Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 28

On the second day of a three-day visit to Italy, Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday met with Pope John Paul II and oversaw the signing of a large package of Russian-Italian political and trade agreements. A Vatican spokesman described the meeting between Yeltsin and the 77-year-old pontiff as "extremely cordial." The two men reportedly discussed political developments in Russia and the international situation, and exchanged general opinions on the role of religion in society. The Russian side made clear, however, that Yeltsin and John Paul had steered clear of two controversial issues: a possible trip by the pope to Russia and problems in relations between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. A third controversial subject was broached: a Russian law on religion that has drawn fire from civil rights watchers in Russia and abroad. John Paul reportedly urged Yeltsin to block enactment of this legislation. (Reuter, Itar-Tass, February 10)

Yeltsin signed the controversial law on September 25. Critics say that it unduly privileges the Russian Orthodox Church. Passage of the law followed an acrimonious battle that reflected tensions between the established Russian Orthodox Church and a number of more newly active faiths in Russia, including the Roman Catholic Church. Those same tensions have been the primary obstacle to a visit by John Paul to Russia. The pope was first invited to visit Moscow in 1989 by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. John Paul and Yeltsin had met one time previously, in 1991, when Yeltsin issued an invitation to visit. (Itar-Tass, February 10)

Talks between Yeltsin and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, also described in positive terms by both sides, were capped yesterday by the signing of a wide-ranging "action plan." The document is intended to shape Russian-Italian relations over the next several decades. It will, according to Yeltsin, "boost trade between the two countries by one-and-a-half times." The action plan — described as a follow-up to a 1994 bilateral friendship treaty — covers cooperation in trade and economic relations, and in technology, science and culture. Prodi said that yesterday’s developments signified the creation of "privileged relations" between Russia and Italy. The action plan is the first of its kind that Russia has signed with a European state.

The two sides signed a number of other agreements yesterday. They included a separate agreement on technical cooperation for 1998-1999, an accord on cooperation in energy policy and an agreement on the study of space. According to a Russian official, the list of documents to sign yesterday was so long that some had to be put off until today. A separate package of economic agreements is also expected to be signed today following a meeting between Yeltsin and representatives of Russia’s and Italy’s business communities. (Russian news agencies, February 10)

International Issues Also on Agenda.