Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 106

Monday’s much-anticipated summit meeting between leaders of Russia and the European Union appeared to produce much in the way of friendly rhetoric, but it was unclear whether the one-day talks in Moscow had actually moved the two sides closer in substantive terms on any of a host of key issues. This week’s meeting, the first of its kind since Vladimir Putin’s accession to the Russian presidency, was seen to be important for several reasons. For one, it gave EU leaders a chance to size up Putin and test whether his declared commitment to closer relations with Europe will be backed up with the sorts of concrete policy choices that European leaders are hoping for. Furthermore, Monday’s talks came as U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in Europe for meetings of his own with European leaders; Clinton will move on to Moscow this weekend, where he will hold his first summit with the new Russian leader.

In this context, the week’s events are being seen as the first major opportunity for the West to officially begin mending fences with Russia after more than a year of acrimony over both last year’s NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia and Russia’s war in the Caucasus. Indeed, in the run-up to this week’s Russia-EU summit, EU leaders emphasized that they intended to highlight three key issue areas in their talks with Russian leaders: (1) the prospects for Russian economic reform; (2) the management of relations between Russia and Europe in light of the EU’s expected future expansion onto the territory of the former Soviet Union; and (3) Russian responsiveness to European concerns over Moscow’s bloody war in the Caucasus. What was unclear was the order in which European leaders were ranking these three issues. In an interview prior to Monday’s talks, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, implied that Chechnya would get top billing. European Commission President Romano Prodi, however, appeared to make it clear on May 28 that, while Chechnya would be discussed during the May 29 talks, more attention would be given to economic issues.

If the reports which followed the May 29 meeting are to be believed, Prodi’s approach carried the day. Afterwards both sides welcomed what they said was the start of a new era of economic and political cooperation between Russia and the EU. Prodi pointed to Russia’s recently improved economic situation and suggested it could provide the basis for increased trade between Russia and Europe. He also attempted to allay Russian concerns about the consequences of EU expansion, arguing that Moscow stood to gain from the emergence on its borders of a single market with lower tariffs and more than 500 million consumers.

At the same time, Prodi said that Moscow still had to do more to attract much-needed foreign investment. This suggested that EU leaders were not entirely satisfied by what they had heard from Putin and recently named Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov regarding the new Russian government’s economic program. Prodi also urged Moscow to allow a full and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses by Russian troops in the Caucasus. That has become a familiar admonition from Europe regarding Chechnya. It reflects the desire of European leaders to put the Chechen war on the back burner while Moscow and the EU focus on the improvement of relations in other areas. But it is also a reminder that the Russian war remains a point of friction, one whose emotive value remains a threat to the broader relationship between Russia and the EU.

With regard to the war in Chechnya, the EU leaders appeared to win a few significant verbal concessions from the Russian president. Putin pledged to his visitors that the Russian government would punish all those guilty of crimes in Chechnya, including Russian military personnel. “All violations of the law in Chechnya will be stamped out in the most severe fashion, regardless of who committed them,” Putin told reporters. He likewise pledged that Russia would be more open about events in the Caucasus, promising EU leaders that Moscow would work with international organizations and journalists to make “the situation there more transparent.”

But Putin’s assurances were not entirely convincing. For one thing, he also made it clear after the talks that Moscow has no intention of letting international criticism stand in the way of its efforts to reassert Russian control over the North Caucasus. “We are categorically opposed to any thesis of human rights being used to try to prevent Russia from bringing order to that territory,” Putin told reporters. This suggests Moscow remains in no hurry to honor European–and international–calls for an end to the fighting in Chechnya and for the start of peace talks.

In addition, Putin’s pledges about both the prosecution of those guilty of abuses in Chechnya and about increased Russian transparency in the Caucasus merely restate the sort of verbal assurances that Russian officials have offered to the West in the past, and which Moscow has failed to honor. To date, the Russian military prosecutor’s office, which is conducting the investigation into alleged abuses in Chechnya, has shown no real inclination to identify or prosecute Russian military personnel guilty of such crimes. A human rights office established by the Kremlin to oversee the military prosecutor’s investigation, meanwhile, is understaffed and has admitted to receiving little cooperation from the armed forces. Much the same might be said of Russian pledges to increase transparency in the Caucasus. The Russian government continues to do its best both to control all information coming out of Chechnya and to present news stories embarrassing to the government as the products of anti-Russian propaganda. The Kremlin’s true intentions in this area are perhaps best reflected in the recent move by Russia’s security services to harass and intimidate Media-Most, the private company whose media outlets have been among the most critical of Russian military operations in the Caucasus.

One topic apparently not much discussed during the Russian-EU summit talks on Monday was arms control. Russia has sought with increasing energy in recent months to exploit tensions between EU countries and the United States over U.S. missile defense plans and Washington’s efforts to amend the Anti-Ballistic Treaty. Those issues will likely occupy a prominent place in talks this week between the U.S. president and European leaders, and also in this weekend’s Russia-U.S. summit. Putin is himself expected to visit Germany and Italy in early June, and it seems likely that he will return in some way to the theme of arms control in those talks and in the numerous other high-level contacts that he has planned for the coming months (Reuters, May 25-26, 29; AFP, May 26; AP, May 28-29; BBC, May 29; UPI, May 29; Financial Times, May 26; Russian agencies, May 28-29).