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Russia: Schroeder Expected To Talk Tough

  • Roland Eggleston

In Saint Petersburg today, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder began two days of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their discussions were expected to focus on a number of bilateral issues, in particular repayment of Moscow's Soviet-era debt to Germany. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich that the wider issue of Russian press freedom and the future of NTV independent television is also expected to figure in the talks.

Munich, 9 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who arrived in Saint Petersburg today on a two-day visit to Russia, was expected to talk tough on the issue of press freedom during his first round of talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Schroeder's spokeswoman, Linda Meyer, said today the German leader considers the upheaval surrounding last week's takeover of Russia's independent NTV network a domestic issue. But she said Schroeder was nonetheless planning to address the matter today as a matter of international interest:

"The chancellor will certainly mention the situation regarding NTV. He has a personal belief that independent media is an important pillar of democratic society."

Schroeder is well-versed in the NTV controversy, which reached a head last week when Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom succeeded in its bid to replace the existing board of directors with its own appointees.

Late last month, NTV's now-ousted General Director Yevgeny Kiselyov traveled with a group of Russian journalists to Berlin, where he met with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. At the time, German officials said they had a long and candid discussion of press freedom in Russia. Fischer is accompanying Schroeder on his Russia trip.

Officials in Berlin emphasized that they did not expect the NTV issue to lead to tensions between Berlin and Moscow. They said Schroeder had no intention of "lecturing" Putin on the matter.

One official (unnamed) said the meeting "will be a discussion. Schroeder is not going to force Germany's views on Moscow."

Schroeder has addressed the issue of Russian press freedoms in the past. In a recent article in the weekly "Die Zeit," the German leader said that improving Russia's economic health was a necessary first step. He wrote: "A prosperous Russia will find it easier to safeguard democracy, the rule of law, and an independent mass media that criticizes abuses and excesses of political power."

Berlin officials say they will watch carefully for any reaction to Schroeder's scheduled radio interview on Ekho Moskvy, where the question of NTV is expected to arise. Ekho Moskvy is a sister company of NTV.

For Germany, the key issue to be discussed during the two-day visit is Russia's Soviet-era debts to Germany, estimated at some $16 billion.

The Schroeder government has stepped back from earlier support for a plan under which German businesses would pay off Russian debt in exchange for property. The chancellor himself has said on several occasions he is determined to see Russia pay off its own debt, and that last year's increase in world oil prices should make it easier.

Spokeswoman Meyer reiterated Schroeder's words today:

"Germany expects Russia to repay its foreign debts on time. We believe it is in a position to do so."

Russia, however, has voiced a number of concerns regarding the debt payoff. One is the exchange rate at which the transfer from rubles to German marks will be made. Another is the question of whether Russia should rightfully be required to pay off the debt in full.

Russia has argued that its oil and gas sold to Soviet East Germany was well under world prices, and that this should be taken into account when calculating the current debt. It has also said the East German machinery it received in return for the oil and gas was of poor quality, and that this should also be factored into the repayment.

Economic specialists in Berlin said Moscow's concern goes beyond its debts to Germany. They say Russian leaders are hoping Germany will agree to a repayment model which Moscow can then use in paying back its roughly $40 billion debt to the international group of creditor nations known as the Paris Club.

However, government officials doubt Schroeder will go along with such a scheme. They say the German leader is convinced Russia can pay its debts and should not be allowed special conditions.