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RUSSIA

Putin warns West: Medvedev is no softer

President Vladimir Putin warned the West on Saturday it could expect no easing of Russia’s foreign policy under his protege, president-elect Dmitry Medvedev.

At his first meeting with a foreign leader since his election, Medvedev told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he would seek continuity in foreign affairs. Putin, speaking to reporters at a joint news briefing with Merkel before the Medvedev meeting, dismissed Western hopes that his successor would strike a softer tone in foreign policy after being sworn in as president in May. “I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to stop exercising my powers so that they can deal with another person,” Putin said. “I am long accustomed to the label by which it is difficult to work with a former KGB agent.” “Dmitry Medvedev will be free from having to prove his liberal views. But he is no less of a Russian nationalist than me, in the good sense of the word, and I do not think our partners will have it easier with him.”

When Merkel met Medvedev, she referred to Putin’s comments, quipping: “I refrained from saying ‘I hope they won’t become more difficult either’”. Medvedev said: “I am assuming we will have a continuation of that cooperation which you have had with President Putin ... You have had big negotiations and that makes my task easier.”

Germany is by far Russia’s biggest single trading partner, with a record $52.8 billion in bilateral trade in 2007. German firms put $3.4 billion into Russia last year and have major investments in Russia’s energy sector. Putin, who is expected to preserve significant influence as Medvedev’s prime minister, has been credited at home with restoring some of Russia’s international clout after the chaos of the 1990s.

CLASHES

But the former KGB spy has clashed with the West over NATO expansion, Kosovo’s independence, US plans to put a missile shield in central Europe and the war in Iraq. Standing beside Merkel, Putin said Kosovo’s independence had given a boost to separatism across Europe and said the further expansion of NATO was harmful and counterproductive. The relationship between Medvedev, a 42-year-old former lawyer, and Merkel, a physicist from the former East Germany, who speaks Russian, is likely to play a major role in relations with the European Union.

Merkel, after meeting Putin, said she saw Medvedev as her “immediate partner in dialogue” ahead of the Group of Eight’s meeting in Japan later this year. She said Medvedev would find “open doors” in Germany and that she had invited the new president to visit her country. “I think there will be continuity. I don’t think the controversies will disappear at once,” she told reporters before leaving Russia, adding, that Medvedev was interested in good relations with Germany and the EU.

Medvedev has said that a trip to Germany he made as a student disillusioned him about the Soviet Union’s propaganda, while Putin served as a KGB spy in Dresden in the 1980s. Merkel was expected to voice concern about the fairness of the vote Medvedev won after international observers and opposition groups criticized the March election as unfair. Putin says the election was held in strict accordance with the Russian constitution.

On the business front, Ruhrgas has a 6% stake in Russia’s gas giant Gazprom and Russo-German pipeline group Nord Stream is building a multi-billion dollar subsea gas pipeline from Russia to Western Europe. Merkel said she would conduct talks with the Swedish government and Baltic states soon to express her support for the Baltic Sea pipeline. Merkel, who has in the past scolded Putin over human rights, has sought to boost trade and to mediate between Moscow, Washington and Russia’s EU partners.

(BBJ 10.iii.08)

 
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