PRAGUE, April 26, 2006 -- On the first day of the summit, Merkel and Putin had a face-to-face meeting at Tomsk University.
The talks were rather informal, with the Russian president jokingly vowing to have his German visitor get a foretaste of the local cuisine. "I hope that today I will be able to treat you with real Siberian pelmeny [sort of Russian ravioli]," he said. "As you see, we have a full program."
Putin has maintained close personal ties with Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel's predecessor. But observers in both countries expect bilateral relations to be more business-like under the new German chancellor.
On April 27, both leaders will meet again, this time in the presence of delegations of businesspeople and ministers. The summit is expected to end with the signing of several bilateral documents.
Merkel is traveling with a 20-strong delegation that includes senior banking and business executives. Putin, who arrived earlier in Tomsk to meet with Siberian regional governors, is accompanied by no less than 19 ministers and government officials.Energy Security A Main Issue
"In all likelihood, energy security will be among the main issues to be discussed," says Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO).
"All the more so as Russia sees it as a priority now that it is heading the G8 [Group of Eight leading industrialized nations]," he continues. "In this regard, the ties that exist between Russia and Germany are quite close. Russia exports a significant volume of its energy resources to Germany and, of course, Germany would like its cooperation with Russia in this field to develop successfully."
A Russian Baltic Sea gas pipeline (epa)
Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly provides approximately one-quarter of Europe's natural-gas needs, and one-third of Germany's. In January, it briefly cut off supplies to Europe amid a bitter price dispute with Ukraine. Russian gas meant for Western and Central European markets runs through pipelines that stretch across Ukraine and Belarus.
More recently, Gazprom has expressed concern at EU plans to deregulate energy markets and threatened to favor Asia over Europe for long-term gas sales.
Yevseyev also says he expects Putin and Merkel to discuss Germany's possible participation in Russia's nuclear projects.
"Russia is interested in securing Germany's participation in a number of energy projects," he notes. "With this regard, the [upcoming talks] may not only touch on the underwater shipment of [Russian] energy resources through the Baltic Sea, they may also touch on Germany's possible participation in Russia's plans to develop [new] nuclear reactors. This would be in line with a proposal made recently by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. These new types of reactors would be safer from the viewpoint of proliferation, which is very important for Germany."Iranian Nuclear Standoff
Merkel and Putin are also widely expected to discuss Iran's nuclear standoff with the West.
Germany is one of the three EU countries, with Britain and France, that have been negotiating with Iran on behalf of the 25-member bloc. They have been attempting to convince Iran to abandon its uranium-enrichment program.
Moscow, in turn, has offered to create a joint venture that would enrich Iran's uranium on Russian soil. Tehran has sent mixed messages about the Russian proposal, saying alternately it was interested, and then not interested.
Russia, which is one of Iran's main economic partners, is adamant that the nuclear dispute should be resolved through diplomacy. Moscow categorically opposes any possible military intervention against Tehran in the case of it refusing to abandon its controversial nuclear program.
Yevseyev believes the upcoming Putin-Merkel talks could help bring the German and Russian positions closer on the Iranian nuclear issue. But, he says, that does not mean Russia will be alone in altering its stance.
"In my opinion, we should talk here of a mutual rapprochement," he says. "For example, [both sides] could state that the use of force to solve [Iran's nuclear] problem is unacceptable. They could also state that sanctions [against Iran] could be a matter of discussion. Russia opposes sanctions for now, while many European countries say they are in favor. But maybe a compromise on this issue could be possible. In any case, that would help create additional leverage on the Iranian leadership. If before the Iranian leaders thought Russia would always defend them whatever steps they take, I think they now understand Russia will not always defend them if they do not take [its] opinion into account."
The UN Security Council has called on Iran to effectively end its uranium-enrichment program by April 28. After that, Tehran faces a tougher resolution that could envisage the imposition of international sanctions.
The Reuters news agency on April 24 quoted an unidentified German diplomat as saying Merkel would urge Putin to insist that Iran accepts Moscow's joint enrichment offer. In case of a refusal, the diplomat said the German chancellor would then press the Russian president to agree to sanctions against Tehran.
Yevseyev says he believes a rapprochement between the two countries on the Iran issue "is not only possible, but highly desirable."
Click on the map to view the locations of Russia's civilian nuclear power plants.
POWER OF THE ATOM: As Russia's economy recovers from the collapse of the 1990s, the government is moving forward with plans to expand its nuclear-energy sector. Russia currently has 31 civilian nuclear-power reactors in operation, with the newest being Kalinin-3, which came on line in 2004. Nuclear power accounts for 16 percent of Russia's total power generation. Three additional reactors are currently under construction.
Many of Russia's reactors are quite old. In 2000, the government announced plans to extend the working lifetime of 12 first-generation reactors. So far, seven of these reactors have been upgraded for 15-year extensions and all 12 of them are expected to be replaced by 2020.
Russia controls about 4 percent of the world's known uranium deposits, producing some 2,900 tons of uranium in 2002. Russia has four operating uranium-enrichment plants, the largest of which is located at Novouralsk near Yekaterinburg.
The government has not yet approved a proposal for a permanent nuclear-waste storage facility on the Kola Peninsula.