Wed, Jan 18, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Merkel cool on ties with Russia

FIRST RUSSIAN VISIT The German chancellor said she was concerned about Moscow's approach to democracy, while she supported a gas pipeline project

AFP , MOSCOW

German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced concern at the state of Russian democracy during her first official visit to Moscow on Monday, while also affirming the importance of economic ties and plans for a controversial Baltic gas pipeline.

Reflecting a cooler approach to relations than under her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel highlighted concerns about a disputed draft law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the increasingly unstable situation in the Russian Caucasus.

Concerning the proposed NGO law, "there has been a lot of criticism; a part of those criticisms have been taken into account," Merkel said after talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin that she described as "frank."

"It will be necessary to monitor the way in which this law is applied in practice," she said. "We have discussed subjects on which we don't share the same opinion, notably on Chechnya and the North Caucasus. I will do everything to ensure that European programs contribute to the positive development of the region," Merkel said.

Putin defended the law on NGOs, seen by activists as an attempt to rein in Western funding of human rights and democracy groups, saying it was aimed at bringing greater transparency to NGO financing.

"We Russians are the greatest partisans for the development of democracy" in Russia, he said.

On economic ties between Russia and Germany, both leaders voiced enthusiasm for strengthening their countries' already close cooperation.

Merkel expressed support for plans to build a gas pipeline direct from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany and West European countries.

The plan has stirred up controversy because of Schroeder's decision to become chairman of the project after leaving office last month and also because eastern European countries fear they could be left without gas if Russia chooses to use supplies as a political weapon.

"The north European gas project is very important for Europe and for Germany. It is a strategic project that is not aimed at anyone," Merkel said.

"The development of our relationship in the economic sphere takes one's breath away," she said.

Putin hailed growing German-Russian trade, which he said had reached US$32 billion in value last year.

Merkel's visit follows talks she held last week in the US with President George W. Bush, an occasion that underlined her hopes of restoring ties with Washington that became strained under her predecessor.

The Kommersant newspaper said earlier that Merkel had already been lobbying Russia to put pressure on Tehran. Russia is currently building a nuclear power station for Iran.

"Such a position is highly problematic" for Russia, the Kommersant said.

While there appears to be less of the warmth seen in Putin's relations with Schroeder, Merkel has tried to pursue the countries' "strategic relationship."

"I do not think that we share that many values with Russia. But we do have a vested interest that Russia should develop in a reasonable manner," she told e weekly news magazine Der Spiegel earlier.

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