Russia’s deepening integration with the West and its growing role as a partner in consultations on key international security issues has been vividly on display this week as a host of European leaders and top officials have made their way to the Russian capital for talks with President Vladimir Putin and other government leaders. The stream of foreign dignitaries began earlier this week with the arrival in Moscow of a French delegation led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. They were followed late Wednesday by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose hastily made travel plans were intended only as a “working visit” but who wound up holding what sources suggested were an intensive four hours of talks with Putin and other Russian leaders. President Jorge Sampaio of Portugal is likewise due in the Russian capital this week for talks of his own with Putin. The visits are another confirmation of the extent to which the Kremlin is seeking to improve ties with Europe even as relations warm between Moscow and Washington, and also of the corollary efforts of European leaders to maintain diplomatic momentum in a process that they hope will yield an era of unprecedented cooperation between Russia and the European Union.
That is not to say that this week’s visits were intended to produce any groundbreaking results. They seem an effort, rather, to ensure that channels of communication and cooperation remain open between Moscow and the West on a host of international and more narrow EU-Russian issues. Indeed, one report on the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru web site suggested that all of this week’s visits were being fitted into the same general agenda. The political block of questions, the report said, includes declarations on terrorism, elaborations of issues related to missile defense, European security and military operations in Afghanistan. The economic block, according to the same report, includes consultations on measures to battle an international economic downturn (including problems related to oil prices) and on bilateral economic problems, including Russia’s debt. All those coming to Moscow, the report says, are seeking to underline European-Russian unity on issues related to terrorism and to punctuate their belief that the Cold War and the old “east-west” divide are things of the past. The same report suggested rather smugly that Russian economic growth at a time of uncertainty elsewhere is making Russia more attractive to foreign investors, and is thus also contributing to the stream of foreign leaders visiting Moscow, and that this same process has been further abetted since September 11 by the political efforts, outlined above, to make Russia a part of the Western family.
Based on Russian reports of the meetings between both the French and the Italian delegations with their Russian counterparts, the Strana.ru analysis does not appear to be much off the mark. The talks between Jospin and Putin, as well as those between Vedrine and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, appeared to produce mostly a declaration of harmony. There was a suggestion that the French had raised some lingering concerns over Russian military operations in Chechnya, but those appeared to be pro forma. Indeed, what has been remarkable in recent months–and certainly since the September 11 events–is the degree to which Paris has abandoned its earlier condemnations of Russian abuses in the Caucasus. Those condemnations had been among the strongest in the world and had resulted in a distinct cooling of Russian-French relations following Vladimir Putin’s elevation to power.
Russian reports of Berlusconi’s brief stop in the Russian capital said that roughly two of the four hours the Italian leader spent in consultation with Putin were devoted to terrorism and the situation in Afghanistan. Other issues on Putin’s and Berlusconi’s agenda reportedly included the Middle East, the Balkans, Russian-EU integration, and such security issues as NATO-Russian cooperation. And although scant detail was provided as to the substance of those talks, reports did suggest that they were conducted with some urgency and, according to at least one Strana.ru report, that they had revealed some differences in Russian and Italian views. Those differences were not spelled out, but it might be worth noting that Berlusconi has been one of the European leaders most supportive of U.S. missile defense plans and may therefore have clashed with Moscow on that issue (Strana.ru, October 23, 25; Interfax, October 23, 25; DPA, October 24-25; AP, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 25).
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