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Opinion: Putin is Building a Virtual Berlin Wall

Russian President Putin met with the German and French leaders last week. The fact that a trilateral summit didn't take place, though the meetings occurred almost simultaneously, is an important signal for Russia.


Putin needs the West's support to tackle Russia's problems.

Putin's meetings with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac took place at almost the same time, though in different formats, with essentially the same topics of discussion. News agencies reported that the Russian president spoke to the German head of government about the need to come to a compromise reagrding economic relations with the European Union to avoid building "virtual Berlin walls" between Russia and the West.

Both meetings focused on the collective fight against terrorism. In addition, both Schröder and Chirac assured the Russian president that NATO expansion was in no way directed against Russia.

Although the two meetings happened nearly simultaneously, a trilateral summit did not take place. And that is the most important signal that Russia received. The Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, which was spoken of a few months ago, no longer exists. Cooperation with the West, both on an economic level and in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council is a priority for Russia. Without western backing Putin cannot surmount the immense problems that accompany his second term as president.

Problems for Putin

One of the chief problems facing Russia is the economy, whose growth, for the moment, is guaranteed by high prices for energy sources. Russia could suffer from economic losses stemming from the EU's expansion to former Eastern Bloc countries. The other problem concerns politics too, and above all the fight against terrorism.

When it comes to combating terrorism, the West criticizes Russia. The issue is not only that the Yeltsin and Putin governments have failed to solve the problem of separatism in Chechnya. According to the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, up to 40 percent of the defense ministry's soldiers and more than half of the Russian interior ministry's units are in the northern Caucasus.

The issue is that an inflexible solution to the problem turned the Chechnyan separatists into an element of the international terrorist alliance -- similar to the case with the Afghan Taliban during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

The fact that Russia is at the same time NATO's ally in the fight against international terrorism and the very country that ignited the sparks of terrorism on its own territory also explains Russia's nervous reaction to NATO's encroaching borders. Namely, Putin is able to estimate the distance that separates the political values shared in Russia from the principles of European democracy much better than his western interlocutors.

Slip of the tongue

While congratulating Putin in Moscow on his victory in the presidential election, Chancellor Schröder said, "Not many heads of state can rely on the support of 71.2 percent of the voters." It is a striking slip of the tongue: The chancellor and his party can count on much less support in Germany than Putin and his combined allies enjoy in Russia. However, Schröder shouldn't have forgotten that the means by which Putin won support have nothing in common with political methods in democratic countries.

On the other hand, Schröder knows how skeptically his friendship with Putin is viewed by many members of the German government coalition. All these years, Germany has failed to convince Russia to find a political solution to the Chechnya problem and to maintain a clear line for the democratization of political life. The only area in which Germany is successful has been economic cooperation. But that was the case during the Brezhnev era (1964-82), too. Thus, the Social Democratic-Green coalition cannot rank the current state of German-Russian relations among its achievements.

When he and Schröder met reporters, Putin said, "None of us wants modern Europe to be divided by new and virtual Berlin walls," demonstrating a striking bout of forgetfulness: Just as in 1961, these walls are being built by the Kremlin itself, by restricting the democratic rights and freedoms of its citizens and foregoing a political solution in Chechnya.

After his triumphal victory in the presidential election, Putin surely expected, as in the past, more courtesies on the part of the West. But the West still has a different understanding than Putin of who built the Berlin Wall and for what purpose.

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