It is hard to keep up with President Putin’s schedule. In his first year in office, says The New York Times, he has taken eighteen foreign trips. He has received about as many official visitors in Moscow.
In Europe, Putin is looking for a partner, a “special relationship” that will be central to the construction of closer ties between Russia and the European Union. Early efforts focused on Britain but now have shifted to Germany. So far, however, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder keeps his dialogue with President Putin pretty much on message, which for Germany is money. Russia owes the German government $19 billion. At a meeting last week in St. Petersburg, Schroeder repeated that Russia has the resources to pay the debts, and he repeated an offer to trade some of the debt for equity in Russian companies. Russia is interested, but the deal could not be closed. One snag: much of the debt derives from East German loans to the USSR that were originally denominated in transferable rubles, a Soviet-era accounting device. Putting a value on that debt is no easy task, and expressing that value in equity in Russian companies may be even harder.
In the Middle East, Putin is looking for a role. Iran’s President Muhammad Khatami came to Moscow in March. Iraq’s Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan arrived yesterday. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara are invited for later this month. The courting of Iran and Iraq has a strong commercial tinge. Russia is building three nuclear plants in Iran and has hopes of substantial exports to Iraq once United Nations sanctions are lifted. Yet Iran’s friendliness toward Afghanistan’s Taliban and other Islamic militants raises worries about Russia’s restive Muslim population. And for all of Russia’s frustration with UN sanctions on Iraq (and suspected tolerance of violations), the Kremlin will not trash a United Nations system that gives Russia a veto in the Security Council. So Russia supports an end to sanctions only if UN weapons inspectors are invited back into Iraq, a position the Iraqis not only reject, but reject with contempt.