Medvedev, in Germany, revisits Russia's tensions with West

Posted in Russia | 06-Jun-08 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev posing for the media after a news conference in Berlin on Thursday.

BERLIN: On his first presidential visit to Germany, Russia's most important European trading partner, President Dmitri Medvedev came under the scrutiny of a hopeful business community and slightly more skeptical politicians for signs that he would swerve from the path of his mentor and predecessor, Vladimir Putin.

Based on a few hours of meetings Thursday that made plain the closeness and mutual dependence of these two great powers of central and eastern Europe, the verdict was decidedly mixed.

In a firm and confident tone, Medvedev singled out the same issues on which Putin - now prime minister, and still powerful - had repeatedly taken the United States and Europeans to task.

"I won't hide the fact that we are concerned by the tendency toward a narrowing of our mutual understanding within Euro-Atlantic politics," Medvedev said after a two-hour meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker raised in communist East Germany who continually criticized Putin's clamp down on human rights and media freedom.

Addressing a German-Russian economic forum, Medvedev reiterated his criticism of NATO's plan to offer eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics.

But in a sign of the heavy investment in Russia by German business, Medvedev nonetheless received a rapturous welcome from the 1,500 audience members packed into a large hotel ballroom.

The business community has high hopes of Medvedev, who has spoken of the need to use some of Russia's earnings from record high oil and gas prices to modernize other parts of his country's economy. That could mean lucrative contracts, particularly for Germany's fabled engineering and construction companies.

Businessmen also hope the personal relationship will be more harmonious between Medvedev, 42, a lawyer who has been at Putin's side for more than 10 years, and Merkel, who had more contentious ties with Putin, a former KGB officer in East Germany.

Merkel's criticism of the Kremlin often annoyed German businessmen, who claimed her style would damage trade. If anything, it is flourishing. German exports to Russia increased by 20 percent last year, to ?28.2 billion, or about $44 billion, and for the first quarter of this year, trade jumped by more than 25 percent, to ?7.52 billion, according to Germany's Federal Office of Statistics.

Germany depends on Russia for up to one third of its energy needs, while 4,600 companies have offices in Russia.

The trip to Germany was Medvedev's first as president to a European country, but second abroad. He has visited China and Kazakhstan and in Beijing joined President Hu Jintao in criticizing American plans to deploy parts of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

During her meeting with Medvedev, Merkel again raised the issue of press freedom, but he defended his country's attitude toward the media, rejecting charges that Russian television was no longer independent. "The television is fully independent," he told the business gathering. "The television must tell the truth."

German sources who insisted on anonymity said that Merkel also brought up the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive of the energy company Yukos, who was imprisoned three years ago on charges of tax evasion. Merkel asked if the Russian businessman, who had appeared before his arrest to challenge Putin's say in political and pipeline affairs, would be moved from Siberia to a prison close to Moscow or even pardoned.

"The issue of a pardon shouldn't be discussed at an international level, or by politicians," Medvedev said at a news conference with Merkel. "The procedure of a pardon, for which any convict can appeal, including Khodorkovsky, should rely on Russian law."

Putin, on a visit to France last week that underscored his continuing importance in foreign and other affairs, ruled out any pardon for Khodorkovsky.

But the chief interest of German companies lies in the investment climate and rule of law. They loudly applauded Medvedev when in his speech he said that Russia must "establish genuine respect for the law, to overcome legal nihilism, which seriously impedes development."

Experts and managers said that if Medvedev wanted to strengthen the rule of law, then a test case could be could be TNK-BP, the multinational energy company that has invested in Russia's energy sector.

Robert Dudley, the chairman of TNK-BP, was this week called in for questioning by the Russian Interior Ministry as part of an investigation into possible tax evasion. The questioning followed months of pressure on the company, from denying its foreign employees visas to obstructing its work.

Klaus Mangold, chairman of the government's East Committee, which promotes German business throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, said it was in the interests of Germany and Russia to work together in diversifying Russia's economy.

"Our common agenda includes supporting innovation and technology, but also the fight against corruption and strengthening civil society," Mangold said. He added that he welcomed Medvedev's pledge to improve the judiciary and legal framework by referring specifically to the treatment of TNK-BP.

But experts on Russia voiced some skepticism over Medvedev's ability to improve the judiciary and increase transparency. "Putin said the same things when he was president," said Jörg Himmelreich, a Russia expert in the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "'And what did he achieve?"