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Russia Report: May 22, 2007

Europe Aversion Underscores Kremlin Position On EU

By Victor Yasmann
May 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian policymakers look back and view the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that then-President Boris Yeltsin signed with the EU in 1994 as a moment of weakness.

Now, with Europe increasingly dependent on Russian oil and gas, Russia is a power to be reckoned with. The Russian business and political elite does not consider the EU to be as important as in the 1990s, when Russia needed Western credits and was afraid of economic isolation.

Today, Russian economists like to compare Russia's annual economic growth of over 6 percent with that of 1.5-2.5 percent in the EU. Why should the EU be teaching us, they ask?

There is much that divides the two: the profound differences over energy politics, Russia's economic and political disputes with Poland and Estonia. And on the eve of the May 17-18 EU-Russia summit in Samara, there is little hope that any common ground will be found. In fact, it will be an acheivement if relations do not deteriorate further.

Underscoring Russia's tough political line toward the EU is the Russian political elite's general aversion towards Europe and to the European model of economic and political development. Many in Russia's political elite believe Europeans to be preoccupied with civil liberties, human and minority rights, as well as being soft on immigration. And there have been repeated accusations that Europeans fail to respect Russia's role in defeating fascism in World War II. The Russian political elite also considers the EU to be too bureaucratic and socialist.

Despite all that, the EU is still Russia's main trading partner: according to statistics from Russia's Economic and Trade Ministry, trade with the union makes up 52 percent of Russia's foreign trade, 70 percent of all foreign investment in the Russian economy comes from the EU, and Russia keeps about 40 percent of its $370 billion currency reserves in euros.

Looking East

But the future may well be different. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has repeatedly stressed that the main economic and political developments in the 21st century will take place in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.

Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's leading spin doctor, has advanced a model of a Europe with two centers, Western and Eastern.

Russia has done more to advance trade with eastern countries especially with oil-rich Arab countries, and the BRIC countries, an informal coalition of Brazil, Russia, India, and China that according to Goldman Sachs will be the fastest-developing economies in the next 20 years. In Putin's now infamous speech in Munich in February, the Russian president said the combined gross national products of BRIC already exceeds that of the EU and this gap will only grow wider.

Not listening anymore (TASS)

There is another aspect to Russia's diminishing interest in the EU. Despite its rhetoric about NATO expansion and the proposed deployment of U.S. missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia does not perceive Europe to be a serious military threat. It can, therefore, pay more attention to potential conflicts and competition for resources in the Pacific region and Southeast Asia.

Speaking in Vladivostok in April, First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov said, "We have no danger in the North Atlantic. Who would we go to war with there? With NATO? We don't have bad relations [with NATO], but importantly [we have] a system of treaties, [and of] mechanisms, of which there are none in the Pacific, as there are absolutely no rules of the game [there]," "Izvestia" reported on April 16.

Russians Don't Feel European

A general aversion towards Europe also seems to be shared by ordinary Russians. A poll conducted in February by the Moscow-based Levada Center showed that 71 percent of almost 2,000 Russian respondents said they do not consider themselves to be Europeans. Forty-five percent said they see the EU as a threat to Russia. And 75 percent said that they believe that Russia is a unique country and must forge its own path.

Such anti-EU sentiments are compounded with anti-Americanism and are actively encouraged by the pro-Kremlin media. In February, for example, the pro-Kremlin website published a list of "Russophobic" publications in the West. In first and third place were the British daily "Financial Times" and the French daily "Le Monde."

Political relations between the EU and Russia are likely to remain in limbo for some time. Instead of working with the bloc as a single entity, Russia will attempt to build on ties with the older European powers, while trying to cultivate ties with the newer EU members. Already this year, Russia has made bilateral energy agreements with Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia.

In light of Russia's increased assertiveness, the EU is fortifying ties with the United States. In April, at an EU-U.S. summit in Washington, EU and U.S. leaders signed an agreement on trans-Atlantic economic integration.

