Putin, Merkel open Russian-German business forum

President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened a Russia-German business forum in the Siberian city of Tomsk Thursday, a forum intended cement trade ties between Russia's oil-field economy and its biggest trade partner.

With Russia's reputation as a reliable energy supplier for Europe shaken by a New Year's gas dispute with Ukraine and recent blunt statements by top gas executives, Putin and other officials have indicated Moscow's intention to seek out new markets for Russia's coveted energy supplies.

At the same time, however, Kremlin officials have sought to assure Germany, one of the largest European customers for Russian gas, and all of Europe, that Russia is committed to stable gas supplies.

"We hope nothing untoward will happen in the next 30 to 40 years and no one will have any grounds to say that Russia has become a less reliable energy supplier," Russian economics minister German Gref was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Kraus Peter Mangold, chairman of the East Committee of the German economy, said at the forum Thursday that "even during the Cold War, Russia was a reliable energy supplier. I'm sure it will stay that way."

German companies were preparing to invest in aviation and the automobile industry among other sectors, Mangold said, speaking through a translator.

A day earlier, Putin called for Russia to tap into new energy markets in Asia and accused other nations of trying to hem in Moscow although he assured Europe that it could rely on its Russian gas contracts.

The call followed similar recommendations from high-ranking officials at the state-controlled gas giant OAO Gazprom and state-controlled Transneft pipeline company that Russia should diversify its markets away from an over-reliance on Europe.

The blunt warnings to Europe also followed moves by British regulators to tighten laws amid rumors that Gazprom was considering acquiring Britain's biggest gas distributor.

On Wednesday, Merkel, accompanied by ministers and scores of business executives, said the size of the delegation was "a good sign for the state of our relations."

Talking to reporters after 1 1/2 hours of talks with Putin that focused on energy and economic ties, Merkel said the initial discussions had been "very, very intensive and extremely open,"reports the AP.


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