Russian president woos Germany at first summit in Berlin

BERLIN - Unlike their predecessors, these German and Russian leaders didn't need to sweat together in a sauna to bond.

Keeping their shirts on, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Vladimir Putin said Friday their first summit was nevertheless ''very friendly'' and should bolster economic and political ties.

After recent tension over NATO's war with Yugoslavia and the Russian campaign in Chechnya, Putin's aim was to rekindle a sense of closeness to Moscow's key ally. He urged Germany to help tear down an ''invisible barrier'' still separating Russia and Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain a decade ago.

''Germany was and remains our leading partner in Europe and also in the world,'' he said at a closing news conference, where both leaders oversaw the signing of billions of dollars in oil and gas deals as the two-day summit wrapped up.

During his visit to the German capital, Putin often broke into the German he once used as a KGB spy in communist East Germany, and even joked with Schroeder on the podium as the business deals were being signed.

With such friendly moments, both leaders seemed intent on signaling that they can build a pragmatic but personal relationship even if it doesn't approach the apparent warmth between former leaders Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin, whose diplomacy included sitting bare-chested in a Russian sauna.

''We weren't, if I may say, in the sauna,'' joked Schroeder, adding that he didn't even have one at his Berlin villa. Still, he said he planned a private visit to Moscow around Christmas with his wife to meet Putin's family.

While in Germany, a hard-nosed Putin also played skillfully on common European and Russian reservations about U.S. plans for a national missile defense, steered clear of detailed plans for economic reforms and faced little criticism over Russia's war in Chechnya.

''Putin wanted to work on his image as a friend of Germany. He wanted to break the ice,'' said Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. ''He got a lot out of this summit, also for his standing in Russia.''

But Putin failed to win debt relief from Germany, Europe's richest nation and Russia's main creditor. Germany, however, moved closer to implementing its part of an $8.1 billion debt restructuring plan between Western governments and Russia after the two countries resolved a dispute over loan guarantees that Germany provides to companies that do business in Russia.

Germany is Russia's top Western trading partner and was its biggest financial backer in the 1990s, supporting the transformation from communism with $67 billion in loans, grants, credits and other guarantees.

Russia's debt is a result of massive German aid pumped in under Kohl as thanks for Moscow's support for German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. But Schroeder insisted that while historic times may require emotional friendships between leaders, German-Russian ties were too important to depend alone on personalities.

The summit also produced important agreements, with Russia's state-controlled Gazprom signing several agreements with German firms. Among those was a partnership with Wintershall to jointly develop an offshore oil field in Russia's arctic north. Wintershall, a unit of BASF, will invest more than $1 billion in the project.

Meanwhile, culture ministers of the two sides pledged to make a new push to return ''trophy art'' looted by both Soviet and Nazi troops during World War II.

Earlier Friday, Putin laid a wreath at the Soviet war memorial in former East Berlin - a towering statue of a Red Army soldier holding a child in one hand and a sword smashing a swastika in the other - honoring the thousands of soldiers buried there.

The statue in Treptow Park, surrounded by stones from Hitler's smashed chancellery engraved with hammers and sickles and quotes from Stalin, is one of three Soviet memorials in Berlin that Kohl promised Germany would keep up after the last Soviet troops pulled out.

Later Friday, Putin arrived in Moldova and began a first-round of talks on the former Soviet republic's debt and the continued presences of federal troops in the region.

Putin's 15-hour visit - his first to a former Soviet republic since becoming president- was expected to help resolve the issue of Trans-Dniester, a region of eastern Moldova whose Russian- and Ukranian-speaking populations declared independence in 1990 fearing the Romanian-speaking leadership would reunite with neighboring Romania.

Moldova was part of Romania until 1940, when was annexed by Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. About two-thirds of the population is ethnic Romanian. Advertisements and restaurant menus are often in Romanian and Russian.


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