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Europe

Schröder Visits Russia as Enlargement Looms

After the flags of the former east-block countries joining NATO were raised, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made a short trip to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and smooth over ruffled feathers.

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Look it's enlargement! Do you think Russia and the EU can be friends? President Putin wants to know.

On Friday, the same day the flags of the seven former east-block countries joining NATO were raised at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder went to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. Fearing that NATO enlargement followed shortly thereafter by EU enlargement in May could be leaving the Russians feeling a little out of sorts, Chancellor Schröder promised increased cooperation.

In an interview with Westdeutscher Rundfunk radio before his departure, Schröder said, "Together with our French friends, we are working to ensure that what we have decided on -- a strategic partnership between the EU and Russia -- is implemented."

To drive the message home, Shröder's visit will be followed up by one from French President Jacques Chirac on Saturday.

First a word of congratulations

Schröder arrived in Moscow with numerous issues on the agenda, including Russia's relations with the European Union and the situation in Afghanistan.

But first, he took a few moments to congratulate President Putin on his recent electoral victory. "Not many heads of state can rely on the support of 71.2 percent of the voters," he said. However, Russia's recent elections have drawn criticism from Western observers, including many in the European Union, who say the state-run media dominated the public debate and made for less than democratic results.

Nonetheless, Schröder said he had every confidence in Putin's ability to move Russia forward on a democratic path. "I have a good, confident relationship with Putin and am firmly convinced that the next stage of his presidency will be accompanied by further processes of democratization," he said.

Sticking points remain

As NATO and the EU move further east, it has caused a bit of worry in Russian circles. By meeting with Schröder, Putin was clearly hoping to establish the nature of future relations between the two. "We do have things to talk about," he said at the start of the meeting. "We are seriously dealing with questions concerning the relationship of Russia and the expanding EU, and I would like to discuss some of these issues and synchronize our watches." Among the finer points Schröder and Putin talked about the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement Russia currently has with the EU. Putin's government has been resistant to expand the agreement to apply to the new member states, fearing the loss of trade and travel rights. This position has recently softened, however, with the Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Chizhov saying a protocol to extend the agreement to the new nations could be signed before May 1st, the official date the new members will join the EU.

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