Merkel Told Not To Expect Changes

ReutersGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev meeting outside Moscow on Saturday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was greeted with flowers on her arrival in Moscow on Saturday, along with the assurance from President Vladimir Putin that Russia's foreign policy stance would remain tough under his successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev.

International Women's Day and the fact that Merkel was the first foreign leader to visit Medvedev after his victory in the March 2 presidential vote lent an upbeat feel to the visit -- a feel that was tempered by Putin's comments.

"Dmitry Medvedev doesn't have to prove his liberal views," Putin said at a news conference following a one-on-one meeting with Merkel at his Moscow region government dacha in Novo-Ogaryovo, Interfax reported. "But he is no less a Russian nationalist than I am, in the positive sense of the word, and I do not think that our partners will have it any easier with him."

Merkel said she did not expect differences with Moscow to disappear at once and did not make any mention of the nature of the presidential vote, which one German government spokesman said was not in keeping with democratic and constitutional principles.

A comment by Putin that it would be up to Medvedev to decide whether to pardon former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently serving a prison sentence in Siberia, served as the only indication of possible policy shifts in the future. The issue only arose in answer to a direct question from a German journalist, however, and Putin quickly moved on.

Tensions have grown in relations between Berlin and Moscow as the Kremlin has taken an increasingly hawkish foreign policy stance in recent years. Although Merkel's background -- she speaks Russian and was raised in the former East Germany -- might suggest greater familiarity with Putin, she has shunned the chummy style of her predecessor, Gerhard Schr?der.

Merkel even clashed publicly with Putin over crackdowns on the political opposition during last year's EU summit near Samara.

Things were a bit more relaxed this time, as Putin told reporters that relations with Germany were "privileged," and should remain so, RIA-Novosti reported.

Part of the warmth came from the fact that Merkel's visit coincided with International Women's Day, as both Putin and Medvedev greeted her with flowers.

"You thought up the holiday, but in Russia we do it in a big way," Putin said, referring to the fact that the holiday was originated up by German socialist Clara Zetkin in 1910. "For us, it is a nationwide holiday."

Merkel asked whether Putin had made breakfast for his wife to celebrate the day, using the familiar German form of address "du."

"I've prepared some gifts for her, and you and I will have breakfast together," Putin responded.

"Breakfast, that means lunch for you, right?" Merkel quipped back, as both leaders -- fluent in each other's languages -- switched back and forth between Russian and German.

Before his comment that foreign policy would be the same under Medvedev, Putin addressed foreign perceptions of himself in office.

"I have the feeling that some of our partners cannot wait for me to leave power so that they can deal with someone else," he said. "I am well aware of the suggestion that it is difficult to work with a former KGB agent."

Putin and Merkel then went on to discuss a number of divisive issues, although the tone remained calm. In a barb that might have seemed sharper under tenser circumstances, Putin accused the West of trying to replace the United Nations with NATO.

"An endless expansion of the military bloc under current conditions, when there is no confrontation between two hostile systems -- we can see that this is not only unfeasible, but harmful and counterproductive," Putin said, RIA-Novosti reported.

Merkel replied that NATO did not plan to replace the UN, and was an alliance of an absolutely defensive nature, based on common values.

Although Putin stressed continuity in foreign policy in his statements, Merkel's meeting later with Medvedev had a somewhat different character. The two met at his government residence, located near Putin's and bearing the German name of Mayendorf, or "May Village."

While the two did refer to Putin's comments -- Merkel quipping that she hoped Medvedev's manner would not be more difficult and Medvedev sticking to the continuity message -- the talks with the president-elect were low-key.

German media reported a playful exchange centering on the root of Medvedev's surname -- the Russian word for "bear" -- with Merkel mentioning Knut, a polar bear cub in the Berlin zoo that has been hugely popular. Medvedev, in turn, talked about a teddy bear his father once brought him home from a trip to Berlin.

Merkel admitted that this might not be a standard topic of discussion between strategic partners before taking off from Vnukovo Airport Saturday afternoon, but added, "We need to get to know each other first," the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung reported.