The leaders of Germany, France, Spain and Russia met in Paris on Friday to strengthen ties. The positive noises emanating from the summit suggested harmony but critics complained of issues swept under the carpet.
Peace and harmony, good; Russia's Iran links and Chechnya, bad
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday was given a friendly reception by the leaders of France, Germany and Spain when they met for informal talks aimed at bolstering recently strained ties between Moscow and the European Union.
French President Jacques Chirac invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to his Elysee palace for the first-ever such meeting, after holding bilateral talks with Putin.
At a press conference after the 90-minute four-way session, the leaders said it had been a useful preparation for an EU-Russian summit due in May. "France, Germany, Spain and Russia see in this relationship a way of ensuring ... the definitive establishment of peace, democracy and the rule of law across the whole of our continent," Chirac said.
Among the issues under discussion were the so-called four "common spaces" meant to guide EU-Russian ties through 2007 -- the economy, justice and internal security, external security, and education and culture, Chirac said. The leaders also touched on international affairs, including Kosovo, Iran, the Middle East peace process, Iraq and Lebanon.
Schröder was welcomed by Chirac on Friday
All four leaders were in agreement that Iran should be prevented from developing nuclear weapons. "We are working very closely on the Iran question," Schröder said, dismissing any suggestion of differences even though Russia has been supplying Tehran with nuclear technology, saying it is for civilian purposes. President Chirac added that "there is no contradiction between the Russian position and that of France and Germany" when it came to Iran.
The leaders also agreed on a collective stand in favor of a complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. "We have adopted a joint statement on Lebanon, a communiqué, which, like the whole international community, insists on the compelling necessity to implement resolution 1559," Chirac told the press conference, referring to United Nations resolution 1559 which calls for a withdrawal which France co-sponsored with the United States. Putin's agreement on the subject was particularly telling due to Russia's long-standing links with Damascus.
There was also unanimous agreement to maintain good contacts with the United States but Chirac said the EU was "clearly for lifting the embargo" on arms sales to China. Washington wants the ban to remain.
In keeping with all the positive news, which included an announcement that the four countries would meet again in the next two months, there was no explicit acknowledgement of the widespread international criticism of Putin for flouting democratic norms in his handling of the Chechen war, the press and business, as well as in his relations with Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Schröder, Zapatero and Chirac during a meeting in September 2004 in Madrid
Zapatero said that in Russia as elsewhere the best way to fight terrorism was "the force of reason, the force of the rule of law and international cooperation."
Last month US President George W. Bush publicly criticized Russia's democratic shortcomings at a meeting with Putin in Bratislava, indicating a new chill in the US-Russian relationship.
Aides to Chirac said the purpose of the informal gathering was to "hold out the hand of friendship to Putin" to encourage him down the path of political and economic reforms.
Putin was making his first visit to the French capital since November 2003, but he and Chirac have seen each other several times in the interim -- in 2004 at D-Day commemorations in Normandy and at the G8 summit, and in January at ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The two presidents met with 35 Russian writers attending the just-opened Paris book fair -- deemed safer than a visit to the fair itself, where Putin could have faced protestors.
After a private lunch, Chirac accompanied Putin on a visit to an air force base outside the capital, a gesture of reciprocity after the Russian president took Chirac to see a top secret Russian space center last April.
Putin, Chirac and Schröder first forged their alliance two years ago when they spearheaded opposition to the US-led war in Iraq. Chirac invited Zapatero, whom he sees as a new ally in the European Union, to join the group.
But the meeting risked annoying leaders elsewhere in Europe -- notably in Poland and the Baltics -- where any Franco-German effort to set the agenda for the EU's relations with Russia would be strongly opposed.
Chirac's office said other countries -- and the European Commission in Brussels -- should not feel slighted, as it was important to encourage all kinds of links with Moscow.