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Putin's Meeting With Merkel Shows Strains In EU-Russia Ties

October 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel today, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised growing trade between Europe and Russia. And he reaffirmed the Kremlin's position that negotiations -- not threats -- are the key to progress with Tehran. Putin also confirmed he will fly to Iran later tonight as planned, despite reports of a possible assassination plot against him.

Putin's meeting ending a two-day visit with the German chancellor in Wiesbaden comes at a time of increasingly strained relations between Russia and the West. Disagreements on the subject of energy, Kosovo's future, Iran's nuclear program, human rights, and politics continue to mount.

In public, Merkel and Putin tried to smooth over those differences. But the change in tone from a couple of years ago was palpable. It was no longer a laughing Putin slapping Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the back.

The mood at Wiesbaden was more sober.

'Complementary' Economies

Putin and Merkel emphasized the growing economic ties between their two countries. Germany remains Russia's largest trading partner and as the Russian president noted, bilateral trade during the first six months of 2007 grew by over 13 percent, to $23 billion.

In a thinly veiled dig at China, Putin said Russia was not flooding Europe with substandard products at low prices, but was instead providing what the continent needed.

"Our economies complement each other very well," Putin said. "We are not dumping goods on European markets at low prices. We are providing products that are necessary for the development of the European and German economies."

Those products, of course, are mostly oil and gas. And Putin said that despite criticism from some quarters, Russia and Germany were on track to complete a major undersea pipeline linking the two countries.

"We intend to continue, according to schedule, the Nord Stream international pipeline project. Its completion is in the interests of Russia and its partners," Putin said.

Rumors Of Iran Plot

Much attention during Putin's trip to Germany, and the final news conference, was devoted to Iran.

A report from the Russian news agency Interfax saying Putin could face an assassination attempt during his upcoming trip to Tehran received wide play in the media. It even led to speculation that Putin might cancel his visit.

But the Russian president quashed that rumor, saying he would "of course" go to Tehran for a meeting of Caspian Sea states, which starts on October 16.

He used the opportunity to reiterate Moscow's position that negotiations are the only way to achieve a resolution of the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program.

"It makes no sense to scare the Iranian leadership or the Iranian people," Putin said. "They're not scared, believe me. What one can and must do is be patient and seek a solution. But can it be done without engaging in a dialogue with the Iranian people and the Iranian leadership? I think it's impossible and unlikely. And if we have an opportunity to maintain such direct contacts, we will use it."

For her part, Chancellor Merkel said she believes that if Iran does not respond to UN demands to halt uranium enrichment, a new round of sanctions should be introduced.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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