Angela Merkel on Monday makes her first trip to Russia as Germany's chancellor, aiming to underscore a "strategic partnership" with an important energy supplier while still meeting with representatives of human rights groups.
High on the agenda in her talks with President Vladimir Putin will be European efforts to find a common approach with Russia to Iran after Tehran's decision to resume uranium enrichment activities, a major theme of Merkel's meeting in Washington last week with U.S. President George W. Bush.
Last week, Iran removed some U.N. seals from its main uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, central Iran, and resumed research on nuclear fuel _ including small-scale enrichment _ after a 2Ѕ-year freeze.
Russia's attitude is important to efforts by Germany, France and Britain backed by the United States to persuade Iran to permanently give up efforts to produce enriched uranium, which can be used for fuel or weapons depending on the level of enrichment.
The three European governments have called for the International Atomic Energy Agency to bring Iran before the United Nations Security Council. Those efforts will need the support of Russia, which sits on the IAEA board and remains one of the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
But German officials briefing reporters on condition of anonymity said Merkel will not focus narrowly on Iran or on Russian-German natural gas deals such as the Baltic Sea pipeline project sealed by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder before she took office Nov. 22. Instead, she will focus on a "broad spectrum" of issues, risking topics the Kremlin is likely to be less enthusiastic about, such as human rights and a new law restricting non-governmental organizations that awaits Putin's signature, they said.
Merkel is scheduled to spend just under six hours in Moscow, with talks with Putin to be followed by a meeting with representatives of Russian religious, social and business groups. Among those invited are leaders of human rights organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group, which charges that Russia has become less democratic under Putin.
Opposition German politician Claudia Roth of the Greens demanded Sunday that Merkel take a tough line with Putin on human rights and what she called Russia's "dirty war" against rebels in the southern Chechnya region and backsliding on democracy. "I expected clear, critical words from Mrs. Merkel," Roth said.
Merkel has described Russian language as one of her favorite subjects in school, and during her campaign she vowed to maintain Germany's strategic partnership with Moscow. But many think the 51-year-old former scientist will take a more sober view of Russia, in part as a result of her upbringing behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany.
That would contrast with the camaraderie displayed by Schroeder and Putin, which resulted in the Baltic pipeline that is intended to feed Germany's growing appetite for natural gas to heat homes and run factories.
Russia supplies roughly a third of Germany's natural gas from giant gas fields in the Arctic, and the importance of the gas relationship was underscored when Schroeder took a job with the pipeline consortium after leaving office, the AP reported.
Schroeder's critics at home said he failed to push for more democratic change in Russia. And the close Schroeder-Putin relationship led to criticism from countries such as Poland that escaped Moscow's domination at the end of the Cold War and feared their interests were being slighted by their two larger neighbors.