Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 62

World leaders lined up yesterday to convey their congratulations to newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin. Optimism about the election results, however, was tempered by enduring concerns over Russia’s war in Chechnya and the uncertainty of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. On the positive side, international observers suggested that Putin’s election could mean that the Kremlin will now be governed with a firmer hand and that the eccentricities and erratic behavior of the Yeltsin years will finally become a thing of the past. The belief that Putin could emerge as a more reliable partner on the international stage was paralleled by hopes that the Russian president will also move forcefully to promote Russian political and economic reform. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder summed up these sentiments in a message to Putin yesterday. It expressed Germany’s “great expectations with regard to a strong, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Russia which is aware of its international responsibility and fully shares in European processes.”

But Western leaders also specifically underscored their continued concerns over Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya, mixing their congratulatory messages with appeals to Putin to move at last to end the conflict. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, wrote in a letter to Putin that France remains “preoccupied… with human rights and the humanitarian situation in Chechnya, which has aroused legitimate worries in Europe and in particular in [France].” He also called on Putin to allow international observers and aid groups into Chechnya. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, meanwhile, balanced the German Chancellor’s message of hope to Putin with statements of his own calling on Moscow to find a rapid political solution to the Caucasus conflict. “The priority now,” Fischer said in a communique, “must be for an immediate halt to the fighting and a rapid political solution for lasting peace in Chechnya, together with the authorization for international humanitarian help and measures for the reconstruction of destroyed areas.”

The Clinton administration, for its part, took a cautious approach to Putin’s election, one which contrasted markedly with the effusive praise and virtual campaign endorsement which top U.S. officials had offered the Russian leader earlier this year. In a phone call to Putin yesterday, Clinton reportedly mixed congratulations with an appeal that the Kremlin move forcefully to strengthen democracy and international ties. Clinton called on Putin to advance economic reform, strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption and join the United States in advancing international security and arms control. He also reportedly emphasized the importance of ending the war in Chechnya and of “launching impartial and transparent investigations of reported human rights violations and providing… full access for international organizations and the press” (International Herald Tribune, March 28; AP, Reuters, AFP, March 27).

Some in the West have obviously hoped that Putin’s continued hard line on Chechnya, maintained in the face of intense Western criticism, may have been the result in large part of presidential campaign considerations. With victory in hand, many in the West are clearly hoping to see a moderation of Russian policies in the Caucasus. That no immediate change is in the offing, however, was strongly suggested by Putin’s announcement yesterday that Moscow will continue its military campaign in Chechnya (Reuters, March 27). The decision, which is consistent with Putin’s pre-election claims that he will place a priority on maintaining Russia’s “territorial integrity,” could leave Western policymakers with the choice all over again of whether they are willing to overlook Chechnya in order to pursue improved relations with Moscow more generally.

The issue is one of some importance because a series of contacts between Russian and Western officials are scheduled in the coming weeks. EU security chief Javier Solana, for example, is scheduled to travel to Moscow next week, when he will reaffirm the bloc’s concerns over the war in Chechnya. The EU and Russia are also scheduled to hold a summit in Moscow on May 17. In the meantime, however, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is scheduled on April 3 to debate Russia’s behavior in the Caucasus, and there is some support among lawmakers for a call to suspend Russia from the organization. These and other expected confrontations between Moscow and the West over Chechnya in the coming weeks could quickly sour any “honeymoon” period which Putin might have expected from his Western partners.

Tensions in this area notwithstanding, a jockeying now appears set to take place over the scheduling of visits between Putin and foreign leaders. Earlier this year the Kremlin had suggested that Putin’s first post-election meeting with a foreign head of state after the election was likely to be with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. But it is now unclear whether the Chinese leader will be given pride of place. In the meantime, Putin is reportedly expected to visit Germany in the not-too-distant future. Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is also urgently seeking a meeting with the Russian president-elect in order to restart peace treaty talks between the two countries. In addition, the Russian and U.S. governments are said to be looking at a summit meeting between the two presidents sometime before Clinton leaves office in January. There have been suggestions in the press that both the Putin-Obuchi meeting and the Putin-Clinton talks could take place prior to the G-7 (plus Russia) summit scheduled for Japan in July. But those plans have not been confirmed.