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Merkel faces tough issues at summit with Putin

Chancellor Angela Merkel began Germany's six-month European Union presidency this year with high expectations for clarifying the union's complex, sometimes irritable relationship with Russia, its major supplier of oil and gas.

But hopes have since seriously diminished as she headed to Russia for Friday's EU-Russia summit.

German officials are conceding that talks on a new partnership and cooperation agreement - a chief task of the German presidency - will likely have to wait for Portugal's term, which begins in July.

The agreement would replace an existing deal defining trade and other relations that expires on Dec. 1. The treaty will automatically renew - but it's 10 years old and doesn't address Europe's growing concerns about energy supplies and investment.

Meanwhile, Moscow hasn't budged on other key issues, such as its meat blockade against Poland, allegedly for health reasons. That issue has blocked the start of talks on the new EU-Russia treaty. And Russia remains opposed to an EU-backed proposal for independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Ties are crumbling even on nuts-and-bolts issues such as a deal to phase out the fees Russia charges foreign airlines to fly over Siberia, signed by Moscow but not ratified.

With no major agreements now expected to be signed, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a quick trip to Moscow on Wednesday to see what could be salvaged at Friday's summit at a health resort outside the southwestern Russian city of Samara.

German government spokesman Thomas Steg said that Steinmeier told the Cabinet that the summit was a chance to address the disagreements.

"It is precisely the time when there are differing views, when it's difficult - it's exactly then that it's important to enter into dialogue and explore what possibilities there are to buildup and improve relations," Steg said at a government press conference in Berlin on Wednesday.

After becoming chancellor in November 2005, Merkel won high poll ratings for a series of successes in foreign policy: helping resolve an EU budget dispute, improving relations with the United States, and getting talks going again on a new EU treaty to replace the constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters.

Merkel's background growing up in communist East Germany was considered an advantage in dealing with Russia. Russian was one of her best subjects in school and she occasionally uses at least a phrase or two at appearances with Russian-speaking foreign leaders.

She quickly established a more sober relationship with Putin, moving away from the close personal ties established by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. She has been willing to raise human rights concerns and meet with members of non-governmental organizations.

But the climate has worsened as Russia - its economy buoyed by high oil and gas prices - has become more assertive toward new EU members once under Soviet control such as Poland, which faces the meat blockade, and Estonia, sharply criticized by Russia for moving a Soviet war memorial.

Many observers point to Russia's parliamentary and presidential elections next year as encouraging nationalist rhetoric and tougher stances from the Kremlin.

Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels and a former EU ambassador to Russia, said Merkel's negotiating and political skills could play a positive role.

"The best possible outcome is that the two sides say, 'Hey, we are looking at an agenda here with a whole set of mutual irritations and these are combining synergetically, escalating and possibly getting a bit out of control,"' he said.

"'So isn't it time for us to get a grip on the not-so-strategic problems and settle them and clear the air a bit between us - and get back to a reasonably sound cooperative relationship even if it can't be euphoric."'

Amid the current difficulties, the European Union's 27 members are increasingly agreeing "that certain firm if polite stands have to be made toward Russia," said Emerson.

"If that is communicated effectively to Putin he may factor that into his judgments as to how to play his cards - and come through with a more constructive outcome."

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