Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 178

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder completed a lightening visit to Moscow yesterday during which he held several hours of informal talks with President Vladimir Putin. Both men used the occasion to proclaim the visit as an indication of improving Russian-German ties, but the hastily arranged nature of the Schroeder’s stay, its brevity, the apparent absence of a formal agenda and the parallel absence of any concluding sort of communique apparently left some journalists scratching their heads afterward. Izvestia suggested that there was an air of mystery surrounding the visit, and said that it raised the intriguing question: “Why did Schroeder come?”

An obvious answer to this question seemed nowhere to be found either in official descriptions of the substance of the Putin-Schroeder talks or in the press conference given by the two men at their conclusion. Indeed, the talks were said to have been fairly all encompassing, and to have included discussions on everything from the sinking of the Kursk to U.S. national missile defense plans to the presidential election in Yugoslavia. At least some sources suggested, however, that economic issues topped the agenda. Schroeder appeared to make this point in an interview given on the eve of his departure for Moscow. He underscored Berlin’s willingness to support Russia as it undergoes the transition to a market economy: “I want to make it clear in the current situation that Russia can count on Germany for support in the reform process,” the German chancellor was quoted as saying. Indeed, in the same interview Schroeder also suggested that the Clinton administration had given its blessing to a special role for Germany in supporting Russian reform (AP, September 24; AFP, September 25).

Indeed, German officials had suggested prior to yesterday’s talks that the Kremlin’s efforts to secure forgiveness on a portion of its US$43 billion Paris Club debt would be among the key topics discussed in Moscow. It is not clear whether that in fact happened, but Germany remains Russia’s biggest single creditor, with Moscow’s debt to Berlin now totaling some 38 billion marks (US$16 billion). During a groundbreaking visit to Berlin this past June–one in which Putin and Schroeder proclaimed their intention to move their two countries on the road to “strategic partnership”–the Russian president sought to win some concessions from Berlin on the question of debt relief (see the Monitor, June 19). Putin failed to make any headway on that issue, but the two sides did talk of boosting German business activity in Russia (which have been on the wane since the collapse of the ruble in 1998). The same topic was presumably on the agenda during yesterday’s talks in Moscow.

Although Putin and Schroeder first reached a tentative agreement on holding informal talks during a meeting at the UN Millennium summit in New York, they apparently did not settle on a date for yesterday’s talks until September 15 (AFP, September 15). The timing of the meeting, however, and the fact that it was so hastily arranged, suggest that it may in fact not–as official reports intimated–have been keyed entirely to boosting economic relations. Izvestia, for example, suggested that the main reason for Schroeder’s visit was the European oil crisis and the drawing down of Germany’s own oil reserves (Izvestia, September 26). Indeed, the notion that Schroeder might be seeking help in this area was reflected in Putin’s remark to the effect that Russia would do all that it could to help Germany and Europe with supplies of fuel. But Russia, which has little or no additional capacity for oil export at present, is in no position to provide immediate relief. Putin’s offer was apparently one which pointed to the future (Reuters, UPI, Die Welt, September 25).

Another obvious area of concern which might have explained Schroeder’s hasty journey to Moscow was the Yugoslav presidential election. Here there may have been some dissonance. Schroeder did offer a statement saying that he and Putin had “agreed that it looks as though Serbia and Yugoslavia have voted in favor of democratic change.” But several reports suggested that the cautiousness of the statement appeared aimed at steering clear of what may be differences between Moscow and the West over the results of Sunday’s election (BBC, Die Welt, September 25).

Indeed, Western countries, including Germany, have already declared opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica the victor, and called upon Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to step down. The European Union, meanwhile, has reportedly been trying also to coordinate its actions with Moscow so as to provide a unified front in the event that Milosevic does try to negate an election loss. Moscow, however, in contrast to the West, has been notably noncommittal thus far regarding the results of the Yugoslav vote, and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov yesterday praised the manner in which Sunday’s vote was conducted (Western agencies, September 25). Russia has long been the Milosevic regime’s most loyal backer, but there have been signs from Moscow recently that the Russians might accept a victory by the opposition. They seem unlikely to occur, however, without some concessions from the West. And in the event that Milosevic really digs in his heels and refuses to give up power, there is no telling where the Kremlin’s support might fall.