Germany's Merkel set for frosty talks with Putin

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By Douglas Busvine and Timothy Heritage | November 16, 2012 8:35 PM EST

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will complain to President Vladimir Putin on Friday about a crackdown on political freedoms in Russia at talks likely to deepen a chill between the two big European powers.

Merkel has been asked by the German parliament to express concern about the state of human rights in Russia since the former KGB spy returned to the presidency for a six-year third term in May.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, hit back on Thursday by denouncing a rise in "anti-Russian rhetoric" in Germany and signalled that the Kremlin leader would stand his ground if Merkel tried to lecture him on democracy and human rights.

But he said he did not expect strong business ties between the two countries to be affected and that annual mutual trade of $87 billion was a "safety cushion" that would keep ties on track. Germany is also heavily dependent on Russia for energy.

"Eighty-seven billion dollars in bilateral trade provide this 'air bag'. With such a solid foundation, we can be calm," Peskov told reporters, citing figures that make Germany Russia's second biggest trading partner after China.

But the atmosphere at talks is likely to be frosty. Senior German government officials said a resolution agreed last week by the Bundestag expressing alarm over the threat to civil society in Russia broadly reflected Merkel's views.

One Merkel aide said the chancellor was unlikely to press Putin on all the concerns raised by the Bundestag but added: "If there are new limits (on civil society), then naturally this is a concern for the chancellor and she will speak about it."

Conservative German lawmaker Andreas Schockenhoff, a government envoy overseeing relations with Russian society, said there was a "climate of fear" in Russia and attempts to control society from above would fail.

His remarks on policy have so upset the Russian Foreign Ministry that it no longer recognises him as a government envoy.

Although Putin, now 60, won a presidential election in March with almost two-thirds of the votes, he has in the past year faced the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000.

Critics say a series of laws passed since May is intended to stifle dissent, including legislation that went into force on Wednesday broadening the definition of treason.

The West also condemned Putin over the jailing of members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot after their irreverent protest against him in Moscow's main cathedral, although the German town of Wittenberg was criticised for nominating the group for a freedom of speech prize in October.

"POLITICAL ICE AGE"

Putin, a German speaker who spent five years in Dresden for the KGB, has never had as strong a relationship with Merkel as with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.

"President Putin's relationship with Chancellor Merkel has never been warm, but this time the atmosphere could be described as a political ice age," said respected Russian foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov.

Despite their political differences, Germany and Russia have managed to keep business ties on track since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Germany receives 40 percent of its gas and 30 percent of its oil from Russia, and German officials said Moscow remained a "strategic partner".

Berlin would be wary of any disagreement that provoked Moscow into retaliating by reducing energy supplies to Europe, as has happened before during Russian price disputes with its neighbour Ukraine.

The European Union has already challenged the pricing policy of state energy export monopoly Gazprom, and opened an investigation into whether this policy is fair.

Merkel will be accompanied by eight ministers, including Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, and a high-level business delegation.

Among deals to be clinched during the visit, Russian Railways will sign a letter of intent to buy nearly 700 locomotives from Germany's Siemens for about 2.5 billion euros ($3.2 billion), sources said.

International security issues such as the crisis in Syria and Iran's nuclear programme are also likely to be on the agenda, as well as Europe's debt crisis.

(Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Noah Barkin, Maria Sheahan and Jens Hack, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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