Plain talk from Merkel to Putin

Posted in Russia , Europe | 17-Jan-06 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks during a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Kremlin January 16, 2006.
MOSCOW Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said Monday that she was starting a new strategic partnership with President Vladimir Putin of Russia that would go far beyond economic and energy issues that were the chief focus of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.

Merkel struck a markedly different tone from Schröder after three hours of Kremlin talks and a lunch with Putin.

According to officials attending the meetings, Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker and Putin, a fluent German speaker, aired several controversial issues that Schröder had been reluctant to raise publicly or indeed privately.

The issues included a new law restricting nongovernmental organization and the conflict in Chechnya, those familiar with the meetings said.

Merkel also openly brought up the way in which Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas company had this month reduced energy supplies to Ukraine over a dispute over its decision to increase energy prices to Ukraine five-fold. Gazprom immediately restored supplies after several European countries complained about shortfalls.

"We had a very good meeting," Merkel told a news conference at the Kremlin.

As soon as the news conference was over, Merkel's entourage sped through the evening traffic to the residence of the German ambassador. There, she spent an hour talking to representatives of several human rights organizations whose activities are expected to be restricted under the new law supported by Putin.

Merkel said she had "heard positive and negative aspects" from leaders of human rights movements.

Putin, who already met Merkel several times when she was opposition leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, said his meeting with her had taken place "in a very good atmosphere." Earlier, Putin, who likes dogs, had given Merkel a gift of a small toy black and white dog, which had a short leash. Merkel, however, does not like dogs - she was bitten by one when she was young and has since kept her distance, according to an aide. German diplomats said they were unsure how to interpret the gift.

In her typically direct manner, Merkel told Putin both during their private talks and later at the news conference that Russia risked losing its trust as a reliable partner for supplying Europe's energy needs.

"This is about trust," she said. According to those present at the meetings with Putin, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy involved, the chancellor spent much of her time with Putin discussing Ukraine. Putin was critical of European reaction to the energy dispute with Ukraine, saying that "the substance of the dispute" was not fully understood.

In what seemed to be a Kremlin signal intended to repair any damage suffered in the gas dispute, Putin called for "more transparency" by Gazprom. He also insisted that Russia would remain a reliable and secure partner for selling gas to Europe. Over a quarter of Europe's gas needs are supplied by Gazprom.

Alexei Miller, the Gazprom chairman, who was appointed by Putin to run the company, sat in the front row during the entire news conference. When asked earlier if he had spoken to Merkel or attended any of the sessions, Miller replied: "I have nothing to say."

Merkel made it clear that this, her first visit to Moscow since taking office Nov. 22, was only the beginning of a strategic partnership that she hoped would develop during this year, when she will meet Putin several times.

She will attend the special Russian-German consultations that will be held in the Russian city of Tomsk in April. Putin has been invited to the international airshow in Berlin in May and another round of consultations will take place in Dresden in October.

In addition, the two leaders will attend the Group of 8 summit meeting, at which Russia will play host for the first time in the role of chairman.

Merkel and her advisers say they want to move away from a relationship with Russia that is almost entirely focused on energy and trade to a strategic partnership that would involve Russia working much more closely with Germany and Europe in several areas.

"The strategic partnership means the Europeans, Russia and the U.S. sitting down together and helping to solve conflicts, particularly in the Northern Caucasus," said Jörg Himmelreich, a Russian, North Caucasus and Black Sea expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.

The Europeans and the United States need Russia's support over Iran. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia can veto any decision to impose sanctions on Iran. Merkel and Putin went through several options on Iran, with Putin asking whether the international community would in fact lose any influence if it referred Iran to the Security Council.

Russian support is needed, too, in the Balkans, where the United States has been making a big push to finally determine the status of Kosovo. It is still constitutionally a part of Serbia but since 1999 has been a UN protectorate after NATO's intervention to end the persecution under the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, of ethnic Albanians. Any attempt to grant independence to Kosovo would require a consensus on the Security Council.

Merkel wants Germany to play a much greater role in bringing stability to the northern Caucasus, including Chechnya. A German official said this entailed providing economic assistance to the war-ravaged region.

Germany, too, wants Russia and Europe to work much more closely in trying to end the long-running dispute in Transdniestria where a pro-Russia separatist movement has been trying to break away from the now independent, former Soviet republic of Moldova. Berlin is also keen for the Europeans, the U.S. and Russia to resolve the frozen conflict in North Ossetia, where for several years Russia and Georgia have been locked in conflict for the status of this region.