Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 145

Among the interesting sidebars to the main event at this past weekend’s summit of Group of Seven countries and Russia was President Vladimir Putin’s decision to avoid any direct, bilateral talks with his French counterpart, President Jacques Chirac. Putin’s cold shoulder toward Paris was anything but unexpected: Western reports had foreseen it coming in mid-July (Washington Post, July 13), while sources close to the Russian president were quoted on the eve of the summit reiterating that Putin had no intention of meeting with Chirac.

Once on Okinawa Putin stuck to the Russian script. News sources suggested that the two men largely managed to avoid each for much of the three-day event. The tensions between Russia and France were all the more obvious given that Putin did meet directly with the leaders of each of the other G-7 countries–the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and host Japan. There was apparently only one direct exchange of any significance between Putin and Chirac, during which the two men presented each other with small gifts. At the close of the summit Putin joked to reporters that he had given Chirac a “book about the Kremlin. In France they should not forget where the Kremlin is, or the fact that there is such a place” (Business Recorder, July 24).

The current tensions between Russia and France have been caused by continued French criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya and, more recently, by a court case in which French authorities seized a Russian sailing vessel while also freezing the bank of accounts of Russia’s diplomatic missions in France. French criticism of Russia’s Caucasus war, which has included condemnations of Moscow’s failure to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by its troops in Chechnya, is also believed to be the reason why Putin has thus far in his presidency studiously avoided visiting Paris. Indeed, governments in four of the European countries which Putin has visited–Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany–have distinguished themselves by the enthusiasm with which they have ignored the Chechen war and related abuses in order to build broader relations with the new Putin government in Moscow. To quote one commentary, the Russian policy with respect to Putin’s European visits appears to be one of “rewarding” those governments which have been most accepting of Russian actions in the Caucasus (Washington Post, July 13).

The more recent cause of Russian-French animosity involved an incident in which the Russian sailing ship “Sedov” was seized by French authorities in the port of Brest. The move was made in compliance with a court order which the Swiss trading company Noga based on a claim that the Russian government owes it US$65 million dollars. French authorities also froze the bank accounts of all bodies in France affiliated with the Russian government, including the embassy. The French actions were condemned by the Russian ambassador to France, Nikolai Afanasevsky, who described the seizure of the Sedov as “an unprecedented violation of international law” and a move which “could have serious consequences for French-Russian relations.” The Russian State Duma also joined the act, calling for the Russian government to retaliate by seizing French property in Russia. The Sedov was seized on July 13, approximately a week before the start of the G-7 summit in Japan (BBC, July 18, 24-25; Izvestia, July 19).

Despite the tensions between the two countries–said by Izvestia to be the worst since the end of the Cold War–there have been some glimmerings that an improvement in relations could be on the way. On July 24 the French court which had ordered the Sedov’s seizure reversed itself by ruling that the owners of the Sedov–the technical university in Murmansk–could not be held accountable for Russian state debts. The court also ordered Noga to pay damages related to the seizure of the vessel. The Russian government, not surprisingly, hailed the decision. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, moreover, was quoted as saying yesterday that Moscow expected French authorities also to move quickly to unfreeze Russian bank accounts in France. While Noga says it said appeal the French court decision, Ivanov called on French authorities to ensure that this “said incident is settled for good and removed from the agenda” of Russian-French relations (BBC, July 24; Russian agencies, July 25).

Russian-French ties also got a small boost when it was announced in Okinawa on July 24 that Putin plans to attend a Russia-EU summit scheduled to take place in Paris this October. The announcement was interpreted by some news sources as a sign that Moscow is now willing to start clearing the air with France. Others told a different story, however, by suggesting that Putin’s decision to visit Paris was actually tied to the fact that France currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency and thus will host this year’s summit. There was apparently no indication that Moscow is willing at this point to expand the visit into a full-blown bilateral exchange (Business Recorder, AFP, July 24).

Russian-French tensions remain a bit of an anomaly. The two countries hold similar positions on a number of international issues, most notable of which are their attitudes toward UN sanctions on Iraq, their criticism of U.S. missile defense plans and their condemnations of alleged U.S. global domination. With the Sedov case now apparently resolved, it will be interesting to see if Paris quiets its criticism of the Russian war in Chechnya in order to join other major European countries in mending fences with Moscow more generally.