Germany and Russia The Trans-European Waltz

Irritated with the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin is turning his attention to Germany. But during a planned visit to Germany next week, Putin may discuss proposals with Angela Merkel that she is likely to reject -- including the idea of a European-Russian free trade zone.

The Russian political world has never had problems with women, historically speaking. Four Czarinas ruled Russia in the days of the monarchy, including Catherine II, a German who steered the Russian empire for 34 years. But in post-Soviet Russia, where women outnumber men by a figure of 11 million, women are almost completely absent from the political ranks.

"Having a woman occupy the country's highest office is currently about as unimaginable as having a Chechen in that position," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociology professor. But that's not the only reason why patriarchal Russia has found it so difficult to deal  with Angela Merkel, who became Germany's first female chancellor last year. Moscow is troubled by a new sense of seriousness that has characterized German-Russian relations since she first visited the Kremlin in mid-January. The Russian giant -- rich in treasure and resources, but with a sluggish economy -- also has ambitions in Europe that Merkel could frustrate.

From a Russian point of view, the world was brighter when the surly but jovial former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder still made regular visits to Moscow. Schröder enjoyed a close relationship with Putin, and Russians loved the flowery superlatives the German used to describe bilateral relations, which were in "first-class condition," according to Schröder, "breathtaking," and "hardly in need of improvement."

Merkel, on the other hand, met prominently with some of Putin's critics during her first official visit to Moscow. She'd already said that Germany did not share as many values with Russia as it did with America, and the comment, wrote the pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, "was a blow to Putin."

Chilly US-Russian relations

But the Russian president would like to forgive and forget. When he pays his first visit to Germany under the Merkel administration next Tuesday, he'll spend two days in Dresden, where he was once stationed as a KGB officer, and in Munich. The visit will be more than just a courtesy. Moscow needs the German chancellor, now more than ever.

One reason has to do with the cooling of relations between Russian and the United States. Almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the two powers are once again butting heads, this time in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

The Russians don't like the way Washington has latched on to the oil wells of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, or the ambitions of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. All four nations once belonged to the Russian empire and then to the Soviet Union.

The admission of the Baltic states into the Western defense alliance had also been traumatic for Moscow. After last week's presidential election in Estonia, all three countries are now being run by presidents who lived in North American exile during the Soviet era. But the worst setback for Putin came in July, when the Americans blocked Russian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), which until then had been considered an easy play.

"It's now clear to us that they will never allow us to join the WTO," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political scientist with close ties to the Kremlin and a grandson of former dictator Josef Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov. "Our response is to redirect our natural gas to Europe."

Playing favorites

At a summit meeting with Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac at Compiègne outside Paris in September, Putin suggested that Russia might sell reserves from its Stockmann field near the Barents Sea, one of the world's largest known natural gas reserves -- to Europe, not the United States, as planned.

But there are complexities in Moscow's relationship to Europe. "When it comes down to it, they don't really want us either," Nikonov says, referring in part to quarrels over Russia's potential investment in the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Agency, or EADS.

Moscow-based Vneshtorgbank bought a 5.02-percent stake in EADS after its stock price declined, but the Russian bank's ambition to expand its ownership of the company has been resisted by EADS' management. The western Europeans are afraid of the Russians, Putin said in Compiègne, smiling maliciously, "because we are big and we are very rich." But despite Nikonov's advice that Russia turn away from the West, the Kremlin is making overtures to European countries, including France and, to a greater extent, Germany.

Dreams of "total European integration"

At a German-Russian summit in Siberia last April, Putin brimmed with friendly overtures to Merkel. In Compiègne, he stressed that gas from the Stockmann field would be useful to Berlin. "Do you know what it would mean to the German economy if deliveries from that field were guaranteed for 50 to 75 years?" he asked.

The Kremlin also made sure that Aeroflot, the Russian airline, ordered 22 planes from EADS' subsidiary Airbus -- even though the airline had been planning to buy only Boeings, from America. "If Airbus had completed its modification of the A 350," says Nikonov, referring to the new jumbo jet, "the relationship would have been even better for Europe."

In return, Moscow hopes that when Germany assumes the rotating European Union presidency in 2007, it will take steps toward a European-Russian free trade zone and a stronger energy partnership. It also hopes visa requirements for Russians will be relaxed.

There are grander visions. Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov even believes "that cooperation between Russia and Germany can become a locomotive for total European integration, just as the rapprochement between Germany and France after World War II promoted integration within the European Union." After a long period of development, "Europe" would then be a market of 700 million Europeans and Asians, with highways stretching from Berlin to Vladivostok and an economy fueled by synergy between western-European high tech and the massive oil and natural gas reserves of a re-energized Russia. If Moscow has its way, Europe could become a true rival to rising powers China and India in the geopolitical struggle of the 21st century.

The Russians can even count on support within Germany's foreign ministry. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier -- once Gerhard Schröder's aide -- recently announced "a new Ostpolitik," which is a deliberate reference to former Chancellor Willy Brandt's Cold-War policy of relaxing tensions with the East, or "change through rapprochement." One of Steinmeier's strategy documents even mentions "rapprochement through integration."

According to Steinmeier, Europe and Russia ought to become more integrated despite Russia's in foreign policy and the fact that it follows its "own, Russian path" on domestic policy. This path is "often asynchronous with that of the EU," Steinmeier admits.

Sure enough, according to a high-ranking staff member at the German Foreign Ministry, reactions in Merkel's office to Steinmeier's comment were "anything but friendly."

"There must be a mutual interest"

Merkel herself has advocated the Russian plan to bring gas from the Stockmann field to Europe, but she's been cool so far toward Russian demands for Europe to offer something in return.

Moscow expects its gas conglomerate, Gazprom, to be granted a greater say in the European energy market at the EU summit planned for next March, and it wants to acquire a larger stake in EADS -- which would allow the Russians to exert more influence on the group's corporate policies. The Kremlin even sees the possibility of military cooperation between EADS and Russian jet-fighter manufacturers. Putin may push the issue at a meeting with key industry officials in Munich next week.

Whereas Schröder invited the Russians to participate in EADS subsidiary Airbus in early 2005, Merkel has remained cautious. "There must be a mutual interest," she said at the summit in Compiègne, a comment the Russians interpreted as another setback.

In the end, Russia wants more from Germany than Germany is willing to offer. Merkel will do business with Moscow, but she's focused her efforts on plans for a joint European-American economic zone. When it comes to Russia, she has remained true to the approach she announced when she came into office: less friendship, more partnership; less romanticism, more realism.

"In fact, it's always been that way," says Yuli Kvitsinsky, a former Soviet ambassador to Germany and now the deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the Russian parliament. Germany, says Kvitsinsky, is behaving "like a bride who is constantly looking for a better bridegroom. And that bridegroom is currently America, once again." German-Russian relations, he adds, have yet to face an "endurance test." Kvitsinsky is still a member of the Communist Party. But even at the other end of the ideological spectrum, disappointment over Merkel has persisted since January. In a closed meeting, a high-ranking member of Putin's "One Russia" party recently complained about the German chancellor's repeated support for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the politically ambitious oil magnate Putin had convicted for tax evasion and sent to a Siberian prison camp.

In the future, Russia has no intention to take such lectures from abroad lying down -- not even from Angela Merkel.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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