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Europe

Stable Relationship with Russia a Priority for Merkel

On the heels of her first trip to Washington as chancellor, Angela Merkel embarks on a similar official visit to Russia Monday, where she will meet with President Vladimir Putin. What are the expectations of the visit?

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Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel have yet to define their relationship

The talks between the Russian and German leaders scheduled for Monday are approaching with a certain amount of suspense. Not only was her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, one of Russian staunchest advocates on the world stage, but he and Putin were also close personal friends. Schröder refused to raise even the slightest objection to any of Putin's controversial domestic policies over the years.

At the time, Schröder came under heavy criticism for that from the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), who were then in the opposition. For that reason, before last fall's federal elections, many feared that relations with Russia would suffer under a government led by the CDU's Angela Merkel. Now that Germany has such a government, all eyes will be trained on how Merkel and Putin hit it off during this first official meeting.

No drastic change

Schröder und Putin die dicksten Freunde

Schröder and Putin were two old pals, or they at least acted that way

All the signs up to now suggest that German-Russian relations under Chancellor Merkel will change only slightly. Naturally the carefully maintained image of two buddies, "Gerd" and "Volodya," having a grand old time together, will change. Even though, Angela Merkel does have the potential to put her own stamp on meetings with Putin thanks to her knowledge of Russian.

Merkel made it clear in an interview published in the newsweekly Spiegel that she wants to continue Germany's "strategic partnership" with Russia. She, however, could not describe the relationship as a "friendship" as long as there were so few shared values concerning democracy.

Behind this nuanced and skillful differentiation between "strategic partnership" and "friendship" lies the Merkel's goal, the stabilization of Russian relations. Evidently the chancellor does not want to risk a drastic reversal in Berlin's ties to Moscow, Russia's importance regarding issues like Iran's nuclear program or even the security of Europe's energy supplies are too important.

Gasstreit zwischen Rußland und Ukraine beigelegt

Russia's huge energy reserves give it clout, which makes some people uneasy

For good reason, the Russian market continues to be attractive to German companies. The expansion of trade relations between Germany and Russia is likely be a topic close to the top of the agenda during the talks in Moscow.

At the same time, there are plenty of sensitive subjects between the two countries: the war in Chechnya, Putin's authoritarian tendencies, reservations about the independence of the judiciary as shown by the Khordokovsky case, the issue of art stolen in wartime and Russia's support of Iran's nuclear program. Merkel knows that these problems will not go away on their own.

That has much to do with Russia's current leadership, which because of its own conception of itself, overflowing state coffers and a raft of positive economic indicators has little interest in outside criticism. Merkel will likely address German concerns over some political developments in Russia through symbolic gestures, for example the planned meeting with Kremlin critics. Overly loud criticism, which could endanger Berlin-Moscow ties, will be avoided.

How will Putin react?

President Putin is a pragmatic politician. A German policy toward Russia which makes a semantic difference between a "strategic partnership" and "friendship" is not likely to make him happy, but he can live with it.

Beyond the choice of words, Germany's readiness for a strategic partnership is actually in line with Putin's own foreign policy goals: to integrate Russia into the global economy as a energy superpower. Russia's close partnership with Germany has already helped Putin a good deal; in 2006 his country holds the chair of the G-8 group of states.

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