Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 226

Yeltsin’s schedule will, however, permit him to travel to Bethlehem on the West Bank on January 6-7 to mark the Orthodox Christmas and the start of the third Christian millennium, the Kremlin said yesterday (Reuters, Itar-Tass, December 6). No other details of that trip were immediately available, but it presumably represents the acceptance by Yeltsin of an invitation extended by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during his two-day visit to Moscow at the end of November. The political and diplomatic ramifications of the trip are less clear. Moscow clearly wants to raise its profile in the Middle East–particularly as efforts intensify to impart some new momentum to the peace process there–and the Palestinians and the Israelis have recently indicated their desire for Moscow to play a greater role in the region.

For all of that, Moscow has clearly stated its support for Palestinian aspirations, including the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and the use by Yeltsin of his trip to back that cause would probably not be much appreciated by the Israeli leadership. Moreover, Moscow might also be tempted to make a more demonstrative show of support for the Palestinians due to mounting dissatisfaction in the Arab world over Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya. The modalities of a possible visit by Yeltsin to the Holy Lands were presumably discussed during Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy’s visit to Moscow on December 2. But the issue was not mentioned in the initial reports of Levy’s talks with Russian leaders. Arafat’s invitation to Yeltsin, conversely, was perhaps the most publicized development to come out of the Palestinian leader’s visit to the Russian capital (see the Monitor, December 3).

The Kremlin yesterday apparently made no mention of a scheduled visit by Yeltsin to Paris on December 21 for talks with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But German sources in Berlin indicated that the meeting had been postponed, and that no new date had been set. The sources gave no indication of why the December 21 meeting had been postponed, but suggested that Yeltsin’s health had been a factor in the decision (Reuters, December 6).

For all of that, it seems likely that mounting tensions between Russia and both France and Germany could also be behind the postponement. The December 21 meeting was itself scheduled during the OSCE summit in Istanbul, when, on November 18, Yeltsin was subjected to severe criticism by both the French and German leaders (and many others) over Russia’s crackdown in Chechnya. Later that day, Yeltsin reportedly cut short a meeting with Chirac and Schroeder which was to have taken place on the sidelines of the summit. Reports intimated that the Russian president left the meeting–and the summit–in a huff because of the earlier comments made about Chechnya (see the Monitor, November 19). The three-way December 21 meeting had presumably been scheduled to allow the three men to patch up their differences over Chechnya, and to discuss other matters vital to both Moscow and the European leaders.

Since then, however, Moscow has escalated its military operations in Chechnya while European leaders–and the French in particular–have led international condemnations of Russia’s actions. That fact, and the prospect of listening to more European criticism of the Chechen operation, was probably a factor in Yeltsin’s decision to forego the trip. The Kremlin’s actions were another indication of the extent to which Russia’s current leadership is willing to risk relations even with key allies in order to garner the political gains that the Chechen war is producing at home. After all, the three-way French-German-Russian talks, which were launched in early 1998, had been viewed as an important success for Russian diplomacy. That is because they bring the Russian leader together with his French and German counterparts without U.S. participation. Russian observers have seen these meetings of the so-called “troika” as an advance in Moscow’s efforts to increase its own integration with Europe while undermining Washington’s.