Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 128

But the happy talk of the Vladimir Putin-Jacques Chirac meetings this week could not fully obscure enduring differences between the two men. These surfaced also during the July 2 press conference, when Putin launched a harsh defense of Russian military operations in Chechnya–calling Chechen rebels “mostly mercenaries with large quantities of heroin”–and claimed that France would react similarly if “a group of mercenaries landed in southern France with similar aims.” Chirac’s response–that during talks with Putin he had “simply restated France’s longstanding position that it was vital to do as much as possible to seek a political solution of the crisis”–suggested that he was no longer intent on pushing the issue. But the two men also clashed over policy in the Balkans, when Chirac praised the handover of disgraced Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague as “the victory of right over violence” and of “democracy over tyranny.” Putin, however, bluntly repeated Russian claims that the handover was in fact more likely to undermine Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and destabilize the Balkans.

Tensions between Russia and France were also highlighted in a radio interview given on June 3 by Chirac to the Ekho Moskvy radio station, the only remnant of Vladimir Gusinsky’s once sprawling independent media empire. Indeed, addressing the Russian public on Ekho Moskvy has become one of the ways in which Western leaders have indicated their disapproval of Kremlin moves to quash media freedom in Russia. Then U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke at length to Ekho Moskvy on free speech last year. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did so earlier this year. Britain’s Tony Blair chose to cancel an appearance at the last minute. A day after he emphasized in a speech to German students the importance of media freedom, Chirac used his Ekho Moskvy interview to similar effect. Among other things, he urged an end to the war in Chechnya and reemphasized French support for NATO enlargement, including possible membership for the Baltic states. On July 1, the day before Chirac’s appearance at Ekho Moskvy, Russian Federal Security Service agents had raided the station, seizing share certificates for fourteen percent of the station and underscoring the Kremlin’s ongoing assault on the country’s last independent media source.

That the Kremlin had hoped to use the Chirac visit to rebuild Russian-French ties and to continue Moscow’s broader courtship of Europe was suggested by the fact that Putin chose to launch this week’s talks with a day of informal meetings in St. Petersburg, his own home town and the city to which he has on previous occasions welcomed both Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. And, as suggested by the Putin-Chirac joint statement, Putin appears to have gotten at least some of what he wanted from the meeting with regard to international security issues. The two sides also moved to boost trade and scientific cooperation. But it remains to be seen whether any sort of real breakthrough has yet occurred between two countries which, in fact, do have much in common not only with regard to missile defense policy and the perceived need to limit Washington’s global influence, but also with respect to policy toward Iraq and the Middle East. The mixed results of this week’s meeting were reflected in a report by the Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta, which said that the talks had turned out favorably on the whole for Russia, but which nevertheless had to acknowledge that “Chirac’s position on a number of issues turned out to be quite ambivalent. While saying ‘yes,’ he did not say ‘no'” (Reuters, DPA, July 2-3; AFP, July 2-4; AP, ORT, July 2; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 3-4; Moscow Times, Financial Times, Novye Izvestia, July 3).