Sergei Karaganov, who heads the influential Foreign and Defense Policy Council (SVOP), a conservative Russian think tank, told on April 9, "In this situation of mutual misunderstanding, a lack of cooperation and the prevailing element of competition between both sides, negotiations could rather create new problems."

In fact, the current state of limbo does Russia little harm. Moscow knows the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement will be automatically extended in December and, as a policy document from Russia's Foreign Ministry stated earlier this year, there will be no legal vacuum and the question of status is more of a problem for the EU than it is for Russia.

For now, delay and divide may continue to be Russia's modus operandi.

Energy Summit Gives Putin New Trump Card

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Presidents Nazarbaev (left), Putin (center) and Berdymukhammedov after their summit in Turkmenbashi

May 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin last week clinched a deal that, at least on paper, ensures that his country will remain the world's largest natural-gas exporter for many years to come. Whether Russia will be able to capitalize on the short-term political dividends it may expect from this arrangement remains unclear, however.

For Kremlin officials and most Russian media, the outcome of the three-way summit that took place on May 12 in the Caspian Sea city port of Turkmenbashi is a major victory for Putin.

The plan envisages the construction of a new pipeline and the modernization of old ones to carry Turkmen and Kazakh natural gas to Russia and on to Europe.

One of the most immediate political fallouts of the talks the Russian president had with his Kazakh and Turkmen counterparts, Nursultan Nazarbaev and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is that they eclipsed a rival high-level meeting that took place the day before in Krakow, Poland.

The Turkmenbashi deal left U.S. and EU Caspian energy polices "in ruins." -- Analyst Vladimir Socor

Nazarbaev, who had initially confirmed his presence at this pro-Western energy summit that was to focus on Caspian oil projects for European consumer countries, dispatched instead a deputy energy minister, Lyazzat Kiinov.

Analyst Vladimir Socor wrote in the May 14 issue of the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor that the announcement made in Turkmenbashi "cast a dark shadow on the Krakow summit" and left U.S. and EU Caspian energy policies "in ruins."

In a joint statement released at the end of their meeting, the Russian, Kazakh, and Turkmen leaders said they had instructed their respective governments to proceed with the construction of a new export pipeline to Russia along the Caspian Sea coast.

The declaration said a final agreement on the Caspian shore gas pipeline would be signed by September 1 and that its implementation would begin in the second half of 2008.

In a second declaration that was reportedly signed beforehand by Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the three presidents said they had agreed to upgrade two old pipelines, including one that carries Turkmen gas to Russia through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Russian officials say the deals should help increase annual imports of Central Asian gas to 90 billion cubic meters, up from current volumes believed to be around 50 billion cubic meters.

Boost For Putin Ahead Of EU Talks

In the absence of information on Turkmenistan's actual gas reserves, which remain a state secret, Putin's victory is first and foremost diplomatic.

The Russian president is scheduled to meet May 19 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European officials for talks that promise to be tense.

Although energy cooperation is unlikely to top the agenda of the upcoming Russia-EU summit, it would be most surprising if the results of the Turkmenbashi meeting were not discussed.

The Interfax news agency on May 12 quoted an unidentified Kremlin official as saying the deals secured that day in Turkmenistan gave Russia "additional arguments" in its energy dialogue with the European Union.

Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko in turn said that, once implemented, those pipeline agreements would help cover the needs of both the CIS and European gas markets. A price dispute between Russia and Ukraine led to a brief disruption in supplies to Europe (ITAR-TASS)

The EU is wary of its energy dependence on Russia, which supplies roughly one-quarter of the oil and gas consumed by the bloc, and the proportion is set to rise sharply in coming decades.

Energy security has become a top priority for the EU ever since a price dispute between Moscow and Kyiv last year led to a brief disruption of gas deliveries from Russia. Ukraine is a main transit route for the natural gas Russia buys from Central Asian producers and re-exports to Europe.

Brussels insists that Russia ratify an international treaty known as the Energy Charter that would oblige it to offer foreign investors fair access to its hydrocarbon reserves and, more importantly, to its export pipelines.

Putin has rejected the call, saying the treaty runs contrary to Russia's interests.

