Putin Says Successor Won't Be Any Easier for West to Deal With

President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that the West should not expect relations with Russia to be any easier under his newly elected successor, who is "no less of a Russian nationalist" than Putin.

Putin said many observers view Dmitry Medvedev as a more liberal politician and hope Medvedev's presidency will help ease strained relations between Moscow and the West.

"Some of our partners can't wait to see me stop fulfilling my duties so that they could deal with another man," Putin said at a news conference after talks with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"But (Medvedev) is no less of a Russian nationalist — in a positive way — than me. And I don't think it will be easier for our partners to deal with him," he said.

Merkel later met with Medvedev, the first foreign leader to visit him since his resounding victory in Sunday's election to succeed Putin. Merkel said she expected cordial ties between the two countries to continue.

"Putin just told us that with you, it would not be easier than it was with him. But I didn't allow myself to say that I hope it won't be harder," she said.

Medvedev's inauguration is scheduled for May 7. Putin is expected to become his prime minister, which is a more administrative governmental role but has led to speculation over how much power he will continue to wield.

Putin again warned that Kosovo's independence would only encourage separatism in Europe. He also accused the West of trying to replace the United Nations with NATO.

"An endless expansion of the military bloc under modern conditions when there is no confrontation between two hostile systems — we can see that it is not only unfeasible but harmful and counterproductive," he said.

Merkel rejected Putin's assertion about the Western alliance.

"NATO does not want to become the second U.N., this is an alliance of absolutely defensive nature that is based on common values," she said.

Russia has repeatedly warned that the West's recognition of Kosovo's Feb. 17 declaration of independence could fuel other separatist movements, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Nations that recognize its independence from Serbia, however, say Kosovo's situation is unique.

Ethnic Albanians account for nearly 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million people. The territory came under U.N. and NATO administration after a NATO-led air war halted former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999.

Putin was a KGB officer in East Germany in the Soviet Union's waning days and speaks fluent German — a fact that has contributed in the past to his friendly ties with German leaders.

Merkel and Putin began their talks at the presidential compound on Moscow's outskirts with some light joking about International Women's Day — a major holiday in Russia.

"You thought up the holiday, but in Russia we do it in a big way. For us, it is a nationwide holiday," he said.

The Kremlin said the two leaders' discussions would focus on their economic ties and joint energy projects, particularly the prospective $7.3 billion Nord Stream pipeline from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany.

Construction of the 750-mile undersea pipeline is due to start in 2010. Nord Stream AG is controlled by Russia's state gas monopoly OAO Gazprom, of which Medvedev is chairman.