APRIL 7 2006




BERLIN With Chancellor Angela Merkel shifting German foreign policy more markedly toward the United States and the defense of human rights, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Thursday warned the West against isolating his country from helping to broker disputes with Iran and other conflicts in the Middle East.


His warnings come amid growing criticism by the Bush administration and several EU countries over Russia's crackdown on human rights groups and of the Kremlin's willingness to use its vast energy resources as political pressure on its neighbors.


"We often hear from some countries that Russia is becoming strong and unpredictable. But this is not the case," said Lavrov, a former ambassador to the UN who was appointed foreign minister in March 2004.


 "In the 1990s, when the Commonwealth of Independent states was disintegrating and there were fears of Russia breaking up too, some people in the West said they wanted a strong and united Russia. Now we are here. They should be grateful."


His warnings, made at a lunchtime meeting sponsored by Deutsche Bank in Berlin, were combined with a charm offensive during a two-day visit to Germany. He met Merkel and officials of Germany's biggest companies and banks, which have built on traditionally strong ties to establish a strong presence in Russia.


Germany is still one of Russia's most important Western partners, despite Merkel's attempts to rebalance her foreign policy by breaking the special axis that her Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had forged with Paris and Moscow at the expense of ties with the United States and the EU.


Russia's image has deteriorated in Germany after Schröder's close ties with President Vladimir Putin came under close scrutiny.


The Economics Ministry in Berlin disclosed last week that just before Schröder left office last November, his government issued a credit guarantee of €1 billion, or $1.2 billion, to Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy company, to build the NorthSea Gas Pipeline with two German companies.


Schröder was appointed chairman of the new company overseeing the construction of the pipeline shortly after leaving office, while the deal itself was clinched last September, just before Germany's parliamentary elections in which Schröder lost to Merkel, a conservative.


Lavrov said he had no idea if Gazprom - the world's largest gas company - would still take up the credit guarantee.


"I know nothing about it," he said.


He did say, however, that Merkel supported the pipeline, which will cost over €10 billion to construct. "We wish to diversify the routes of energy exports," he said, adding that the project would lead to more energy security.


But he brushed aside any notion that the pipeline would in fact increase Europe's dependence on Russia for its energy, and that the energy relationship was a one-way street. "Energy security requires consideration for the interests of both energy suppliers and energy consumers," he said. "We depend on Europe for our exports and we also need stable and reliable demand."


Thirty-five percent of Russia's energy is exported, but exports account for 70 percent of Gazprom's revenues because Russia's domestic energy prices are subsized. Over 80 percent of Gazprom's exports are sold to Europe.


Flush with a large trade surplus because of record-high energy prices that has enabled Putin to pay off debt to the Paris Club of Western creditor nations, Russia has more confidently taken foreign policy initiatives.


These include the recent invitation to leaders of Hamas, the Islamic movement that won the Palestinian elections, to visit Moscow. Russia also offered to process uranium for Iran inside Russia in a bid to break the stalemate with the United States and the European negotiating group of Britain, France and Germany over Iran's nuclear program.


Lavrov said those initiatives were justified because Russia was not prepared to accept any "clash of civilizations" between the Western world and the Middle East. In barely veiled criticism of U.S. policy in Mideast, Lavrov said Washington's plans to democratize the region were obsessive.


"We have to take into account the overall energy needs of the world and the obsessions with democratizing the region overnight," he said. "We can't take sides in the conflict of civilizations. We want to help to bring both sides together. We want fair play. Russia's foreign policy is free of ideological considerations."


Lavrov insisted that Russia was pursuing an "unbiased" approach in the region that was crucial to global energy security. Even if all the ambitious plans are implemented to save energy, "the need by the world for energy supplies will not diminish," which is why a new concept of international relations was needed that involved Russia and Germany.


"There must be no going back to zero sum games or political games," he said. "We want to play in a team."




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