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Merkel Likely to Be Cooler to Putin

German leader Angela Merkel will head to Moscow on Monday for her first visit as chancellor amid a growing debate across Europe about reducing energy dependency on Russia -- and signs that the bear-hug diplomacy that her predecessor indulged in is set to end.

While her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had made strengthening Germany's energy alliance with Russia a priority during his time in office, Merkel has said Europe must not be too dependent on Russia for its energy.

And while Schröder had lavished praise on Putin, describing him as a "flawless democrat," Merkel has already expressed concern over the direction of Putin's policies.

The cooler approach is expected not just because of the gas dispute between Moscow and Kiev, which raised alarm bells across Europe as Gazprom turned off supplies to Ukraine.

The standoff, which some viewed as driven by Kremlin politics, led to shortages in Austria, France and Hungary, because 80 percent of Russia's shipments to Europe go through Ukraine. It sent politicians into a spin over finding alternative energy supplies.

But even before the Ukraine gas crisis, many pundits were predicting ties to become more stand-offish under Merkel, partly because she is likely to try and push her country into a closer relationship with the United States, and also because, as an East German, she knows Russian and Russia well.

"The relationship will be much more sober," said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "She will not be too emotional. There will be no MКnnerfreundschaft," he said referring to the male bonding and backslapping between Putin and Schröder, and the friendly overtures made by Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to Schröder's, Helmut Köhl.

"There can't be because she is a woman. Putin will not be able to do what Yeltsin proposed to Köhl and take her to the sauna. ... And he can't impress her with balalaikas and long liturgies in church, as he did with Schröder. Merkel already knows and understands the positive and negative sides of Russian life."

True to form, Merkel will head first to Washington for a White House meeting with President George W. Bush on Friday, and then travel to Moscow for the meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on Monday.

Commentators are expecting her meeting with Bush to be a lovefest, compared with the estrangement between Bush and Schröder over his attempts to form an alliance with Russia and France to oppose the Iraq war.

Merkel indicated the shift in priorities in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel last weekend, in which she described the relationship with the United States as a "friendship," while with Russia, she said, it could only be described as "a strategic partnership."

"I believe that we do not share as many moral concepts with Russia as we do with America," she said.

The German newspaper Handelsblatt, meanwhile, reported Thursday that Bush planned to urge Merkel to push the rest of Europe to reduce its reliance on Russia for energy. About one-quarter of Europe's gas needs are supplied by Russia, and that figure looks likely to grow.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the German Embassy in Moscow, Wolfgang Bindseil, would say only that Merkel would raise the topic of energy security during the talks.

Merkel has herself indicated, however, that she wants to do exactly as Handelsblatt reported Bush might urge her to do.

"I believe that we have become very conscious in recent days of the highly political nature of an issue that is really an economic one -- namely, the purchase and delivery of gas," she said in the Spiegel interview. "We must do everything we can to save energy and put our efforts into developing an energy supply from a variety of sources. We must not put ourselves in a position of dependency."

"The European Union will also have to deal with this topic," she said. "This question is of enormous importance economically and in terms of political strategy."

"We will always rely on Russian gas -- but not only on that, and not too much. We need a clear idea of where our energy is going to come from in the coming decades," she said.

Such words are a marked change from Germany's policies under Schröder, who pushed to develop a closer energy alliance with Russia. After leaving office, he accepted the chairmanship of a German-Russian consortium to build the North European gas pipeline to Germany, which will pump up to 55 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine.

"Schröder has committed himself to helping Russia sell gas to Europe," Rahr said.

In the current climate, Merkel cannot afford to do that.

Russia and Ukraine essentially settled their conflict Jan. 4 with a new deal on supplies. But the contract they signed shifted Ukraine's dependence to sources of gas in Central Asia, the prices of which could also later be hiked. The current prices are valid only until July 1, when a new standoff could develop all over again.

Despite passing a law in 2000 to close down all the nation's nuclear power plants, Germany's parliament is now hotly debating revoking that law. And despite vowing when she came to power not to overturn that law, Merkel this week held talks with her Cabinet at the Genshagen castle retreat south of Berlin on whether to revoke it in an effort to find alternative sources of power.

Merkel's economy minister, Michael Glos, said Thursday that he would discuss the "irritation" caused by the gas dispute when he met with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller in Berlin on Friday, Reuters reported.

Compared to Schröder, who took care never to raise questions about concerns over the rollback of democracy under Putin, Merkel is already preparing to take a tougher stance.

"There are developments that worry me, for example, the new laws against nongovernmental organizations," she told Der Spiegel.

Her relatively tough talk is provoking fears she might cool relations with Russia too much, especially given her overtures to other former Warsaw Pact countries that have complained about Kremlin imperialism.

"I see a real danger if she comes to Moscow with some kind of double-thinking that she would like to fight for the interests of Poland and the Baltic states," Rahr said. "That would ruin the atmosphere.

"But I think there will be pragmatic relations," he said.

A rather cool stance could eventually turn into a more active one, simply because of the impetus that has already built up in energy and investment ties to Russia. "She will be pressed into some kind of specific action toward Russia because of the energy alliance and the security dialogue that started under Köhl," he said.

While German business leaders are also likely to push Merkel to keep relations with Russia on an even keel, a counterbalance will be her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who, under the coalition government she had to form, is a member of Schröder's Social Democrats and a close friend of the former chancellor, said Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov.

Markov said Merkel was likely to warm to Russia as time went on. "Merkel is just trying to underline that she is a new leader, that she is not Schröder," he said. "Putin's task is to get past these psychological complexes and make sure that Merkel's relations to Russia do not depend on this, but on objective factors, so that relations essentially stay the same."

"All new world leaders say they will not have such good relations with Russia and such good personal relations with Russian leaders, then, as time passes, they all end up doing the same," he said.

"This happened with Schröder, this happened with Bush, and this will happen with Merkel," he said.

Nevertheless, he said Germany and the rest of Europe were likely to continue to express concern over democracy in Russia, energy dependency and Moscow trying to gain control over former Soviet republics. This would likely remain merely an expression of concern unless a major conflict came up, such as over Belarus' upcoming election, or a heightened standoff between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and the parliament, he said.

"In cases like this, Germany and Europe will take actions against Russia's interests," he said.

(The Moscow Times 15.i.06)

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