While trying to overcome Moscow's objections, the EU is seeking ways to buy natural gas directly from Central Asian producers.

Blow To U.S.-sponsored Pipeline Project?

The United States, which backs efforts to loosen Russia's energy grip on the EU, is calling upon the bloc to engage with Turkmenistan's new leadership and is trying to convince the latter to rally to a planned underwater pipeline that would deliver Central Asian gas to Europe through the Caspian Sea, the Southern Caucasus, and Turkey.

Washington argues that should Central Asian countries agree to ship their gas through the Trans-Caspian pipeline they would be able to sell their production at an average $300 per 1,000 cubic meters -- three times what Russia currently pays.

Russian energy officials claim the gas pipeline agreements reached last week in Turkmenistan mean the end of the rival U.S.-sponsored project.

"As of today, the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline project does not exist," Khristenko said in Turkmenbashi on May 12, adding that Russia offered a cheaper, safer, and therefore more attractive alternative to Central Asian producers.

Addressing journalists minutes later, Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov, however, warned it would be premature to write off the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline project.

Commenting on the outcome of the summit, Russia's "Kommersant" daily on May 14 said Putin had failed to secure a commitment from his Kazakh and Turkmen counterparts to not join the U.S.-sponsored project. The newspaper also noted that, in case of necessity, the Kazakh and Turkmen sections of the Caspian shore gas pipeline could easily be connected to an underwater conduit.

"When the Turkmen president said the Trans-Caspian Pipeline Project was still on the agenda, he made the Russian project look as if it was in abeyance," Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies wrote in a May 14 article posted on the website.

Doubts Over Kazakh Support

If Turkmenistan's exclusive commitment to the Russian gas pipeline project remains under question, so may be Kazakhstan's.

Russia's "Kommersant" daily reported on May 11 that, despite Kazakh President Nazarbaev's announcement at a meeting with Putin in Astana the day before, the two leaders failed to reach an agreement on the capacity of a Russian-operated pipeline that carries Kazakh oil produced by a U.S.-led international consortium to the Black Sea and on to Western markets.

Kazakhstan has long been threatening to use alternative U.S.-sponsored export routes, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, unless Russia agrees to boost the annual capacity of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium to 67 million tons from a current 30 million tons.

Some observers warn that Russia's continuous objections to the Kazakh demands, officially for profitability reasons, are fraught with risks, especially in light of a recent announcement that Astana and Ashgabat will coordinate their energy-transportation policies.

"Central Asia has two options today -- either make enormous profits by selling its energy resources independently from Russia, with the help of Western investments, but with high commercial risks; or opt for sound commercial guarantees and Russia's firm support but significantly lower selling prices," analyst Stanovaya wrote.

However, she noted that in the absence of a consensual Western energy policy, both domestic political considerations and Russia's "increasing activity on the geopolitical arena" may lead Central Asian leaders to choose the second alternative.

Activists Prevented From Attending Opposition Rally

Garry Kasparov was detained at Moscow airport

SAMARA, May 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition activists have staged a March of Dissent rally on the sidelines of the EU-Russia summit, while some of their counterparts were prevented from attending.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Oleg Kusov said that protesters were greeted with a strong police presence.

"After every 10 meters there was a column of policemen. They were in plainclothes, but nevertheless, they had a psychological influence. Next to the policemen there were trucks with water cannons.... The organizers aren't giving any cause for the police to use force. And I think the intensity of passions is diminishing," Kusov said.

Kusov estimated that there were no more than 200 marchers present. He said some local journalists said they recognized members of the security services in the crowd.

Protesters marched with slogans such as "We want a different Russia," and "Russia without Putin and his disciples."

Sanctioned Rally

The rally was officially sanctioned, but it follows a week of crackdowns against activists in Samara and elsewhere.

Law-enforcement officials seized computers at the Samara office of the liberal weekly "Novaya gazeta" last week. Police reportedly said they were searching for pirated software.

"Most [of the group members] had their passports and tickets taken away. This continued for almost five hours and there was no explanation given for the first two hours." -- Garry Kasparov

Police also raided the Samara branch of Voice, a rights group that has actively denounced arrests of opposition activists.

