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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 May, 2003, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Putin's Russia comes of age

By Stephen Dalziel
BBC's Russian affairs analyst in Moscow

Russia's second city of St Petersburg is at the centre of international attention, as world leaders have gathered for meetings to mark the city's 300th anniversary.

From left to right: Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Simitis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, European Commission President Romano Prodi,
Putin clearly enjoyed being a host to the grand reception
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin entertained leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - the loose grouping of the former Soviet republics.

On Saturday, the leaders of the members and candidate members of the European Union met the Russian leader.

And on Sunday, Mr Putin is to hold talks with US President George W Bush.

In international terms, these few days mark the highest point so far of Mr Putin's time as Russia's president.

'Best opportunity'

He's attracted some 40 world leaders, not only to Russia, but to his home city.

All our decisions... must be dedicated to ensuring that Russia will firmly take its place among the truly strong, economically advanced and influential states of the world
Russian President Vladimir Putin
The four major strands of Russian foreign policy are being covered in detail in just a few days - China, the CIS, the EU and the USA.

It's the best opportunity Mr Putin's had to show the world that Russia has changed for the better since the often chaotic days when Boris Yeltsin was President.

The Russian leader outlined his vision for Russia's place in the world when he addressed parliament two weeks ago.

"All our decisions and actions must be dedicated to ensuring that, in the foreseeable future, Russia will firmly take its place among the truly strong, economically advanced and influential states of the world," Mr Putin said.

"This is a qualitatively new step for the country. A step which we were unable to take earlier because of a multitude of pressing problems. We have this opportunity, and we must take it."

Europe's doubts

But taking the opportunity means more than simply sitting around a table with other world leaders.

A view of the Peter and Paul fortress late Thursday
St Petersburg's most famous son has thrown a big party for the city

Russia has developed sound trade relations with the EU.

Exports to Germany alone are twice the volume of exports to the United States.

But Russia's still regarded warily by Europe.

The Kremlin has to convince the EU that it's doing all it can to help European security.

Visa-free travel in Europe - the dream of some Russians - still looks a long way off.

Damage

Mr Putin follows up his meeting with the EU leaders by meeting his US counterpart, George Bush.

President Putin (left) and President Bush during the talks in Moscow in 2002.
Putin and Bush will try to get back onto the more co-operative track

Just a few weeks ago, that meeting looked in doubt.

Russia was a fierce opponent of the US-led war in Iraq, and it was uncertain how much damage this had done to Russo-American relations.

The US Ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, acknowledged this in a recent interview with the BBC.

"I don't think the fundamentals of the relationship have been seriously damaged by this crisis. Certainly, we've gone through a very rough patch, no doubt about that," the ambassador said.

"But I think that, at the end of the day, the Russians recognise that they still have the same interests as they did before the Iraq crisis and we're going to try in the next few months to get on the more co-operative track."

'Whirlwind diplomacy'

Mr Bush's visit to St Petersburg is the first serious step for the Russians and the Americans to get back onto that more co-operative track.

In June, Mr Putin will continue the diplomatic offensive by becoming the first Russian leader in a century-and-a-half to carry out a state visit to Britain.

But as he then begins to turn an eye to next year's presidential election, Mr Putin will be only too aware that successful elections are based on domestic, not foreign policy.

After his summer whirlwind of diplomacy, the Russian president may settle into a period of concerted action at home, to ensure that the presidential election is not preceded by a winter of discontent.


SEE ALSO:
In pictures: St Petersburg celebrates
30 May 03  |  Photo Gallery
Analysis: Bush's grand tour
30 May 03  |  Americas
City of the new tsar?
28 May 03  |  Europe
Russian city's angry anniversary
27 May 03  |  Europe
BBC's St Petersburg tributes
23 Apr 03  |  Entertainment


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