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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Germany Presses Russia on Human Rights

The International Herald Tribune reports:

The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former boss of the Russian energy company Yukos, and other human rights issues will be high on the agenda when Chancellor Angela Merkel meets President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia in Berlin this week, officials confirmed Monday.

This is Medvedev's first foreign visit in Europe since taking office last month, and by making Germany his first stop the Kremlin is confirming the enduring importance of the two countries' bond, German officials said.

"Germany and Russia are forming a close, friendly and strategic relationship," Merkel said in her weekly podcast, in which she set out what kind of ties the government hoped to develop with Medvedev.

These include Germany supporting Russian efforts to modernize its economy while also tackling corruption, strengthening the rule of law and establishing a more effective judiciary - issues that Medvedev pledged to deal with once he took office.

"If Medvedev is serious about a state based on the rule of law, then the case of Khodorkovsky provides an opportunity to test that commitment," said Eckart von Klaeden, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's conservative bloc in Parliament.

Khodorkovsky, once regarded a rival to former President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in October 2003 on charges of tax fraud and received a 10-year sentence in May 2005. Putin is now the Russian prime minister, a role he assumed after Medvedev took over the presidency in May.

The German business community, which in the past has criticized Merkel's direct language with Putin over human rights, is hoping for a new start to the Berlin-Moscow relationship under Medvedev.

Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany, speaks Russian and understands the country. She had broken ranks with previous chancellors by adopting a much more public and critical stance toward the Kremlin's positions on press freedom and the rule of law.

German managers had warned her that this kind of approach could damage economic ties. But over the past year, trade has been flourishing, with German exports to Russia reaching record levels, according to the East Committee for the German economy, which promotes German companies throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Merkel's focus on the rule of law has won some support by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who until recently was reluctant to deal with the issue.

During his visit last month to Russia - where he met Medvedev, as well as representatives of the business community and student and nongovernmental organizations - Steinmeier called on the Kremlin to introduce a legal system that is transparent. And in a surprise development, Steinmeier had a long meeting with Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, in a hotel in St. Petersburg.

"Our meeting lasted for about 90 minutes," Schmidt told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday. "During that time we discussed the entire range of issues. In particular, we discussed the possibility of a lawful release of Khodorkovsky."

German officials said it was unclear whether Medvedev had the power to intervene in the case or whether Putin would give him leeway to do so.

Indeed, Putin, who as president was the catalyst for initiating the court proceedings against Khodorkovsky, said that he would advise his successor against granting Khodorkovsky any "privileges."

According to Khodorkovsky's lawyers, prosecutors are preparing a new case against him based on charges of money laundering and embezzlement.

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