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Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Monday
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Monday, with Putin giving his German counterpart commitments ranging from the security of gas supplies to the fair treatment of non-governmental organizations working in Russia. Merkel - whose country's trade with Russia was worth $32 billion in 2005, according to figures given by Putin - is currently on her first working visit to Russia. The two countries have forged close business links, particularly in the energy sector, where German companies have been quick to sign deals with Russian energy giant Gazprom. Gazprom, and in particular supplies of gas to Europe, were high on the agenda of the Putin-Merkel talks. Gas supply concerns emerged among European consumers following a three-day shutdown in Russian supplies to Ukraine at the start of this month. Putin said gas supplies to Europe were not dependent on Russia's relations with its neighbor Ukraine, and Russia's agreements with Ukraine did not affect deliveries to European buyers. "We have separated these issues and signed two documents - the first on supplies to Ukraine and the second on transit to Europe for five years," Putin said. "Today transit to Europe is not connected with our talks on [natural] gas supplies to Ukraine. This is important for European consumers." Merkel said the project to build the 1200-km North European Gas Pipeline, which is being implemented by Gazprom and German companies BASF and E.ON, was highly important for Germany and Europe. The project envisages a pipeline directly from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, at a cost of some $5.7 billion, and is due to come on stream in 2010. On the subject of non-governmental organizations - where Russia has also caused concern with a new law intended to clamp down on NGOs that are basically a front for political activity - Putin assured Merkel that organizations would not be stopped from doing their legitimate work. Human rights campaigners have expressed fears that the law's implementation could impede NGOs in the country. "We discussed the issue from the standpoint of the functioning of international NGOs and we will see to it that after the law on non-governmental organizations comes into force, no harm will be done to NGOs functioning in accordance with their stated goals," he said after the meeting. "On the contrary, we will support them and we are interested in their work." He added that the amendments to the law on NGOs passed by the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, took into account comments made by the Council of Europe. The president also called for a dialogue on an equal footing between Russia and the West. Putin , who has been accused of backsliding on democracy in the past, said some Western countries had their own problems with democratic values, which Mrs. Merkel herself had mentioned in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. Putin said Russia was interested in a friendly discussion of democratic issues and was ready to hear the recommendations and advice of its partners. "If we see that what our partners are offering is suitable for us, that it corresponds to our interests, then we can use it," the president said. Iran was another key international issue on the agenda of the Russian-German top-level talks. "We should act very carefully in this sphere," Putin said, adding that he would not allow the Foreign Ministry to take a single wrong step. "We will cooperate with [our] European and American partners," Putin said, adding that Russia and these countries shared similar positions on Iran. In turn, the German chancellor said, "We discussed the topic of Iran in detail and agreed to coordinate our steps." Putin said uranium enrichment, which Iran resumed last week, was a key problem. "We put forward a proposal to [our] Iranian partners to set up a joint uranium enrichment venture in Russia," Putin said. According to the president, Iran has not responded positively to the offer, although the Persian Gulf country's Foreign Ministry recently said it was not ruling it out. Merkel also invited Putin to attend an aerospace exhibition in Berlin in May. She added that the Petersburg Dialog forum would continue in September in Dresden and that she would also be glad to see the Russian president there. Merkel also confirmed that Russian-German talks on economic cooperation would continue in the Siberian city of Tomsk in April. The German chancellor said that during her visit to Moscow she had discussed a broad range of issues with Putin. "I am sure that we have the possibility to broaden and deepen our strategic partnership," she said.
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