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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Russia plays energy card, faces democracy criticism at Putin-Merkel talks

DRESDEN, Germany (AFP) - The murder of a Russian journalist and North Korea's shock nuclear test have threatened to cloud talks between President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Europe's energy security.

Merkel was under pressure Tuesday to make a firm public statement on human rights in Russia after the execution-style killing in Moscow of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a high-profile Kremlin critic.

As Putin and Merkel met in Dresden, Politkovskaya's funeral took place amid grief and anger in Moscow.

The meeting in the east German city, where Putin worked as a KGB agent in the 1980s, also came amid frantic international diplomacy over the nuclear programmes of
Iran and North Korea.

Germany, seen by Russia as a key partner amid testy relations with the United States, is to take over the
European Union's rotating presidency on January 1 and Putin wants stronger EU-Russia links to be top of the agenda.

The "strategic partnership" between Russia and Germany "has become a real stabilising factor in European and global politics," a Kremlin official said late Monday.

On the eve of the Putin-Merkel talks, Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom announced that the "priority" for supplies from Shtokman, the world's largest gas field, would be Europe and not the US market as planned earlier.

Russian newspapers said the offer was an "unexpected gift" for Merkel, as well as a slap in the face for Washington, which imposed sanctions on two Russian firms earlier this year and has delayed Russia's bid to join the
World Trade Organization.

Putin will propose "to make Germany Russia's principal energy partner in Europe" and will confirm "that Russia guarantees extra deliveries of gas to Germany," the Kommersant daily said.

But international condemnation of Russia over the killing of Politkovskaya could overshadow the energy offer for Merkel, who vowed to take a tough foreign policy line on Russia when she came to power last year.

A top official from Merkel's own Christian Democrats party, Andreas Schockenhoff, said on Tuesday that the journalist's murder was a "serious setback for democracy in Russia."

Merkel has already sent distinct signals that relations with Russia will not be the same as under her predecessor
Gerhard Schroeder, who had a close personal and working relationship with Putin.

During a January visit to Moscow she met with human rights campaigners that are fiercely critical of Putin and she has spoken out against "unacceptable" prison conditions for jailed Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

But Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Panorama, a Moscow-based think tank, said Russia's energy offer will still outweigh Germany's concerns with the state of democracy under Putin.

"The new chancellor is more strict about democratic freedoms. But Germany is also interested in Russian energy reserves," Pribylovsky told AFP.

"The chancellor of Germany will close her eyes to certain sins of the Putin regime," he added.

Germany is Russia's largest trading partner and trade turnover between the two countries reached 32.9 billion dollars (26.1 billion euros) in 2005, according to Russian figures.

Russian and German officials are set to sign a co-operation agreement between Russia's state Vneshekonombank and Germany's Dresdner Bank during Putin's visit, the Kremlin official said.

Later Tuesday, Putin and Merkel are also due to attend meetings of the Saint Petersburg Dialogue, a yearly conference involving non-governmental groups from the two countries, and a Russian-German youth forum.

Putin's trip to Dresden coincides with the 800th birthday celebrations of this picturesque city on the Elbe River and he is set to unveil a monument to Russian 19th century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who once lived in Dresden.

Putin, who is seen as a strongly business-minded leader, then travels to Munich, the capital of the economic powerhouse of Bavaria in southern Germany, to meet industry chiefs.

The Kremlin official said the talks in Bavaria would focus on investment projects in sectors including aerospace, banking, chemicals, metals and telecommunications.
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