German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday with the two sides seeking to soothe tensions over Berlin’s recent criticism of the Russian record on rights.
On the eve of the visit, German lawmakers from Merkel’s coalition urged the government to push for more democracy in Russia as they expressed concern over a crackdown on civil society since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May.
German government sources said on Thursday that Berlin would emphasize that a thriving free civil society was a chance for Russia rather than a threat.
However, Merkel did not feel herself obliged to raise all the 17 demands on Russia raised in the German parliament resolution, a German source in Berlin said.
Merkel must tread a fine line between expressing rights concerns and the need to protect Berlin’s economic interests as a top client of state gas giant Gazprom, as well as a leading investor in an overhaul of Russian infrastructure.
A week before the talks, German lawmakers passed a resolution co-authored by Andreas Schockenhoff, the government’s coordinator for German-Russian relations, urging the government to push for more democracy and warning of a “confrontational course toward government critics” in Russia.
Moscow has been particularly needled by the public comments of Schockenhoff, who has shown no fear in taking issue with Russia’s rights record and who accompanied Merkel to Moscow.
However, on the eve of the talks, the Kremlin showed little appetite for confrontation and dismissed any possible criticism as pre-election rhetoric.
“We know that as in all the other countries, someone there [in Germany] too will for sure seek to exploit relations with Germany’s closest partners to win extra points,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian journalists.
“We would not want Russian-German relations to be used in this way,” he said, noting Germany would hold general elections next year.
A fluent German speaker who spent five years as a KGB agent in Dresden, Putin has long prided himself on building a solid working relationship with Merkel, even though it has lacked the camaraderie he cultivated in his ties with her predecessor, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Peskov has said that energy and the eurozone crisis will be among top issues, noting that Russia holds a large chunk of its foreign reserves in euros.
The ongoing EU probe into Gazprom over concerns it is hindering competition in Europe is expected to be addressed, too.
Addressing the criticism of the Kremlin’s rights record, Peskov said that Moscow also had questions for Berlin over Germany’s rights record.