Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 5

President Vladimir Putin used the Russian Christmas holiday weekend to accent relations with the country which Moscow hopes to make one of its most important Western partners: Germany. Putin and his wife Lyudmila hosted German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his wife Doris this past weekend in what both sides described as a sort of informal Christmas get-together. The German chancellor arrived in Moscow on Saturday, January 6 and departed yesterday. The highlights of their informal two-day stay included the attendance on Saturday night of a midnight Christmas mass at the restored Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, where Patriarch Aleksy II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrated mass. In keeping with the holiday festivities, the two “first couples” also enjoyed several meals together and took a ride around the snow-covered grounds of a Moscow museum on a traditional Russian troika. Putin and Schroeder, meanwhile, were said to have surprised and delighted crowds of Muscovites on Saturday when they strolled together down Red Square en route to the Bolshoi Theater. It was apparently the first time that a Russian and a top foreign leader had walked in such a fashion on Red Square since then U.S. President Ronald Reagan did so with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s.

The informal meeting had obvious symbolic significance, seemingly demonstrating warming ties between Russia and the country which is emerging ever more clearly as the most powerful and influential state in post Cold War Europe. It appeared also to demonstrate a new personal intimacy between the Russian and German leaders, an intimacy aided by Putin’s well-publicized fluency in the German language. The developing friendship is nevertheless something of a surprise, given the German chancellor’s pointed assertions following his election in 1998 that he was not interested in pursuing the sort of back-slapping, close personal relationship which their respective predecessors, Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin, had developed earlier in the 1990s.

What is less clear about the weekend’s talks is whether they further solidified Russian-German bilateral relations in a more pragmatic sense, or whether they afforded the German chancellor a chance–in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski–to conduct a meaningful “strategic dialogue” with the still relatively new and unknown Russian leader (Washington Post, January 5). That the talks may have gotten off to a bit of a tense start was suggested by the reemergence, on the eve of Schroeder’s arrival in Moscow, of the issue of Russian debt payments to Berlin. The debt issue has long been one of the key friction points in relations between the two countries, and Berlin reacted angrily following a Russian announcement on January 4 that it intended to skip payment of some US$1.5 billion due to the Paris Club in the first quarter of this year. “A unilateral payments stop by Russia is not acceptable,” the German Finance Ministry said in a statement it issued in Berlin (AP, January 5; Reuters, January 6).

Russia owes Germany US$19 billion in Paris Club debts, more than it owes any other country, and has run into stiff German opposition in its efforts to negotiate some form of debt relief with the Paris Club. Berlin has hardened its attitude on the issue still further in recent months, arguing that increased Russian revenues from oil exports make Moscow fully able to repay its debts. Some in Moscow have nevertheless argued that Russia should renege on the bulk of the foreign debt it inherited from the Soviet Union. Putin has not backed that view, and presumably discussed with Schroeder this past weekend recently mooted proposals under which Moscow might repay at least a part of its debt to Berlin by offering stakes in Russian companies (BBC, Reuters, January 6). In remarks to reporters at Moscow’s Vnukovo-2 airport after he saw Schroeder and his wife off yesterday, Putin declared that Moscow would in fact pay off all its international debts. But the Russian president offered no details as to any repayment plan he might have discussed with Schroeder, and suggested that the Kremlin was still angling for a debt restructuring deal. “It is in no one’s interest to put the Russian economy in a position where it will not be in the condition to fulfill its international obligations,” he was quoted as saying (AP, January 7).

Exactly how talks had gone on a host of other bilateral and international issues was also unclear at the close of yesterday. No concluding joint press conference had been scheduled, and Schroeder was quoted as saying only that he and Putin had discussed nothing serious during their meetings. That was something of a surprise, given that reports prior to Schroeder’s arrival had suggested the two men intended to tackle an ambitious discussion agenda. The issues on the table were said to have included U.S. missile defense plans and a Russian counterproposal for an EU-U.S.-Russian nonstrategic missile defense system, the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and European security issues more generally, the peacekeeping effort in the Balkans, the Middle East peace process, and others. There were also suggestions that Schroeder would raise new objections to Russia’s ongoing war in the Caucasus (Itar-Tass, January 5-6; UPI, January 6). According to a Russian daily, German government officials have also taken exception in recent months to continued Russian opposition to NATO enlargement and to what they see as Russian efforts to build a “special” relationship with Germany–that is, to try to drive a wedge between Germany and both the United States specifically and the Western alliance more generally (Segodnya, January 6).

The current state of Russian-Germany relations should become clearer in the months ahead. According to the German ambassador to Russia, H.E. Dr. Ernst-Joerg von Studnitz, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping is expected to visit Moscow later this month for talks with his Russian counterparts. Meanwhile, Putin and Schroeder are themselves scheduled to meet again in St. Petersburg in April, and possibly again in Germany this fall (Itar-Tass, January 5).