Steinmeier visit reaffirms old ties, but sidelines Putin

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier left Russia after a marathon five-day visit Friday without meeting the country's most powerful figure, former president Vladimir Putin, dpa reported.

The move was calculated to underline the influence of Putin's chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev and stress the special relationship existing between Moscow and Berlin as Steinmeier was the first Western leader to the Kremlin since his inauguration last week.

Under Russia's constitution, Medvedev has an exclusive hold over foreign policy, but many have wondered whether the popular Putin would not continue visiting leaders along with his longtime protege.

Lending even more weight to the Russo-German friendship, Medvedev promised a return visit to Berlin next month - his first to a European capital.

"Given the privileged nature of our relationship, my first visit to Europe in early June will be to Germany," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Medvedev is set to make his first foreign trip to Kazakhstan and China next week.

But the Russian president's focus on the strong economic foundations of the two country's relationship outshined wider EU- Russia relations at a standstill since all 27 EU members have failed to agree on renewed talks for a partnership agreement.

"Russian-German relations are at a very high level as evidenced by our contacts, contacts between people, and growing trade and economic opportunities," Medvedev said ahead of the meeting Wednesday.

He cited bilateral trade in excess of 50 billion euros as "clear evidence of the quality of Russo-German relations," he was quoted by news agency Itar-tass as saying.

Germany is Russia's largest trading partner as well as its biggest European client for natural gas.

Steinmeier and Medvedev have long known each other holding analogue position heading the administrations of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin, respectively.

Steinmeier is thought to promote a more pragmatic approach toward Russia that is softer on criticism of Russia's record on human rights and democracy then the current Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But in another sign of relations changing with the new Russian leadership this week, Steinmeier met with former chess champion and Putin-critic Garry Kasparov and other human rights organization in Moscow.

A German diplomat who was part of the delegation said that there had been no meeting with Putin to allow for a fresh start to German- Russian relations that have been strongly influenced by Putin and Schroeder's close ties in the past.

Schroeder is now board chairman for a Russian-German North Stream gas pipeline being built by Russian state energy monopoly Gazprom.

Many European diplomats are hoping for a thaw in the Kremlin's strong-armed policy's at home and in energy relations with Europe with the soft-spoken lawyer Medvedev, who is seen to be more liberal because he lacks the KGB past of his mentor Putin.

But the warm overtures exchanged between Russian and German politicians this week played counterpoint to the EU's failure to agree on launching talks to renew the expiredd EU-Russia agreement on trade and cooperations this week.

A group of the EU's newer, post-soviet member states insisted that talks on a new partnership agreement be conditional on a smoothing of relations between Georgian and Russia, at each other throats over the future of Georiga's rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgia has said it is very close to war with Russia over Moscow's support for the breakaway regions, which have been occupied by Russian peacekeepers since civil war ended in 1994.

And this week saw escalating mutual accusations over espionage and troop increases on the borders of the rebel that have ruptured both country's dialogues with international organizations, provoking concerns in the European Union and United States.

Germany is one of the NATO members that sided with Russia on objecting to Tbilisi's bid for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which has exacerbated tension with its former Soviet neighbour.

According to a diplomat within Steinmeier's delegation, however, Germany is against adding "absurd" conditions to negotiations on a new partnership agreement preferring a swifter resolution to talks.

The delegation member said that Steinmeier favoured resolving the situation surrounding Georgia without involving NATO peacekeepers or "EU policers" - a line that supports the status quo of declaring respect for Georgia's territorial integrity while allowing for the continued presence of Russian troops in its autonomous regions.

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