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Russia/Germany: Putin, Schroeder To Cement Deepening Ties At Yekaterinburg Talks

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are starting two days of talks in Yekaterinburg today. The two leaders last met together with French President Jacques Chirac at the UN in New York last month to discuss common positions on the rebuilding of Iraq after they formed an informal bloc opposing the U.S.-led war last spring.

Moscow, 8 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yekaterinburg, the industrial capital of the Urals, appears to be an appropriate choice for today's meeting between the Russian and German leaders.

Germany is Russia's main economic partner, and Russia is Germany's main energy supplier, as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reminded Russia's state news agency ITAR-TASS yesterday. Germany is Russia's "main partner in Europe," as Russian President Vladimir Putin noted recently.

Common opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq drew the two countries even closer together. But the issue of restituting Soviet trophy art to Germany remains a sticking point.

Vladislav Belov is director of the Center for German Studies at Russia's Academy of Science. He explains the main issues on the agenda for the two days of talks in Yekaterinburg.

"First, Iraq. The so-called triumvirate between France, Germany and Russia on the Iraq crisis is justifiably a major [political stance] in Europe and, in my opinion, helped Europe save face. The second focus will be the Middle East crisis. And the third will be Afghanistan, where probably an agreement will be signed on the transit of military equipment from Germany to Afghanistan," Belov said.

Germany is participating in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Yekaterinburg is also hosting the sixth intergovernmental round of consultations between Russia and Germany's interior, foreign, and economics ministries. Talks will focus on easing visa conditions for some travelers, nuclear and chemical waste disposal, and the construction of a gas plant near St. Petersburg.

A declaration of intention for a long-term project for a new transit line for gas running along the Baltic Sea floor could also occur. The pipeline would bypass Ukraine and Belarus, which have been blocking Gazprom plans involving their territories.

However, Adam Landes, a Russian oil and gas analyst with Renaissance Capital investment bank in London, sees little future for the project.

"I'm not sure that the specific economics of that pipeline will work," he says. "Gas demand in Germany isn't growing, so the opportunity to supply Germany from increasing Norwegian production is very possible and very easy. So it's all very well talking about spending $5 billion on some incredibly technologically rich project, but its economics don't seem to be terribly sensible."

Over the past three years, Putin and Schroeder have forged a solid political friendship, one that often overlooks uncomfortable issues such as Moscow's war in Chechnya.

However, the German Foreign Ministry's human rights commissioner, Claudia Roth, did call 5 October elections in Chechnya a "farce." German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was more careful, recalling simply the reservations that had been expressed by the European Union last month and promising to bring the issue up with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.

A scandal is also brewing involving the Frankfurt Book Fair, which opened this week. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya has accused the fair of canceling -- under political pressure -- a public presentation of her book on the horrors of the war in Chechnya. The fair denies responsibility. The German publisher cites last-minute "financial difficulties."

Initially, Germany's relations with Moscow were based on the efforts of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After securing German reunification, Kohl supported Russian democracy and economic reform in the early 1990s. Under his impetus, Germany brought important commercial investments to Russia, including BMW and Ruhrgas.

Relations then cooled down over the war in Kosovo and the new German government's insistence on the repayment of old debts.

At first, Schroeder had little to say to Putin -- the tough-talking former KGB agent from East Germany who was now sitting in the Kremlin. The warming of relations is very much due to Putin himself. He managed to turn his posting as a spy in Dresden to his advantage.

The turning point came in September 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the events of 11 September. Belov says Putin overcame the initial coolness in relations by making the best use of his knowledge of German.

"The breaking point was Putin's state visit in September 2001, especially his speech to the Bundestag, which he delivered in German and convinced both deputies of the governing coalition and of the opposition. After that, our relations found new dynamism," Belov said.

Commenting on Putin's contacts with German culture in his interview with ITAR-TASS, Schroeder pointed out that "it makes a lot of things easier" when relations can be conducted in a common tongue.

Today's meeting in Yekaterinburg comes as the politically and emotionally sensitive issue of Soviet trophy art is back in the news. For years, the two countries have been painfully laboring on how to handle the restitution of thousands of works stolen by Soviet troops in Germany during World War II. Germany wants them back, but many in Russia see the treasures as repayment for the horrors wreaked on Russia by the Nazis during the war.

The latest scandal involves a 17th century masterpiece by Peter Paul Rubens. The painting was taken from the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam some time after 1942. Last month, the Federal Security Service confiscated it from a Russian businessman who was trying to sell it for $80 million.

Although Berlin won't comment officially, Belov says the issue is likely to be discussed in Yekaterinburg.