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France: Yeltsin And Chirac--Almost Two Of A Kind

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 16 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - One of the few genuinely spontaneous moments at last week's carefully regulated Council of Europe summit meeting in Strasbourg was crafted by two European statesmen whose increasingly close cooperation has been much in the news of late --Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Jacques Chirac.

Returning from a lunch break Friday, the Russian and French leaders shuffled smilingly in front of the Council's television cameras and made two important announcements: First, Yeltsin would seek ways of moving Russia toward supporting the recently negotiated international treaty banning anti-personnel mines --a treaty the U.S. says it will not sign. And second, the two had agreed that day with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to hold annual trilateral meetings beginning next year.

"I'll go where Jacques tells me to go," said Yeltsin with a big grin, "and if Helmut invites us, I'll accept his invitation." An equally jocular Chirac promptly suggested the first trilateral summit could be held in what he called Sverdlovsk, Yeltsin's political power base in Siberia that has been renamed Yekaterinburg. Obviously pleased with themselves, the two men returned to the summit's official business while reporters ran for the phones.

All told, Yeltsin and Chirac made more genuine news in Strasbourg than did the combined speeches of 42 other European leaders attending the summit. The night before their TV appearance, they emerged from a dinner for two in a local restaurant to announce another joint initiative: Russia and France, two of the three co-chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE's) Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, had decided to invite to Moscow the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to re-launch talks on the disputed enclave. A Yeltsin spokesman (Sergei Yastrzhembsky) said an invitation would "most likely" also be sent to the U.S., the group's third co-chairman.

There are good political reasons for the growing Franco-Russian cooperation. Both Chirac and Yeltsin profess to be unhappy with what they consider the U.S.' international hegemony, and take every opportunity to challenge it when they can. In Chirac's case, this is a continuation of traditional French foreign-policy independence. In the case of Yeltsin, analysts say, it is a sign of a new turn toward Europe in Russia's foreign policy in order to counter-balance currently uneasy relations with the U.S.

On the eve of his visit to Strasbourg, Yeltsin told an interviewer that Europe didn't need, in his phrase, "an uncle from elsewhere." A few weeks before, after a Chirac visit to Moscow, the French company Total announced a $2 billion natural-gas deal with Iran, thereby defying the U.S.' strictures on doing business with what Washington considers a "rogue" state out to gain to nuclear arms. Also participating substantially (30 percent) in the deal is Russia's huge Gazprom utility.

But today's Paris-Moscow axis also owes a lot to the excellent personal chemistry between Chirac and Yeltsin. In fact, the two are quite alike, almost two of a kind. They are both outsized men with exuberant, outgoing personalities who, when health problems did not get in the way, were known to consume large quantities of food and drink. Both are careful political calculators, but both also possess a strong impulsive streak that sometimes cost them and their aides much grief.

Chirac's most notorious impulse was to call for early French general elections in the Spring, a mistake which is forcing him to share power with a Left government for up to five years. Yeltsin's last public impulse was his remarks about the land-mine treaty in Strasbourg, which typically caught officials in Moscow unawares and scrambling to explain that he President didn't quite mean what he said.

Given their great cultural differences, the two men's lives show some remarkable similarities. They were born within 21 months of each other --Yeltsin in 1931, Chirac the following year. Both fought their way up diligently and after many defeats in their respective political systems --Yeltsin in the cut-throat world of Communist leadership, Chirac in the less bloody but equally arduous milieu of Gaullist politics. Both had to defeat a former colleague to win their current posts --Yeltsin in effect winning over former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Chirac triumphing over his fellow Gaullist Edouard Balladour.

The two first met more than a decade ago when Chirac was mayor of Paris and Yeltsin headed Moscow's Communist Party Committee. Chirac's university-learned --but far from fluent-- Russian helped begin a warm relationship. What cemented it was Chirac's befriending Yeltsin in 1990-91, when Gorbachev was highly popular in France and the favorite of Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, who barely concealed his dislike of Yeltsin.

Now their friendship is paying political dividends for both. Skeptics say that may last only as long as the interests of their two nations coincide. But historically France and Russia have been allies far more often than they were adversaries. All they needed were leaders who appreciated one another. Today, in Yeltsin and Chirac, they certainly meet that condition.