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German, Russian civil society kick off 'Petersburger Dialogue'

The annual "Petersburger Dialogue" between German and Russian civil society groups has kicked off in Potsdam. The event, designed to foster open dialogue, was canceled last year due to the Ukraine crisis.

The "Petersburger Dialogue" opened this year with sharp criticism of Russian policy in Syria and Ukraine from the German co-chair Ronald Pofalla.

Pofalla, the former head of Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, lambasted Russia for its

recent military intervention in Syria

and

support for strongman Bashar al-Assad,

before continuing on to criticize Russia's "illegal annexation" of Crimea in Ukraine and support for separatist rebels in the country's east.

The Russian co-chair, former Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, responded at the opening ceremony on Thursday that the Assad regime had invited Russia to intervene and that Moscow's military action would not create more refugees.

The 14th "Petersburger Dialogue" is set to run from October 22 to 24 with the theme, "Modernization as a chance for a common European house." Its cancelation last year over Russia's annexation of Crimea is now overshadowed by a refugee crisis stemming from conflicts in the Middle East, Russia's military intervention in Syria, and the continuation of the crisis in Ukraine.

Viktor Subkow

The "Petersburger Dialogue" is designed to foster open dialogue between German and Russian civil society groups

However, at the same time Germany has criticized Russia it has also sought to play a balancing role between Russia and the United States in the face of multiple crises. And while remaining firm against Russia on the sanctions front alongside the EU and US despite significant economic costs, Germany has also left open room for diplomacy and played

a key role in the Minsk agreements to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Russia was also instrumental in helping to reach a

P5+1 agreement with Iran

over the country's nuclear program and Moscow

will likely need to play a role to reach a political solution in Syria.

In a message from Chancellor Merkel addressed to those attending the "Petersburger Dialogue," Pofalla said German-Russian relations were currently facing a "hard test."

"Only when we speak with each other rather than over each other can we create a new foundation, and subsequently further build our relations and cooperation," Pofalla said, conveying Merkel's message.

This year's discussions will focus on such themes as terrorism, migration, cultural dialogue, German-Russian relations and technology, among other topics.

cw/bw (dpa)

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