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Europe

Here's to You, Vladimir

Photogenic camaraderie in Weimar, Germany, eased the way to an important agreement between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Like old drinking buddies

After years of fruitless diplomatic disagreements over Soviet-era debt, Russia and Germany have struck a deal that may start payback on nearly $48 billion it owes to the so-called "Paris Club" of rich creditor nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Wednesday during talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that Russia is ready to repay $440 million over the next two and a half years, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported.

That is just a smidgen of what Russia owes Germany, which recently lowered its demands on immediate debt repayment to about $1.1 billion.

Also, the promised payment will make no dent in the giant debt to Paris Club nations, about half of which is Germany's.

Putin's promise prompted a quick demand from eastern Germany's successor party to the communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), that the whole $440 million go to support the economically struggling "new states" in the East that joined the federal republic in 1989's reunification.

Russia's new willingness to go ahead with debt repayment, following years during which the Paris Club's outstanding invoice was a sore point with the Kremlin, was likely to be received by creditor nations as a major breakthrough.

Shoulder to shoulder

It may also be a surprise, but less in Germany than elsewhere.

Schröder and Putin have cultivated a close relationship, verging on the personal, not merely diplomatic, since Putin won Russia's presidency in 2000.

They make an odd couple, but one that has a way with the press: Schröder the well-coiffed everyman-cum-premier and Putin the serious KGB agent-cum-everyman.

It is first of all Putin's fluent German, honed during the Soviet era when he was posted as a spy in Dresden, that charmed Schröder, along with his ambitious expressions of solidarity with Europe.

In Weimar, where the two leaders posed for photos shaking hands, directly beneath a monument of Goethe and Schiller shaking hands, Putin reiterated Russia's interest in a decision-making role in NATO.

Schröder, clearly warmed, called the request "understandable and reasonable." It's a new world.

Or so it seems, diplomatically. Germany's one-time hard criticism of Russian human rights abuses, especially in Chechnya which remains a point of high criticism from the European Parliament, was nowhere to be heard during Putin's visit.

Friendship, it seems, is a matter of give and take.

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