Germany's deputy foreign minister, told Reuters in an interview this week.

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Europe to engage in an updated version of the realism-driving "Ostpolitik" employed during the Cold War towards communist Eastern Europe.

"We want to add to this tradition. Let us begin with our relationship with Russia," Steinmeier said this week in a speech in Berlin. "I also wished that the vote had been freer, fairer and more democratic. But Russia is and remains an indispensable partner if we wish to establish a peaceful order throughout Europe."

He signalled that the German government hopes Medvedev will promote democracy in Russia and strengthen ties with Europe.

"Dmitry Medvedev has made clear his wish to modernize the country. He has stressed that the rule of law must be of utmost importance in Russia, and has expressed the wish for a renewed partnership with Europe."

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