French President Jacques Chirac has openly backed Moscow's stance on Russia's Kaliningrad enclave and implicitly changed French policy on Moscow's war in Chechnya. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker reports that the French leader enunciated both new positions during an informal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin late last week.
Paris, 22 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the less than 24 hours he spent with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 19-20 July at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, President Jacques Chirac significantly changed French policy in two key areas.
Those areas are the status of Russia's Kaliningrad enclave after Poland and Lithuania -- Kaliningrad's contiguous neighbors -- become members of the European Union, and French policy toward Russia's continuing war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Putin on 21 July, Chirac emphasized that what he called a "dignified" solution has to be found for the problems of Kaliningrad residents after the EU's expansion.
"There's never a practical problem without a solution. The solution [to the Kaliningrad problem] cannot be achieved by humiliating Russia. It must respect the rights of states, the rights of peoples, the dignity of states and peoples. That's why, for example, I believe that a visa system that might be imposed on Russians to go from one area to another area in Russia is not acceptable. I told this clearly to President Putin. That said, I repeat there are practical solutions that can perhaps be found that conform to the rights of individuals and to their dignity."
That policy statement -- a new one for the French -- puts Paris in direct conflict with its fellow EU members, which have supported the imposition of a post-EU expansion visa system on Russians wishing to travel to and from Kaliningrad. At a meeting two months ago in Moscow, Russian and EU diplomats quarreled publicly over Kaliningrad's future status, using -- according to "The New York Times" (17 July) -- "inflammatory language not heard since the collapse of the Soviet Union."
At the Moscow meeting, Russia accused the EU of erecting a "blue curtain," a reference to the color of the EU flag. And last month, Putin used even stronger language, saying, "What we hear today is worse than the Cold War, because it divides the sovereignty of Russia, [to which] we will never agree."
Kaliningrad residents fear that the imposition of visa controls could reduce by half their now-flourishing border trade, which has slowly come back to life after 10 years of stagnation. To deal with the growing urgency of the problem, Putin on 10 July appointed a prominent Russian legislator, Dmitri Rogozin, to negotiate with EU representatives.
The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, which is working on a compromise package to be presented to EU member states in September, has in recent weeks repeatedly said the Schengen visa system will apply to Kaliningrad without major exceptions. It also says Russian citizens must be in possession of valid passports to cross what will become EU territory after Poland and Lithuania join the bloc.
Commission officials today appeared at a loss when reacting to Chirac's Sochi statement. Chief spokesman Jonathan Faull said that what Chirac meant will have to be "teased out" of him in the coming days.
Emma Udwin, a foreign affairs spokeswoman, said the commission assumes Chirac's views remain in line with the EU's Seville summit last month, which concluded that any solution to the problem must respect existing EU legislation.
"We can only look at what [Chirac] appears to have said. He has said he does not want a system that is humiliating for Russia -- neither do we; clearly not. He has said he wants an 'equivalent system' to visas. You must ask him what he means by that. But if he means a system that maintains clear borders, that falls within the Schengen rules and which does not humiliate anybody, then I see no problem."
Udwin said the package of measures the commission is presenting in September will "reflect French views." The final package is scheduled to be adopted by the EU and Russia on 11 November.
High-ranking EU and Russian officials will meet in Brussels later this week for consultations on the issue.
As for Chechnya, Chirac's virtual adoption of Russia's position on the ongoing war in the breakaway republic was equally striking, if not quite so explicit. The French leader said that Paris "condemned without reserve every terrorist act and believes that no cause can justify terrorist actions" -- a statement seen as an implicit reference to Chechen separatist fighters.
He went on to say that the only overall solution to the problem is political, and that he understands that this political process is "now under way" -- another echo of official Russian policy.
In the past, France has denounced many operations carried out by Russian soldiers in the separatist republic. But in the post-11 September world, France -- like its EU partners -- has softened both the substance and tone of its remarks about the actions of the some 80,000 Russian troops still said to be in the republic.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, Putin on 19 July confirmed the purchase or leasing of 18 Airbus planes manufactured by a consortium of three large EU nations -- France, Britain, and Germany -- for the Russian state airline Aeroflot.
At least one major French newspaper, the left-of-center daily "Le Monde," strongly criticized Chirac's remarks in Sochi. In an editorial (21-22 July), the paper recalled that in 1999, when Russia's current war in Chechnya began, then-Prime Minister Putin called the action "an antiterrorist operation." France, like other Western nations at the time, rejected Putin's justification for the war, with Chirac using the strongest language.
Now, "Le Monde" said, "France's adoption of the Russian position on Chechnya is a defeat. No one is unaware," it went on, "and certainly not Western leaders, that Russian barbarism continues in Chechnya."
The paper then put forward its explanation: "September 11, the struggle against terrorism, the new alliance between the United States and Russia -- all this justifies, in Mr. Chirac's view, that France today supports a scandalous war."
(RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report.)