Merkel in Russia Open Words in Tomsk

Germany's buddy-buddy days with Russia are over. During her visit this week to Russia, long suppressed differences of opinion between Berlin and Moscow have been placed on the front burner. Still, the countries are still highly reliant on each other -- especially when it comes to natural gas.

On Wednesday night, journalists listened attentively as they stood before German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tomsk. Merkel said that her discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin had been "open and intensive." But Merkel's words, framed in the language of diplomacy, could only lead one to a single conclusion: Niceties weren't the only things exchanged between the two leaders -- there was also criticism. Putin, standing next to Merkel, also underscored the fact that the "first talks" had been "unusually intensive."

But differences had already arisen before Merkel began her two-day trip to Siberia. And the list of contradictions is a long one: Even if it does so without enthusiasm, Moscow does support Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Recently, Merkel met with opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich in Berlin. Russia has also recognized Hamas as the legitimate, elected government of the Palestinians, whereas Merkel has made Israel's security a top concern. Berlin is also seeking to increase the pressure on Tehran over its controversial nuclear program, whereas Russia wants to be able to complete construction of the Bushehr nuclear facility in Iran without interruptions. In Germany, there is also open concern about the country's deep energy dependence on Russia. Moscow, meanwhile, would like to be Europe and Germany's privileged provider of natural gas.

When he was chancellor, Gerhard Schröder used to pat Putin's shoulder in a manner that seemed to often cross the line over to real friendship. He also gave a clean bill of health to Chechnyan elections which the European Commission described as "neither free nor fair." "As far as I can see there were no major flaws," Schröder infamously stated in 2004. But Schröder's bon mots -- such as when he described Putin as a "flawless democrat" -- were never much concrete use to the Russians, anyway.

With Merkel in office, German-Russian ties have become decidedly business-like, even cool. They have, however, remained reliable. This can be chalked up to reality. Annual trade worth €32 billion dampens the inclination to publicly read Moscow the riot act. And the question of whether E.On obtains a 50 percent share in a project to develop the massive Yuzhno-Russkoye gas field -- which would have been unimaginable 15 years ago -- is a more important question for Germany these days than whether or not one should appear publicly with Hamas ministers.

New projects

The Kremlin's strategic goal now -- as Putin had already told Merkel during her first visit to Moscow -- is to create a common economic zone. Russia needs Western markets for its natural gas and oil. The German-Russian Chamber of Commerce that Putin spoke of in Tomsk, which he wants to create by the end of the year, is intended to serve this purpose. At the same time, Moscow is also concerned about a discussion that recently began in Germany about seeking secure alternatives to Russian natural gas from Arab-Islamic countries like Algeria. The Kremlin also appears to be underestimating the damaging effect of the "gas war" that it waged against Ukraine in January. By rattling its sabers, Russia raised the suspicion that Moscow wouldn't stop at roughing up one of its renegade former satellite republics. It might also one day use its natural gas supplies as a weapon against Germany.

Statements in recent days by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller -- that the company could also sell its gas to China and Canada if Europe decided to purchase less of it -- didn't help much either. Still, when it comes to politics, Miller is more of a bull in a china shop than an actual threat. As for the issue of natural gas, for the foreseeable future, neither Russia nor Germany has any choice:They are dependent on one another.

And the climate in the Siberian gas production areas is a security advantage for Western customers. The local population of Russians and indigenous inhabitants isn't prone to uprisings. That corrupt officials and managers tap the gas flows for their own benefit is certainly a problem for Russian citizens but less so for end consumers in far away Western Europe.

Since such a large swathe of the Russian business world is crooked, the Kremlin values the Germans as reliable partners. Putin's advisors gush that economic ties between Germany and Russia should one day be as tight as those currently between Germany and France.

Behind such comments lurks the concern that German-Russian relations could suffer amid growing tension between the White House and the Kremlin. US President George W. Bush might say he hasn't "given up on Russia," much in the way one desperately hopes for the recovery of a coma patient, but Chancellor Merkel doesn't speak or think this way. And that's why in Moscow she enjoys the reputation of being a pragmatic person with whom one can work. She won't risk everything unnecessarily -- especially not German business interests.

Russia seems to be keen to avoid needless irritations as well. On Wednesday, Putin promised "dependable delivery" of energy supplies to Germany and other countries. At the same time, he said Russian companies had an interest in taking part in further production of energy in other nations. And the chancellor made a point of noting that Russia had reliably exported oil and gas to Germany for the past 40 years. "I assume that will continue to be the case," she said.

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