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Merkel's chief critic visits Putin as chancellor's support drops

Chancellor Angela Merkel's main antagonist in Germany's refugee crisis expanded his challenge of her policies by questioning sanctions against Russia as public support for Merkel's government continues to slide.

Treading on Merkel's foreign-policy turf, Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer was welcomed by President Vladimir Putin during a two-day visit to Moscow ending Thursday. While Seehofer cited the need for Russian cooperation in global crises as a reason to end economic sanctions as soon as possible, Merkel said last week that Putin hasn't fulfilled the conditions for lifting the measures imposed after Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

"We know your attitude and desire to do everything to normalize Russian-European and Russia-Germany relations and, of course, we are grateful for that," Putin told Seehofer late Wednesday at their meeting outside the Russian capital.

The Bavarian leader is leveraging his state's economic power and trade ties with Russia to weigh in on the European Union's sanctions as Merkel focuses on curbing the influx of refugees to Germany. As head of the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, Seehofer has led the charge against the chancellor within her government, demanding a cap on migration and stricter border controls.

The infighting isn't helping Merkel. The share of respondents saying they're satisfied with her government's work declined to 38 percent from 51 percent a month ago, according an Infratest dimap survey for ARD public television released on Wednesday. Merkel's approval rating fell 12 percentage points to 46 percent, the lowest since August 2011 during the euro-area debt crisis. Eighty-one percent said the government has no control over the refugee situation.

In an interview Russia's state news agency Tass, Seehofer was quoted as saying that the EU economic sanctions are affecting Europe, Germany and Bavaria, causing harm to his state's farm and food industries. He upheld the German government's position that sanctions can be lifted once Russia and Ukraine implement the peace agreement signed a year ago in Minsk, Belarus, Tass reported.

"I want to work toward having sanctions lifted within a reasonable amount of time," Seehofer told reporters in Moscow on Thursday.

Merkel has spent two years in top-level meetings and phone calls trying to gain leverage over Putin, whom she accuses of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine with his support of pro- Russian separatists. It's made Merkel the main European conduit to Putin, though she also helped rally the EU around the sanctions on Russia.

"For us, the most important thing is that we deepened our relationship," Seehofer said at the meeting with Putin. "Everything we want to do isn't against our federal government, but together with it, isn't against Russia, but together with her."

The Bavarian premier has backing from business groups in his state, which is home to companies such as Siemens and BMW. Bavarian exports to Russia declined 34 percent in the first 10 months of 2015, more than the Germany-wide decline of about 27 percent, according to the Bavarian Industry Association in Munich.

With Russia compounding the refugee crisis with its air strikes in Syria and its alleged support for anti-immigrant factions in Germany, Seehofer's visit comes at the wrong time, said Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democratic lawmaker and member of the German parliament's foreign-affairs committee.

"Talking is fine, but it has to be at the right time," Kiesewetter told Deutschlandfunk radio. "At a time when the chancellor is trying to forge a European position and needs European support, she should be able to rely on the support of the state premiers" in Germany, he said.

Merkel's Christian Union bloc slipped four percentage points in the last month to 35 percent in the ARD poll. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a party that calls for refugee limits, climbed three points to 12 percent. The AfD, which was formed after the last national election in 2013, doesn't have seats in the German parliament. Sixty-three percent of respondents said Germany should limit the number of arriving asylum seekers.

Infratest dimap surveyed about 1,500 people on Feb. 1-2, with a margin of error as high as 3.1 percentage points.

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Olga Tanas, Stepan Kravchenko and Hellmuth Tromm contributed.
 

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