Some of the activists, traveling from other parts of Russia, didn't make it to Samara. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now a leading figure in the Other Russia opposition movement, was detained this morning at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport as he was attempting to board a plane to Samara.

Officials have claimed Kasparov's ticket was improperly issued. Several Western journalists and other opposition figures were also barred from boarding the plane.

Moscow Detentions

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Kasparov said he was not allowed to fly out of Moscow.

"Most [of the group members] had their passports and tickets taken away. This continued for almost five hours and there was no explanation given for the first two hours. After that they said they were gathering information about the tickets because supposedly 13 passengers [from the group] -- including correspondents from 'The Wall Street Journal' and 'The Daily Telegraph,' by the way -- had forged tickets," Kasparov said.

Eduard Limonov, whose barred National Bolshevik Party is also a member of Other Russia, was among those detained.

He told RFE/RL's Russian Service he believes the confrontation with authorities indicates the opposition is stronger than the Kremlin would like.

"The polarization between the Kremlin and the Other Russia [movement] continues, and as far as I understand it is becoming public knowledge among Russian citizens despite the silence of federal television stations and the federal media. As far as I'm concerned, I'm glad it's happening. I think this is the kind of conflict that opposition activities have been missing for many years," Limonov said.

Merkel Concerns

Requests to hold such marches in other Russian cities are often rejected, and attempts to defy the bans have met with a brutal police crackdown.

In Samara, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists she was "concerned" by the fact that activists had had difficulty traveling to the city.

Putin: marchers pose no problems

"I say this openly that I wish that this afternoon, those who want to demonstrate in Samara and express their opinion will be able to do so. I am a little concerned that a number of [people] had difficulty in traveling here, but perhaps they will be able to accomplish this, nevertheless," Merkel said.

Putin appeared unfazed by any critical voices. He said the March of Dissent opposition rallies -- which have been staged in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod -- "pose no problems" to him.

"We shouldn't be afraid of marginal groups, especially such small groups. Practically in all countries law enforcement agencies take preventive measures. Is it good or bad? I think sometimes it's not always justified. And such examples have been cited today. There are such examples in Germany too, where they arrest and detain people as a preventive measure," Putin said.

Rice Visits Moscow Amid Strained Relations

By Chloe Arnold

Rice (left) will meet with Sergei Lavrov, among others (file photo)

MOSCOW, May 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Condoleezza Rice has a difficult few days ahead of her.

The U.S. secretary of state arrived in Russia today for two days of talks with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and other top officials.

Russian officials say they are preparing for calm and measured discussion. Such statements, however, couldn't be more at odds with the bitter exchanges between the two countries in recent months.

"I regard relations between the two countries as at their most tense in more than 20 years, since [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power and ushered in an era of new thinking in the sphere of foreign policy," says Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Moscow.

Among the divisive issues likely to be discussed are U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe, and a Washington-backed plan to grant conditional independence to the Serbian province of Kosovo.

President Putin is vehemently opposed to both proposals. At a damning speech in Munich this year, he warned Washington's foreign policy was a threat to global peace.

Tit For Tat

In April, the Kremlin announced it was pulling out of a key arms accord, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty -- a move widely seen as retaliation for the U.S. defense plans.

And Russia's ambassador to the United Nations said during the weekend it was "becoming more likely" his country would veto a draft UN Security Council resolution granting Kosovo independence.

Washington, in turn, has attacked Moscow's human rights record and accused the Kremlin of trampling on freedom of speech.

It has also criticized Moscow's hardened stance toward some of its neighbors, including Georgia and Ukraine, which are pursuing more Western policies.

Still, despite rising tensions, Rice told reporters on her arrival in Moscow today that there was no reason to speak of a new "Cold War."

Campaign Season

Masha Lipman, an expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, sees domestic interests in the current frosty relations.

"I think we've entered a really vicious circle here, because every next step brings about another unpleasant statement from the other side," she says.

