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Russia's Medvedev due in Berlin for first European trip

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Russia's Medvedev due in Berlin for first European trip
Medvedev inspecting some Russian missiles in May. Photo: DPA
07:48 CEST+02:00
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Germany this week - his first European trip since taking office - will give Berlin a chance to probe his intentions on democratic reform and the rule of law, writes AFP's Deborah Cole.

Medvedev is expected on Thursday for a visit that will include talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Horst Köhler and top business executives as well as a major foreign policy speech.

Berlin is keen to develop a clearer picture of the successor to Vladimir Putin, with whom Merkel has had a prickly relationship, including Medvedev's priorities and the extent of his power.

Merkel said at the weekend that she was pleased by his initial pledges to revamp the judiciary into a more "independent" organ and tackle corruption. She also welcomed plans to resume in June long-stalled negotiations on a partnership deal with the European Union, which is increasingly dependent on Russia for oil and gas.

"We must say clearly that the EU is united in its approach on energy security, and we intend to anchor our relations with Russia in this cooperation agreement on a contractual basis," she said.

Putin, now prime minister, made a high-profile visit last week to France, which assumes the EU presidency July 1, in his first major foreign trip after stepping down as head of state.

A week after his May 7 inauguration, Medvedev underlined the importance of the "strategic partnership" between Russia and Germany - Europe's biggest economy - when he announced the trip. Bilateral trade runs at $50 billion annually.

Merkel visited Medvedev in Moscow after his victory in presidential elections in March and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the first foreign dignitary received by the new president after he took office.

German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said the talks in Berlin would cover a range of hot-button issues including energy prices, climate protection, the Middle East peace process, next month's Group of Eight summit and Kosovo. He added that Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, would not skip over sensitive subjects that had caused friction with Putin in the past including judicial reform, alleged human rights violations and press freedom.

A Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, Alexander Rahr, said Merkel's left-right coalition government was hopeful that Medvedev would prove to be more moderate than Putin.

"There is optimism that he will set a new tone and that the partnership for modernisation (between Germany and Russia) can continue," he told AFP. "But the question remains what he really stands for and whether he remains in Putin's shadow."

Despite her criticism, Merkel has made clear Russia cannot be left out in the cold.

Last week she called for greater cooperation and dialogue between NATO and Moscow, citing the conflict over US plans for a missile defence shield in eastern Europe as just one area where talks were needed.

"For the first time in years we had a Russia-NATO summit (in Bucharest in April). If we don't talk to each other it is no wonder when there are prejudices," Merkel said at NATO's spring parliamentary assembly in Berlin.

Germany is also concerned by tensions over ex-Soviet Georgia's push to join NATO. Russia has accused NATO members of contributing to a "destabilising" military build-up in the region by providing military equipment, training and financial support to Georgia.

Russia in April boosted already strong ties with separatists in the breakaway region of Abkhazia despite strong objections from Georgia. Meanwhile, the case of the jailed former head of Russian oil group Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, may also figure in the talks.

German weekly Der Spiegel reported Monday that Steinmeier is pleading for Khodorkovsky to be moved to Moscow from his prison in the far-eastern Chita region.

Formerly Russia's richest man, Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year jail term for fraud and tax evasion in a case seen by critics as politically tainted.

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