Washington, 30 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin's claim that he and the leaders of France and Germany are in complete agreement about the future of Europe has sent shock waves through the countries situated in the zone between these three great powers.
Following an informal summit outside Moscow with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl last Thursday, Yeltsin said that the three leaders had "agreed on all points. There are no 'blank spots.'"
While Yeltsin went on to suggest that this accord pointed the way toward a multi-polar world, one in which no country would suffer, many states lying between NATO and the European Union in the West and Russia in the East drew a different conclusion.
The countries of this zone -- sometimes called "gray" because of its lack of clear definition -- have suffered when Russia and the West have disagreed. But they have also suffered when Russia and the West have agreed -- especially if when the agreement is about them.
And that possibility appeared to be very much in evidence at this summit outside of Moscow. Following Yeltsin's claim of complete unanimity, Kohl took the occasion to adopt a very hard line toward Latvia, a country with which Moscow has been having difficulties.
Condemning a recent march by Latvian veterans of the World War II-era Waffen SS, Kohl noted that the European Union would evaluate applicant countries according to their human rights record and also according to their relations with their neighbors.
According to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass, which gave extensive play to Kohl's remarks, the French president said that he fully agreed with the German chancellor on this point.
No one could fault any of the three leaders for being concerned about the human rights records of countries seeking to join Western institutions, but there are three reasons why their comments last week have troubled some East Europeans.
First, despite Yeltsin's claims, Kohl's comments, and Chirac's apparent agreement, most international agencies and observers have found Latvia to be in compliance with the generally accepted human rights norms.
Russian claims to the contrary, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's suggestion on Friday that the Russian government should use all means "short of force" to defend the rights of ethnic Russians in Latvia are one thing.
But German and French acquiescence with these Russian claims are quite another, and not surprisingly troubling to governments and peoples who remember past occasions when Western leaders have deferred to Russian demands with respect to their fate.
Second, Kohl's assertion that the European Union will evaluate applicant countries in terms of the quality of their relations with their neighbors enhances Moscow's ability to influence not only Eastern Europe but Western Europe as well.
On the one hand, Moscow can use its power to define the nature of these relationships as a threat to extract concessions from its neighbors. If they do not do what Russia wants, Moscow will say that relations are bad and limit their chances of entering the West.
And on the other, by accepting this Russian claim, West European countries like Germany and France are in effect accepting the notion that Russia should have an effective veto over just how far east Western institutions should be allowed to move.
And third, Kohl's remarks and Chirac's agreement quickly led to reports that the three summit participants had agreed that the Baltic states as well as perhaps other East European countries should not be allowed to join NATO.
So widespread were such reports that ITAR-Tass even queried Paris on them. An anonymous senior official in the French president's office said that Chirac had not taken a position on Baltic membership in NATO in Moscow because those countries are not yet candidates.
But if his words on that point were likely to be reassuring to the Balts, another remark by this unnamed French official seems likely to have an opposite and broader effect.
The official suggested that the Moscow meeting demonstrated that Paris has dropped its historical policy of using "Russia as a counterweight against Germany and vice-versa."
A belief that France was still pursuing that approach has animated the foreign policies of many countries in Eastern Europe. And some of them have assumed that their best course is to play off France against Germany and both against Russia.
But if this latest statement from Paris is correct, then their hopes in this regard have been misplaced. And they may now have to reassess their relationships not only with these three powers but with others as well.
To the extent that happens, the "troika" summit, as much of the Russian and European press insisted on calling it, may prove to be a turning point, one in which the absence of "blank spots" may lead to a darkening of a "gray zone."