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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Dividing The Treasures Of Europe

Washington, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's veto of a bill that would have blocked the return of art works the Soviet army seized in Europe during World War II is the latest indication of the growing rapprochement between Russia and Germany.

On Tuesday, Yeltsin vetoed a bill that would have declared all such trophies property of the Russian state and thus blocked their return to owners in Germany or other countries. The bill, popular with many Russians and passed overwhelmingly by both houses of the Russian parliament, thus dies unless both the Duma and Federation Council override it with a two-thirds vote.

In his veto message, the Russian president gave three reasons for his decision. First, he said, such a bill would lead to serious legal disputes between the Russian government and its own citizenry as well as with other governments and private persons.

Second, he suggested that the measure represented a "unilateral" act by the parliament "without regard for generally accepted norms of international law."

And third, he said that the bill failed to make "distinctions among former adversaries, allies or neutral states or various categories of individuals with regard to their property rights. The bill's failure to do that, Yeltsin said, "weakens Russia's positions at current complicated talks with France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and other countries."

The third reason was almost certainly the most compelling and in ways that Yeltsin himself refrained from making explicit.

Moscow is indeed involved in talks with many countries on this issue, but the negotiations with Germany are by far the most important. They involve the most money: The German government has called for the return of more than 200,000 items reportedly valued at more than $60 billion. And they are at the center of the dispute between Yeltsin and the parliament.

On the one hand, many Russians and Russian parliamentarians believe that their country has the right to keep artwork seized in Germany as partial compensation for the damage the German army inflicted on their country and as confirmation of Russia's continuing status as a great power.

On the other, Yeltsin recognizes both the special role Germany has played in providing support to Russia during the last few years and the equally special role he hopes it will play both as a mediator between Moscow and the West and as a counterbalance to American influence in Western Europe.

To that end, Yeltsin in recent months has been effusive in his praise for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Kohl has been more than willing to use his ties to Moscow both to increase Germany's freedom of action on European security issues and on relations with the United States.

And the Germans have reciprocated. On Tuesday, for example, various German officials praised Yeltsin's decision. Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen called the veto an encouraging gesture. And Karl-Heinz Hornhues, the chairman of the German parliament's foreign relations committee, said that Yeltsin's action had opened the way to new talks.

Russian nationalists in the Duma and elsewhere are likely to criticize Yeltsin's veto, but Yeltsin in fact is acting squarely in the mode of traditional Russian state interests.

At various times in the last century, Russian and German governments have reached agreements about various questions, even though such agreements have often had sad consequences for Eastern Europe and ultimately desolved into disputes or even war.

By making a concession to German interests even at the cost of some domestic support, the Russian president has demonstrated that for him, the real treasures of Europe are worth far more to Russia now and in the future than the value of any art seized a half century ago by the Soviet army.