"And this goes on and on, and it doesn't seem like there is a desire or readiness to become more constructive, not least because both countries have entered election campaigns and [in Russia] the closer it is to the election, the tougher the anti-Western stance."

Russians will vote in a parliamentary election in December and in a presidential poll next spring. In the United States, a presidential election will also take place in November 2008.

Conflicting Visions Of The OSCE

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

The U.S. and Russia have different stands on the OSCE (file photo)

VIENNA, May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In response to a suggestion made by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has agreed to initiate discussions on U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Central Europe.

In itself the announcement represents a diplomatic victory for Moscow, which has long been seeking to boost the OSCE's role in politico-military issues to counterbalance that of NATO.

Forum For Debate

In his annual state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly on April 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the dispute over Washington's missile-defense plans went beyond U.S.-Russian relations and concerned "all European states, including those which do not belong to NATO."

He went on as saying he believed the issue should be debated at the OSCE.

"It is time to put some real content into the activities of the OSCE, make this organization face the problems that are causing the peoples of Europe alarm and stop just splitting hairs in the post-Soviet space," Putin added.

Two days later, OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos said in a statement he "agreed" that the organization "was an appropriate forum to discuss Washington's missile-defense proposals."

The Spanish foreign minister further suggested that the issue be debated at the Forum for Security Cooperation -- the OSCE's main decision-making body on politico-military issues -- and at the organization's Annual Security Review Conference that is scheduled to take place in Vienna in June.

Neither Russia nor the United States has officially reacted to Moratinos' initiative.

Addressing an international security conference in Munich on February 10, Putin denounced what he described as "attempts to turn the OSCE into an unsophisticated instrument to promote the foreign-policy interests of individual countries, or groups of countries, toward other countries."

Although Putin did not elaborate further, it was clear his attack targeted the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

The Warsaw-based body, whose priority task is to assess elections in the OSCE region, has criticized most parliamentary and presidential ballots that have taken place in the former Soviet Union since 1991 as failing to meet democratic standards.

'Politicized Organization'

In a February 28 interview with Russia's "Rossiiskaya gazeta" official daily, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described ODIHR as a "politicized organization."

In Lavrov's words, ODIHR "can no longer continue to exist as it is for it operates on the basis of instructions that are invented by employees of the office and that are not appraised by governments."

Lavrov also criticized unspecified states for refusing "to bring any changes to the functioning of ODIHR."

In the opinion of Julie Finley, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Putin's Munich statement should be read as "a prelude to not inviting" the OSCE to monitor Russia's upcoming parliamentary and presidential polls.

"It is time to put some real content into the activities of the OSCE, make this organization face the problems that are causing the peoples of Europe alarm and stop just splitting hairs in the post-Soviet space." -- Putin

Yet, Moscow's hostile attitude toward ODIHR goes back a long way.

Russian officials have blamed the bad marks given by ODIHR election missions in Georgia and Ukraine for the political overhauls that took place in those two countries in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

At a CIS summit in July 2004, the heads of states of Russia and eight other former Soviet republics (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) issued a letter accusing the OSCE of interfering in the internal affairs of its participating states and calling for a fundamental refocusing of its priorities and activities.

The signatories accused ODIHR of carrying out "politicized" election-monitoring activities and OSCE field missions of focusing exclusively on human rights issues while neglecting the organization's other two dimensions -- politico-military and economic-environmental.

Responding to the letter, the U.S. delegation at the OSCE stated that "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law is at the core of the [organization's] comprehensive concept of security."

Inflexible Visions

The dispute stems from what one observer, Ales Gaube of Slovenia's "Dnevnik" daily, once described as the "incompatible and inflexible visions" of Russia and the United States.

Russia has long been seeking to put ODIHR under the supervision of the OSCE's Permanent Council, which would have to approve all of the office's election reports. Since all decisions at the OSCE are made on a consensual basis, this would effectively give Russia and other CIS countries a veto over ODIHR's decisions.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns once described ODIHR as "the gold standard worldwide in election monitoring."

