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Medvedev visit to Germany raises hope for new era

Russia's new president arrives in Berlin Thursday for his first official visit to the West.

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Merkel, raised in communist East Germany, has been tougher than her predecessors in raising questions about Russia's drift to authoritarianism in past meetings with Putin, and she indicated in her weekly podcast that she would do so with Medvedev as well. Eckart von Klaeden, the foreign-policy spokesman for Merkel's party, the CDU, has said that she plans to discuss the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former head of Yukos oil.

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Mr. Khodorkovsky is seen by many in the West as a key symbol of what went wrong under Putin. More than any other episode, the Yukos affair has come to be associated with Putin's often arbitrary application of Kremlin power and Russia's ongoing renationalization of formerly private oil assets.

Five years ago, Khodorkovsky – once Russia's richest man – and several other top Yukos executives were arrested, tried, and imprisoned on a variety of criminal accusations relating to the freewheeling privatizations of the 1990s. At the same time, Yukos was hit by more than $30 billion in back tax charges, leading to the company's dissolution. Most of Yukos's assets were subsequently taken over, through dubious auctions, by the state oil firm Rosneft. Human rights monitors, legal critics and Western leaders have consistently argued that Khodorkovsky, currently serving a nine-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony, never received a fair trial due to Kremlin interference.

Persistent rumors have suggested that Medvedev, then a member of Putin's inner circle, may have protested against Khodorkovsky's arrest and prosecution.

Experts say that, whatever Medvedev's inner sentiments, any suggestion of pardoning Khodorkovsky drops him directly into a political minefield. "I doubt that Medvedev will be able to show much flexibility at this point; it's too early for him to repudiate his political mentor," says Dmitri Trenin, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The Khodorkovsky issue is just too dangerous. Medvedev is not a full-fledged president yet."

Businessmen to pressure Medvedev

But Medvedev may find himself under pressure to meet Western expectations, particularly of Russia's main trading partner, Germany. During his visit Thursday, the new Kremlin leader will address a gathering of 1,000 top German businessmen, investors, and policymakers, for whom Russia's high levels of official corruption, arbitrary justice system, and state encroachments in the economy – such as the Yukos affair – remain key concerns.

"We hope that [Medvedev] is really good for his word, that he gives the courts more independence, that he fights corruption, opens up more space for foreign investment, brings more democracy and freedom of the press," says Hans-Henning Schröder, director of Russian research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "He could do all this without risking his own power."