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Merkel's Visits to US, Russia Set Keynote for German Diplomacy
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid her first visit to Russia Monday, just three days after her debut official visit to the United States as the head of government.

Her visits to the two traditional rivals and "frank" and "candid " talks with US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have set the keynote for the new German government's foreign policies towards the two countries -- to mend and improve German-US ties, and to maintain and broaden a "strategic partnership" with Russia.

But political analysts say that German-US ties could only be partly improved as deep-rooted differences remain.

As for German-Russian ties, observers believe that relations will not cool as some analysts had expected, especially considering the rapid expansion of economic and trade cooperation between the two countries.

Ties improved, but gaps remain

Bilateral relations have become warmer between Germany and the United States.

Merkel, who bases her government's foreign policies on two pivots -- the unity of Europe and a close relationship with Washington, has vowed to restore German-US relations which had been soured since her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Bush responded positively, expressing the wish to have better associations with the new German leadership.

During her stay in Washington, Merkel won outspoken compliments from Bush, who told a joint conference after talks, "My first impressions in 45 minutes alone (with her) in the Oval Office were incredibly positive..."

"I am convinced that we will have a really important and good relationship," Bush said. He noted Germany has been "a valued ally" of the United States.

Merkel said she was pleased that a new phase in the Germany-US relationship has been opened. "I think that will open up a new chapter, as I hope, in the relationship," she said.

They shared opinions on cooperation in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Middle East, and most importantly, reached consensus concerning Iran's resumption of nuclear research as both called for Iran to be referred to the United Nations Security Council.

However, gaps on issues concerning Iraq and the Guantanamo detention center remained after Schroeder's departure from office, Merkel admitted.

"Everyone knows there are not going to be German troops in Iraq, that this is going to be a sensitive issue in the relationship", she said.

Bush also said: "It has been a difficult issue in our relationship and I fully understand that."

Bush rejected Merkel's call to shut up the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba, saying: "So long as there is a threat and the war on terror goes on, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm in a system ..."

Partnership with Russia to continue

Just three days after Merkel flew back from Washington, she embarked on a visit to Moscow and held "frank" talks with Putin.
She made clear that there is a clear difference between Germany's "friendship" with Washington and its "strategic relationship" with Moscow.

Merkel, the first German female chancellor, had decided to forge a working relationship with Putin before her visit. She told the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel: "I do not think that we share that many values with Russia. But we do have a vested interest that Russia should develop in a reasonable manner."

The chancellor, seen to to be sober-minded by many, is considered to be dealing with Russia in a pragmatic way as she lists Russia as a key partner for Germany.

In the recent natural gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Germany, the biggest importer of Russian natural gas, did not take sides but urged the two countries to find a sustainable solution.

Surprising some analysts, Merkel, who had criticized Schroeder for his closeness with Moscow when in opposition, has not cooled down German-Russian relations as they had speculated, though she may not, like Schroeder, achieve a close personal relationship with Putin.

Both Merkel and Putin expressed satisfaction with bilateral trade, which reached US$32 billion last year.

"I think we can deepen our strategic partnership and put it on a broader foundation," Merkel told a joint press conference with Putin after a three-hour meeting. "We will have a very intensive dialogue that is appropriate for our strategic partnership and can help intensify it further."

On energy, Merkel stressed the "strategic" nature of a joint project to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, saying the pipeline "is a strategic project of great importance for Europe and especially for Germany."

She changed her attitude towards the project, which were advocated by Schroeder and Putin, after the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis threatened gas supplies for western Europe. Previously she had criticized Schroeder for the plan.

Merkel and Putin found common ground in furthering economic bilateral ties and cooperation, and in finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

In contrast to her predecessor, Merkel raised the issues of Chechnya and the North Caucasus, over which Merkel admitted she and Putin "did not always agree."

She also discussed with Putin a controversial new Russian law passed in December which will make it more difficult for non-governmental organizations to operate in Russia.

(Xinhua News Agency January 17, 2006)

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