Saturday, November 17, 2012

Germany's Merkel to press Putin on rights in Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel will complain to President Vladimir Putin on Friday about a crackdown on political freedoms in Russia at talks likely to deepen a chill between the two big European powers.

Merkel has been asked by the German parliament to express concern about the state of human rights in Russia since the former KGB spy returned to the presidency for a six-year third term in May.

Putin's spokesman hit back on Thursday by denouncing a rise in "anti-Russian rhetoric" in Germany and signaled that the Kremlin leader would stand his ground if Merkel tried to lecture him on democracy and human rights.

But senior German government officials said a resolution agreed last week by the Bundestag expressing alarm over human rights and the threat to civil society in Russia broadly reflected the views of Merkel and her government.

"If there are new limits (on civil society), then naturally this is a concern for the chancellor and she will speak about it," one senior government official said.

Conservative German lawmaker Andreas Schockenhoff, a government envoy overseeing relations with Russian society, said there was a "climate of fear" in Russia and attempts to control society from above would fail.

"There is a growing group of Russian citizens who will not accept a ban on their freedom of expression," he told reporters in Moscow, unbowed by criticism from the Russian Foreign Ministry which no longer recognizes him as a government envoy.

Although Putin, now 60, won a presidential election in March with almost two-thirds of the votes, he has in the past year faced the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000 and has been trying to undermine the opposition.

Critics say his moves include the passage of laws intended to stifle dissent, such as legislation that went into force on Wednesday broadening the definition of treason.

The West also condemned Putin over the jailing of members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot after their irreverent protest against him in Moscow's main cathedral, although the German town of Wittenberg was criticized for nominating the group for a freedom of speech prize in October.


Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia was aware that Merkel would raise human rights and democracy during her visit, which coincides with a regular Russo-German forum.

"As always, President Putin will explain in detail whatever remains unclear and will ask his own questions," he said.

Putin is a German speaker and worked for five years for the KGB in Dresden. Merkel has never enjoyed as strong a relationship with him as her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, but business ties between the countries are close.

Peskov put the increase in anti-Russian sentiment down to what he said was point-scoring at the start of campaigning for Germany's federal election next year.

Expressing faith in the reliability of mutual trade, which he described as a safety cushion, he said: "Eighty-seven billion dollars in (annual) bilateral trade provide this 'air bag'. With such a solid foundation, we can be calm."

Among deals to be clinched during Merkel's visit, Russian Railways will sign a letter of intent to buy nearly 700 locomotives from Germany's Siemens for about 2.5 billion euros ($3.2 billion), sources told Reuters.

Merkel will be accompanied by eight ministers, including Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, and a high-level business delegation.

International security issues such as the crisis in Syria and Iran's nuclear program are expected to be on the agenda. Merkel will also report on the state of Europe's debt crisis.

Germany gets 40 percent of its gas and 30 percent of its oil from Russia, and German officials made clear that Moscow remained a "strategic partner". But they dodged a question about whether Merkel and Putin had a good personal relationship.

"They have known each other for many years. But I wouldn't want to say anything about the nature of their relationship," one said.

(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Noah Barkin, Maria Sheahan and Jens Hack, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Myra MacDonald)


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