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Merkel in Moscow with human rights agenda

Under pressure from her parliament to criticize President Vladimir Putin's civil rights record, Angela Merkel has touched down in Moscow Friday for German-Russian talks. That criticism has been rebuffed by the Kremlin.

The German chancellor's scheduled trip was preceded last week by a resolution in the Bundestag that raised 17 demands, including that Russia uphold European norms on human rights and democracy.

German diplomats said shortly before her arrival that she was unlikely to raise all 17 points during her seven-hour stopover. Accompanying her are eight of her Cabinet ministers and a German business delegation.

Ahead of Merkel's visit, the German government's coordinator for Russia, Andreas Schockenhoff, told the newspaper Rheinische Post that since Putin's re-election as president in March Russia had "experienced an atmosphere of intimidation with repressive legislation."

Schockenhoff, who is a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, also told the German public television station ZDF on Friday that Russia's greatest potential was not its oil and gas but "modern, critical human beings."

The departure from Russia of 1.5 million of its citizens - including many of its best-educated - must make some wonder, Schockenhoff said, adding that the German concern is not anti-Russian. "Russia is our partner," he said.

Putin to defend stance

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin, who served for five years as a KGB spy in former communist East Germany, would defend his record.

"We are well-aware of the heightened anti-Russian rhetoric in Germany in recent weeks or even months. We are aware of the demands Mrs. Merkel faces from Bundestag deputies and others to raise various human rights and democracy issues with Putin," Peskov said. "As always, President Putin will explain in detail whatever remains unclear and will ask his own questions."

Referring to Russian-German trade, Peskov said relations are unique and diverse.

"Eighty-seven billion dollars in (annual) bilateral trade provide this 'airbag'," Peskov said. "With such a solid foundation, we can be calm."

Dependence on Russia

Germany draws 30 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, deliveries in which Merkel's Social Democrat predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder is involved.

Earlier this year, Russia was internationally condemned for its jailing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral. Criticism mounted on Wednesday with the enactment of Russian legislation that broadens the definition of treason.

Friday's consultations in Moscow, the 14th in a series known as the Petersburg Dialogue, are also expected to focus on conflicts in the Middle East, including Syria; Iran's controversial nuclear program; energy-sector cooperation; and visa issues.

ipj/mkg (dapd, dpa AFP, Reuters)