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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Merkel Visit Starts on Light Note

APPutin speaking with Merkel at the start of their meeting Wednesday at the Tomsk State University science library.
TOMSK -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday for the start of two days of talks that could prove a difficult balancing act for Merkel as she weighs concerns about democracy in Russia with Moscow's growing clout as an energy supplier.

The two leaders were all smiles as they greeted each other in the hallway of the library of Tomsk State University. Putin, a former KGB agent in East Germany, exchanged comments in German as he introduced Merkel to the large delegation of Russian government ministers that included Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko.

During a brief meeting in a library hall packed with reporters, Putin welcomed Merkel to Tomsk and joked that she would be treated to real Siberian pelmeni. Merkel commented that the size of the German and Russian delegations, with both including top business leaders, was "a good sign for the state of our relations."

The two leaders then exchanged jocular banter about chemistry and molecules, and Merkel discussed the university's professors.

It was hardly the sober relations most expected to see from Merkel, who was born in East Germany and seemed less likely to fall for the charms of Russian diplomacy than her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.

Critics claim that Schröder turned a blind eye to concerns over anti-democratic trends in favor of backslapping bonhomie and energy ties.

Following a meeting with graduates of a German-Russian governmental training program for young managers, Merkel again stressed that she considered Russia "a strategic partner."

"During our meeting, our talks covered many topics: cooperation on the economy, finance and energy, and most important of all in science and technology," she said. "I would like to say that our conversation was very intensive and very open. This shows that both sides want to cooperate and that our partnership really can be called strategic."

"I can say that I heard about all the issues that raise additional questions for our German colleagues," Putin said, without elaborating on what those issues were. "I hope that our position was also explained on those questions that are of mutual interest."

With talks just kicking off, the leaders had little concrete to say in public about the issues widely expected to top their agenda: energy cooperation and the growing diplomatic crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Putin said international issues would be raised during a dinner later Wednesday.

Neither leader took questions.

As they exchanged pleasantries, a small, ragged bunch of demonstrators led by activists from Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, who had gathered on the street outside the university, said police had forced them to disperse. Earlier, the head of the St. Petersburg branch of United Civil Front, Olga Kurnosova, was detained by police for four hours after a group of about 50 demonstrators gathered on one of Tomsk's main squares to protest increasing authoritarianism under Putin.

Police accused Kurnosova of organizing the meeting without permission from local authorities. They seized the group's banners and placards and detained Kurnosova, who did not resist, said Mikhail Yeliseyev, her deputy.

Markus Schreiber / AP

German Economy Minister Michael Glos, left, laughing with delegation members en route to Wednesday's summit.

Even as an enormous delegation of German business leaders, including Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann and the head of utility E.On, Wulf Bernotat, arrived in the city for what they hoped would be lucrative trade talks, the arrest of Kurnosova and the earlier beating of another activist, Sergei Zaikov, once again underlined the difficult task faced by Merkel.

"Angela Merkel should be more sensitive to questions of civil society than her predecessor," said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Merkel should show that she will not schmooze as her predecessor did. This is a matter of honor.

"But on the other hand, Merkel cannot allow relations between Russia and Germany to cool," Shevtsova said.

Germany has taken on the role of a bridge between Russia and the rest of Europe, and "she has to take into account the huge interests of German business in Russia," she said. Annual trade turnover between Russia and Germany currently stands at about $50 billion.

"Merkel is walking on very thin ice," Shevtsova said.

Putin's sudden announcement Wednesday that he was ordering a pipeline to send oil to China and the Pacific to be built farther from Lake Baikal in order to avoid potential ecological damage was "very smart politics," Shevtsova said. "Putin can show he is sensitive to social demands, and can say, 'Who are these demonstrators?'"

During the summit, Germany's E.On and BASF are expected to sign a major energy deal for stakes in a vast Siberian gas field. The Yuzhno-Russkoye field is to fill the North European gas pipeline, which will take Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Europe and is predicted to cost $5.5 billion.

Russia's aspirations as an energy power appeared to receive a fillip as the Financial Times said Wednesday in an unsourced report that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had ruled out any blocking action by ministers against attempts by Gazprom to buy British gas distribution firm Centrica. His comments sent Gazprom's market capitalization soaring past BP's as investors smelt victory for Gazprom.

British ministers had been trying to adjust legislation to avert a Gazprom takeover attempt. But Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller fired back last week with a warning that attempts to block the company's expansion in Europe could lead to "not very positive results," and suggested Russia could send its gas elsewhere, to markets in the United States and Asia.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Wednesday that Russia's strong stance "appeared to have paid certain dividends."

Putin continued in that ebullient mode, telling a meeting of Siberian governors and government ministers earlier Wednesday that Russia should seek markets in Asia for its oil because it was meeting obstacles in the West.

"We know well that we often run into unfair competition on world markets. Despite the large demand for energy resources, we face limits from the north, south and west," he told the meeting. He noted that Pacific Rim countries' economies were growing quickly and that they needed to cooperate with Russia.

Sergei Prikhodko, a Kremlin foreign policy aide, confirmed after the leaders' meeting that they had discussed energy cooperation, including Gazprom's plans and its commitments to supply Germany and the rest of the European Union.

European fears about the reliability of gas supplies from Russia were stoked earlier this year after Russia briefly cut off gas to Ukraine over a price dispute, leading to shortfalls in Europe. Europe receives about 25 percent of its gas needs from Russia, and 80 percent of that amount goes through Ukraine.