Other longtime Russian demands include boosting the OSCE's role in the politico-military and economic-environmental fields and curtailing extra funding some Western countries give the organization above their annual budget contributions. The money is frequently used to fund democracy-building projects in the OSCE's field offices. Russia and other critics have no control over voluntary contributions.

Washington strongly opposes curtailing the OSCE's human-rights dimension and stripping ODIHR -- which U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns once described as "the gold standard worldwide in election monitoring" -- of its autonomy.

Although U.S. State Department officials praise the role the OSCE has played in managing Europe's recent security challenges, Washington's views on the organization's role in the military aspect of security compared to that of NATO are less explicit.

The 2000 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS) -- which was drafted under President Bill Clinton -- says the OSCE "has a key role to play in enhancing Europe's stability [and] provides the [U.S.] with a venue for developing Europe's security architecture in a manner that complements [Washington's] NATO strategy."

Released two years into President George W. Bush's administration, the 2002 NSS does not mention the OSCE even once. Tellingly, it describes NATO as "the fulcrum of transatlantic and inter-European security," while reducing the European Union to the role of Washington's "partner in opening world trade."

The 2006 edition of the NSS contains only one reference to the OSCE, which is listed among regional organizations that could help the United States promote "effective democracy."

Kazakh Leadership Chances

Critics of this vision include Kazakhstan, which has applied to chair the OSCE in 2009.

Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council on April 30, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin mentioned ODIHR's contribution to reforming his country's judicial system and election laws. But he also clearly indicated that, should Kazakhstan take the helm of the OSCE, it would put the emphasis on security, economic, and environmental issues.

While welcoming Astana's "expressed interest in moving forward with implementation of political reform," U.S. Ambassador Finley urged Kazakhstan to "address the structural issues which restrict basic freedoms and limit the ability of [its] citizens to influence their government."

U.S. officials have said that Kazakhstan cannot lead the OSCE unless it makes substantial progress in the field of human rights and democracy building.

Addressing a conference in Astana on April 20, Russia's envoy to the OSCE, Aleksei Borodavkin, said refusing Kazakhstan the opportunity to chair the organization would "once again" show that "one state, or one group of states, has usurped the right to issue political reprimands and teach other states how to live, shape their domestic policies, and promote democracy."

Russian Orthodox Churches Unite

Sealed with a kiss: Patriarch Aleksy II (right) and Metropolitan Lavr

MOSCOW, May 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The formal unification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church Abroad took place today in a lavish ceremony in Moscow, ending a more than 80-year rift.

The signing ceremoney, held in Moscow's opulent Christ the Savior Cathedral, is being held on Ascension, the day commemorating Christ's ascent into heaven.

It brings to an end a bitter division between Russia's predominant church and the splinter church formed by exiles fleeing the Russian Revolution and the rise of the communist state.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarch Aleksy II, and Metropolitan Lavr (Laurus), the New York-based leader of the Orthodox Church Abroad, signed an agreement on restoring canonical relations.

Patriarch Aleksy hailed the merger as a symbolic break with the shackles of the past.

"We have overcome the division of the churches. We have overcome the legacy of the revolution and civil war from that time, the schism in society," he said. "The church is being strengthened and our homeland is being restored."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the ceremony, called the unification a "truly national, historic event of tremendous moral significance."

"The church division occurred as a result of the deepest political split of Russian society following a fierce civil confrontation," Putin said. "In today's Russian society, which is based on the democratic principles of religious freedom, there are no more reasons for this outdated tragedy, for this obsolete confrontation."

Today's ceremony is a key achievement for the Russian Orthodox Church, which since the Soviet collapse has sought to bring the exile church back into its fold.

Four years ago, Aleksy formally recanted the patriarchate's 1927 declaration of loyalty to the atheist Soviet regime.

The unification is viewed as a step toward strengthening the Russian nation as well as the Orthodox Church.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the ceremony, said restoring the unity of the church is an important step toward "rediscovering the lost unity of the Russian people."

According to the document signed today, the two churches agree to recognize each other's religious hierarchies and celebrations.

The Church Abroad, however, will accept the Moscow Patriarchate as the ultimate authority.