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Russia: Medvedev's 'Liberal' Views Up For Inspection In Berlin

  • Claire Bigg --> German Chancellor Merkel will look to assess where Dmitry Medvedev stands (epa) Dmitry Medvedev's first visit to the West since his inauguration as president in May will last barely eight hours.

The Russian leader is scheduled to hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Horst Koehler, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin on June 5 before returning to Moscow in the evening.

Despite its brevity, the visit could yield precious clues on whether Medvedev will adopt a more liberal course than his predecessor, and on who really calls the shots in Russian foreign policy following Vladimir Putin's appointment as prime minister.

Putin muddied the waters last week by making a high-profile visit to France -- the first Russian official trip to the West since the May change of power.

In terms of foreign policy, Russian political analyst Yevgeny Volk says the new Russian president is unlikely to veer off the course set by his mentor Putin.

"In Europe, Russia as usual is betting on Germany, one of its closest political and economic partners," Volk says. "With this visit to Germany, Medvedev is continuing the foreign-policy course. It gives a signal to the West that Russia will maintain the same foreign policy as under Putin."

Medvedev chose China and Kazakhstan for his first trip abroad as president, and Russia-watchers say the visit is chiefly intended to reassure Europe that Moscow is still interested in building bridges with the West.

Germany is an obvious port of call for Medvedev's first Western visit. Germany is Russia's leading trade partner with an annual turnover of $53 billion, and the two countries are currently building a pipeline under the Baltic Sea to pump Russian natural gas to Europe via Germany.

The German chancellor -- the first Western head of state to meet Medvedev after his election -- will be eager to draw a clearer picture of the new Russian leader, who is generally seen as more liberal than former KGB officer Putin.

Merkel, who said she was pleased by his pledges to make Russia's judicial system more independent and tackle corruption, has nonetheless been one of Russia's most vocal critics. During her talks with Medvedev, she is expected to raise Western concerns over Russia's democratic record and alleged human rights and press freedom violations.

"In general, it's very difficult to influence the foreign and domestic policy of a power like Russia," says Joerg Himmelreich, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "Russia is probably fed up being lectured about how it should pursue democracy and foreign policy. Nonetheless, it's of utmost importance to clearly demonstrate that Russian domestic and foreign policy is not in line with several treaties Russia has signed with the United States, the Council of Europe, and the formal partnership and cooperation agreement."

The talks in Berlin will also cover a range of hot-button issues, including energy prices, climate protection, the Middle East peace process, Kosovo, and next month's Group of Eight summit.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany and had prickly relations with Putin, is no doubt hopeful that ex-lawyer Medvedev will prove more moderate than his predecessor.

But despite their differences, Volk says Merkel may actually have more in common with Putin than with Medvedev, who is "significantly younger. Besides, Medvedev is not a Germanist, he doesn't speak German like Putin. So close ties are not in the cards. On the contrary, I think Merkel will patronize Medvedev, since she regards him as a younger and, at least for now, less influential politician than Putin."

In Berlin, Medvedev is due to address a gathering of 1,000 investors and lawmakers and lay a wreath at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin. He is also scheduled to speak to the press after his talks with Merkel.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​