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Russia/Germany: Schroeder Faces Difficulty In Maintaining 'Best Pal' Approach To Putin

Better days Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Germany today and tomorrow for a visit expected to have a more sober atmosphere than his previous contacts with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. On earlier meetings, Schroeder has gone out of his way to express personal friendliness to the Russian leader, bear hugs and all. But this time, sharp differences over democratic processes in Ukraine are likely to dampen the atmosphere, as well the controversy surrounding the forced breakup of the Russian oil giant Yukos.

Prague, 20 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The annual German-Russian summit taking place today and tomorrow in northern Germany is this year weighed down with some unexpected baggage.

The good cheer which Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder customarily shows toward the undemonstrative Russian leader could be somewhat dimmed by events in the Ukraine and over the breakup of the Yukos oil company.

According to Peter Zervakis, a senior German political analyst, Schroeder has to express reserve over Russia's backing of Ukrainian presidential candidate Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose election was later cancelled on account of fraud.

"It's a pretty awkward moment, in a way, because Schroeder has on the one hand got to follow a critical stance against Russia's involvement in Ukraine, their undemocratic way they supported the candidate there," Zervakis told RFE/RL.

Zervakis, of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Guetersloh, also notes Putin has suffered a snub from Hamburg University, which had planned to give him an honorary degree. "This move by the university authorities was vetoed by the [staff of the] faculties, which said we cannot accept Putin's strongly authoritarian record by receiving him as a colleague on the economics faculty," he said.

The snub is all the clearer in that Schroeder was awarded an honorary doctorate at a Russian university during a previous meeting with Putin in St. Petersberg.

Of course, basic interests must be kept in view. As Schroeder put it in an interview with ITAR-TASS: "Our aim is not only to keep our leading position as Russia's biggest foreign-trade partner, but to develop that position further".

Schroeder spoke particularly of deepening cooperation in energy exploitation. He's mindful of the fact that Germany's economy gets 40 percent of its natural-gas supplies from Russia, as well as oil. His vision is that German companies should be much more actively involved in the Russian energy sector, to help ensure that supplies for Germany remain reliable in the coming years.

For some, though, this has left Schroeder too dependent on Putin's plans for the Russian energy sector. Putin is widely viewed as being behind moves to break up the Russian oil giant Yukos, and perhaps reconstitute a giant state-controlled gas and oil company.

An article in the German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" on 17 December quoted Tim Osborne, the acting chairman of Menatep, the biggest investor in Yukos, as saying Schroeder is turning a "blind eye" as Putin pulls Yukos apart.

Bonn-based political analyst Adrian Ottnad told RFE/RL that Germany is at a critical point where it must make clear what it will accept and what it cannot accept from the Russian leadership. Ottnad, of the Institute for Economics and Society, said the price of friendship with Putin must not come too high.

"It may be useful to be good friends and have very close connections, after all, you can tell a friend something you would not say to someone else. But on the other hand, if the price of the friendship is that certain things cannot be mentioned, I think we should be rather skeptical of this kind of relationship," Ottnad said.

Putin was expected to meet with Schroeder this evening in the northern port of Hamburg. Tomorrow, the leaders are due to join German and Russian ministers in Schleswig for intergovernmental consultations. Several documents are expected to be signed during the visit, including an agreement to increase education exchanges of students between Germany and Russia.