On the eve of his visit to Moscow this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Russia of "brutality" in relations with its neighbors and reminded Putin that being a great power also carries serious responsibilities. It was a verbal broadside reminiscent of the public scolding German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Putin back in May over the treatment of opposition protesters when she visited the Russian city of Samara.
Stern reprimands like these are a far cry from the warm and fuzzy chats Putin was accustomed to with the previous leaders of Germany and France, Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac.
"We have recently had political change. In Germany first, and now in France," says French political scientist Jacques Rupnik. "And obviously in both cases it means a slightly less close relationship with Russia. It is the end of the Paris-Berlin-Moscow diplomatic axis."
Rupnik adds that the new leaders in Berlin and Paris are more willing to confront Moscow on issues of human rights, democracy, and relations with its neighbors. And as Berlin and Paris go, so goes Brussels. Gone are the days when Putin could count on his entente with Chirac and Schroeder to keep the European Union from standing up to the Kremlin when it talks tough with neighbors like EU-member Estonia.
"It used to be that if Estonia had a problem, that's their problem," says Edward Lucas, deputy international editor of the British weekly magazine "The Economist" and a longtime observer of EU and Russian affairs. "The new mood is that if you have a problem with one of us, you have a problem with the whole EU."
In April, Moscow reacted furiously when Estonia relocated a Soviet-era Red Army monument and soldiers' remains from downtown Tallinn. Ethnic Russians rioted in the streets, Estonian government websites were victims of cyberattacks, and Estonia's ambassador in Moscow was harassed by pro-Kremlin youth groups.
Reasons Behind Axis
In many ways, the old Franco-German-Russian axis was simply a case of three historical powers finding that their interests converged -- as when they teamed up to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Germany, in particular, also has been concerned about securing energy supplies from Russia.
Close personal ties also played a role. Chirac infuriated human rights groups in 2006 by awarding Putin the Legion of Honor, France's highest state award. And Putin arranged for Schroeder, after he left office in 2005, to became the chairman of a Russian-German consortium building a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.
"Today, like never before, European diplomats in Minsk share a common position. They have the point of view that you need to speak to the Belarusian authorities from a principled and moral position. This is very important if we want to transform the country." -- Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich
Inside the European Union, Chirac and Schroeder's great power diplomacy with Putin clashed with the desires of smaller members. Former communist states like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia have fresh memories of Moscow's domination, and therefore favored a more muscular approach toward the Kremlin.
For the new leaders in Berlin and Paris, life experiences have, to a degree, shaped their attitudes toward Moscow. Merkel grew up in communist East Germany, and Sarkozy's father fled Soviet-occupied Hungary. Both Merkel and Sarkozy are less interested in cozying up to Moscow and more committed to promoting democracy and human rights in the former Soviet space -- bringing Paris, Berlin, and Brussels closer to Prague, Tallinn, and Warsaw on those issues.
This is true despite the fact that Merkel, a Christian Democrat, shares power in a coalition government in which her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, favors a more conciliatory approach toward Moscow.
Mood Has Changed
Lucas says the mood at EU meetings is noticeably different when Russia policy is discussed.
"The atmosphere now at European Union meetings is far different than it was three or four years ago, when the former captive nations of Eastern Europe would be told to sit down, shut up, and stop complaining by the big rich countries of the West," says Lucas. "Now the atmosphere is very different. The winds have changed. And this is something which I am sure is bad news for the Kremlin."
But it's certainly good news for Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich. In the past, the EU -- reluctant to anger the Kremlin, which views Belarus as being in its sphere of influence -- took a relatively cautious approach toward supporting democratic opposition figures seeking to challenge autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Speaking to RFE/RL on the sidelines of the international Forum 2000 conference in Prague on October 8, Milinkevich said the changes in EU policy are already visible on the ground in Minsk.
"There has never been so much moral support for [the opposition in] Belarus like today," Milinkevich said. "Today, like never before, European diplomats in Minsk share a common position. They have the point of view that you need to speak to the Belarusian authorities from a principled and moral position. This is very important if we want to transform the country."
'Not To Confront Russia'
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, one of the most vocal advocates of the EU's new-style Ostpolitik, tells RFE/RL that Brussels is not seeking confrontation with Moscow for the sake of conflict. What Europe does want to do, Schwarzenberg says, is to support democratic reforms in former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine, and push for change in autocracies like Belarus.
"Our wish is not to confront Russia," Schwarzenberg says. "Our wish is to support all of the states which try to fight for democracy, who established democratic regimes, who are fighting for their liberty and their independence. Russia is a great country, and we respect it. If they don't confront us, we won't confront them."
A case in point is Georgia. Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has sought to escape from Moscow's sphere of influence and integrate with NATO and the European Union. The Czech foreign minister has joined officials from EU members Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Sweden to form the New Friends of Georgia group, whose aim is to assist Tbilisi in eventually achieving that goal. The group last met in Vilnius in September.
"We see that Georgia, of course, is in many aspects in a difficult situation," Schwarzenberg says. "And [the Czech Republic] and the Baltic countries know how difficult it is to rebuild a state on the foundations of democracy, to overcome the economic difficulties of reconstruction, of introducing a market economy, privatization. We went through this very difficult process, so we are, of course, willing to support Georgia, too."
In September 2006, simmering tensions between Georgia and Russia escalated when Tbilisi arrested and expelled four Russian military officers on suspicion of espionage. Moscow responded by raiding Georgia-owned businesses in Russia and with the mass expulsion of Georgian citizens from the country.
Georgia's potential integration into Western institutions has infuriated the Kremlin, which has repeatedly tried to intimidate Tbilisi. But Schwarzenberg ridiculed Moscow's claims that Russia's security is at stake.
"I know the map a bit. I see the size of Georgia. I see the size of Russia. For the moment, I don't consider Russia to really be in danger," Schwarzenberg says.
Rupnik says the prospect of eventual integration is "leverage that the European Union has on its periphery that nobody else has" and is a key component of Brussels' policy of promoting democratic reform in the former Soviet Union.
"It is based on the idea that democratic change is a condition for getting closer to the European Union. It is a condition for the possible integration of these countries into the European Union," Rupnik says.