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UPDATED: Merkel holds talks with Putin on first anniversary of Navalny poisoning

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel began talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Friday with ties at post-Cold War lows, her final official trip to Russia before she steps down after nearly 16 years.

Relations between two of Europe’s longest serving leaders soured in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, drawing broad condemnation and sanctions from the West.

Friday’s talks coincide with the first anniversary of the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, an incident that severely strained Russia-Germany ties.

Putin gave Merkel flowers before the talks and said he expected a substantive meeting despite it being a “farewell” visit.

Merkel said the two had differences of opinion but that it was important to talk. She said she wanted to discuss Afghanistan as well as the situation in Russia with civil society and non-governmental organisations, some of which have been outlawed in a pre-election crackdown.

A news conference is expected at around 1300 GMT.

Merkel, 67, grew up in former Moscow-backed East Germany and speaks Russian, while Putin, 68, was based in Dresden during the Cold War as a KGB officer and speaks German.

The anniversary of the poisoning of Navalny, Putin’s most vocal domestic critic, is likely to loom large at their talks.

Navalny was flown to Germany last year after being poisoned with what the West concluded was a military nerve agent. Moscow rejects that and alleges a Western smear campaign. Navalny was jailed when he flew back to Russia.

In a letter to mark the anniversary published in three European newspapers on Friday, Navalny appealed to the West to do more to combat corruption in countries like Russia.

In Britain, the government published details of sanctions against seven individuals it said were Russian intelligence operatives suspected of involvement in his poisoning. There was no immediate reaction from Moscow.

Putin and Merkel are likely to broach Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany which is nearly complete despite U.S. complaints that the pipeline will deal a huge blow to ally Ukraine by bypassing the historic gas transit country.

They may also touch on media reports that U.S. officials stationed in Germany sought medical treatment after developing symptoms of a mystery ailment known as Havana Syndrome. U.S. diplomats told the Wall Street Journal that some of the victims were intelligence officers working on Russia-related issues.

Merkel is due to step down as chancellor after a Sept. 26 election, while Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades, is next up for election in 2024, though he has not said whether or not he will run.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel shake hands during a joint press conference after their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 11 January 2020. EPA-EFE/PAVEL GOLOVKIN / POOL