Medvedev Makes Germany a Top Priority

In another sign of the special relationship between Moscow and Berlin, President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday welcomed German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the first prominent foreign guest to the Kremlin since his inauguration last week.

Medvedev also announced that he would visit Germany next month.

"Given the privileged nature of our relationship, my first visit to Europe in early June will be to Germany," he said, Interfax reported.

Medvedev will make his first foreign trip, to Kazakhstan and China, late next week.

Kremlin spokesman Alexander Smirnov could not say which part of Germany Medvedev would visit in June. "The program has yet to be worked out through diplomatic channels," he said.

Medvedev gave Steinmeier a cordial welcome, greeting him with the words, "I am very glad, Frank, to see you in Moscow."

Both politicians have known each other well since holding similar posts in each other's governments several years ago. Steinmeier headed the chancellor's office under Gerhard SchrЪder, a post with similar duties to the head of the presidential administration, which Medvedev headed at the same time.

In his introductory remarks, Medvedev noted that trade figures showed the quality of relations. He said bilateral trade in 2007 topped $50 billion. "This is clear evidence of where our relations stand in the sphere of economics and trade," he said.

Germany is by far the country's single biggest trading partner, with a record $52.8 billion in bilateral trade last year. German firms invested $3.4 billion into Russia last year and have major investments in the energy sector.

Medvedev and Steinmeier were expected to discuss cooperation between Moscow and the European Union.

The German Foreign Ministry said in a statement that both sides agreed to continue their intensive contacts. A German Embassy spokesman refused to give further details.

During a meeting earlier Wednesday in Yekaterinburg, Steinmeier told Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that relations between the EU and Russia should improve to the level of the bilateral ties with Germany.

The EU and Russia have been at odds for two years, after Poland and then Lithuania blocked the renewal of a partnership agreement.

Steinmeier said he hoped that a meeting of EU foreign ministers in late May would pave the way for talks on the new pact, which will cover trade and political partnership.

In March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Moscow to become the first foreign leader to meet Medvedev after he won the March 2 presidential election.

Merkel, who leads Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Party, has been more critical of the Kremlin than her predecessor, SchrЪder.

Steinmeier, a deputy chairman of the Social Democrats and a longtime aide of SchrЪder's, has been accused of being too soft on the Kremlin on democracy and human rights issues. Yet he sent an unusually clear message to Russia's new leadership this week, saying democracy by no means meant disorder and chaos.

Openness and plurality should not be seen as a "danger but as a chance and necessity for peace and growing wealth," he told students at Yekaterinburg's Ural University on Tuesday, according to a copy of the speech posted on his ministry's web site.

Steinmeier also urged the country to provide reliable business conditions for investors.

"The modernization of Russia can only succeed if domestic and foreign capital face a reliable legal framework," he said, adding that positive economic development required trust, reliable processes and an independent judiciary.

"These are all issues relevant for your country's accession to the World Trade Organization," Steinmeier said.

In his meeting with Lavrov, he offered to forge what he called a modernization partnership between both countries, comprising wide-ranging cooperation in legal matters, administration and health care.

The visit was warmly welcomed by Europe's biggest business organization in the country. Frank Schauff, head of the Association of European Business, said it was good that the German foreign minister met the new president so soon. "This is a constructive signal that shows that the good relations between Berlin and Moscow will continue, and this will definitely have a positive impact on Russia's future relations with Europe," Schauff said.

Traveling with Steinmeier was a delegation of German deputies and business leaders, including Klaus Mangold, chairman of Germany's Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations.

On Thursday, Steinmeier is scheduled to hold talks with Igor Shuvalov, the newly appointed first deputy prime minister who served as senior economic adviser in Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. Later he will travel to St. Petersburg to meet Governor Valentina Matviyenko.