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Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 17:42 GMT
Putin and the West
Nato Secretary-General George Robertson and acting Russian president Vladimir Putin
Nato's George Robertson met Vladimir Putin in Moscow
By regional analyst Malcolm Haslett

Some Russian journalists have painted a picture of western politicians hurrying to visit the Kremlin with their tails between their legs to apologise for Kosovo and the criticism of Russia over Chechnya.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wants to work with Russia
That is not the way it seems in the West. Western politicians face a real dilemma.

They accept Russia has a right to disagree with them over Kosovo and to try and do something about the lawlessness generated by the Chechen separatist regime. But the West is still annoyed with what it generally sees as Russia's emotional and illogical policies on both issues.

The West is also very concerned about other developments in Russia: the extent to which corrupt practices now control the Russian economy, for instance, and what looks very much like a return towards an "official line" in much of the Russian media, in support of everything Mr Putin does.

Western governments do not want to encourage such tendencies by staying silent.

But at the same time they do not want a full-scale row with the new Russia, even before Mr Putin is elected. It is recognised that the world is a better and safer place when Russia and the West work in harmony.

Western debate

There has been a sharp debate among politicians, government advisers and journalists about where the balance should be between frankness and criticism.

On the one hand there is the current Clinton/Albright line, followed largely by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain, and Nato Secretary-General George Robertson on their visits to Moscow.

"We can do business with this man," Bill Clinton has said, echoing Margaret Thatcher's famous evaluation of Mikhail Gorbachev.

This 'soft' approach to Russia has been fiercely criticised in some quarters in the West.

Western governments now seem willing to accept they made mistakes in the last six or seven years, in expecting Russia to fall in behind the general western consensus on foreign and domestic policy.

A report by a US working group has said the Clinton administration had fallen into the trap of too readily taking the side of ex-president Boris Yeltsin and a small group of reformers.

Their policies, it is now recognised, were not always the best for ordinary Russians.

Western politicians, the report recommends, should build up a wider network of contacts in Moscow and in Russia's regions, and generally concentrate on preventing a further erosion in the relationship. Supporters of this line emphasise that Vladimir Putin's supporters include very competent and respected people like First Deputy Premier Mikhail Kasyanov and adviser German Gref.

But this 'soft' approach to Russia has been fiercely criticised in some quarters in the West.

French criticism

Some of the fiercest criticism of the western governments has come from the French media. Both the rightist Figaro newspaper and the left-of-centre Le Monde have delivered scathing attacks on western leaders for "timidly trying not to humiliate the Russians."

At a time when the Kremlin's men are crushing their own Chechen citizens with bombs, says Le Monde, it is now a question of "how much longer the West is willing to be humiliated by the Russians?"

Le Monde argues that 'disquieting signs' are appearing under Putin: FSB (former KGB) units have been reintegrated into the army; a branch of the FSB has been told to maintain surveillance of the media; military education is again compulsory in schools.

But a majority of western experts probably believe that western governments should take an issue-by-issue approach, with a judicious mixture of criticism, where it is due, and constructive co-operation wherever Russia makes this possible.

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See also:

15 Feb 00 |  Europe
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22 Feb 00 |  Europe
Cook woos Russian leader
25 Nov 99 |  Europe
No 'Cold War' over Chechnya
31 Jan 00 |  Europe
US warns Russia over Chechnya
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