MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin before talks at the Chancellery in Berlin, June 1, 2012. REUTERS photo
President Vladimir Putin on Friday hosts German
Chancellor Angela Merkel
for the first time in his third Kremlin term as Berlin adopts an increasingly critical stance over Russia's shady rights record.
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
Moscow has been particularly needled by the public comments of Andreas Schockenhoff, the German
government's coordinator for German-Russian relations, who has shown no fear in taking issue with the Russian
"There is a dearth of warmth in relations between Putin and Merkel, now it will be altogether gone," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia
in Global Affairs magazine, told AFP.
Germany and other EU states have expressed concern over a crackdown on civil society since Putin returned to the Kremlin in May which has seen activists arrested, the Pussy Riot rock band jailed and draconian new laws passed.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle ahead of the visit stressed the need for a "critical dialogue" with Russia, warning that "partnership does not mean doing away with criticism." A week before the talks, German
lawmakers passed a resolution co-authored by Schockenhoff urging the government to push for more democracy and warning of a "confrontational course towards government critics" in Russia.
Stefan Meister, a Russia
expert at the German
Council on Foreign Relations, said "disillusionment" had clouded Berlin's relationship with Russia
since Putin's return and the end of his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev's stabs at reform.
"Germany is striving for more rule of law -- Russia's elite would like to prevent exactly that," he wrote in a recent commentary for German
newspaper Die Zeit's online edition.
Schockenhoff, who criticised the Russia
government for its stance on Syria and the handling of critics, has been accused by the Russian
foreign ministry of lacking competence for his job. 'A unique opportunity'
Yet analysts also doubt Germany is prepared to risk its relationship with Russia
despite the new tensions given the economic interests at stake.
"Merkel and Schockenhoff will make tough remarks -- and it will end at that," said Vladislav Belov, head of the Centre for German
Studies at the Russian
Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe. "This will be her curtsey to German
society and the European Union." Lukyanov added: "It's extremely important for German
business to confirm its status as a priority economic partner." "Germans are our partners in machine-building, they expect to take part in privatisation and on the whole participate in Russia's technical overhaul." 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 Gerhard Schroeder.
He conspicuously made Berlin his first European destination after his inauguration in May.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told AFP energy and the euro zone crisis will be among top issues, noting that Russia
holds a large chunk of its foreign reserves in euros.
The European Union's ongoing probe into Gazprom over concerns it was hindering competition in Europe
is expected to be addressed, too.
Human Rights Watch has urged Merkel to tell Putin to end the crackdown on civil society, saying her visit was a "unique opportunity" to make it clear the EU's concerns to the Russian
Addressing the criticism of Kremlin's rights record, Peskov said: "Unfortunately some politicians are still in the captivity of stereotypes," and added that Moscow also had questions for Berlin over Germany's rights record.