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Russia: Schroeder Visit Marks New Era In Russo-German Relations

Munich, 18 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This week's visit to Moscow by Germany's new Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made clear that any personal friendship between the leaders of the two nations will no longer play so large a role in German-Russian relations.

Officials in Bonn say the days of the so-called "Maenner Freundschaft" --or male bonding-- between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl are now history. One says that "Kohl based his policy too much on the person of Boris Yeltsin," adding that: "At the time, he may have been quite right: Yeltsin was the strong man who could, and did, exercise control. But," the official adds, "those days have past."

Political commentator Lutz Steiner says: "Schroeder has made clear that the new Germany is ready to support and help Russia through its current crisis. But it will be done on a firm economic basis." Steiner says "There will be none of the so-called 'agreements between old friends,' under which Helmut Kohl sometimes offered Russia thousands of millions (of marks) in credit."

Yeltsin is quoted in most German newspapers today as having declared in Moscow that "relations between Germany and Russia are, and will remain, what they were in recent years." But in Bonn officials said that the German Left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens wants to fashion a new relationship independent of any personal friendship between the national leaders.

The officials said that Schroeder is acutely aware that Russian politics is in a state of flux. On the one hand, there is Yeltsin's visible frailty and the fact that his term in office will soon expire. In the best of circumstances, Yeltsin will remain in power only until the year 2000. Who his successor will be remains unclear. Schroeder is said also to have taken into account that Russian parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year. They could bring new leaders to the fore even before the expiration of Yeltsin's term.

Schroeder's recognition of these realities was expressed not only in his meetings with Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. He also expressed his views when he met with former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, regional governor and likely presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed, and communist and other political leaders.

Kohl's visits to Moscow were usually focused only on Yeltsin and those around him.

One theme which pervaded all of Schroeder's discussions in Moscow was that financial assistance to Russia should be provided internationally and not by Germany independently. Schroeder emphasized several times that, in his phrase, "Germany's resources are exhausted."

Most German commentators agree. With more than 10 per cent of the nation's workers unemployed and severe problems in some areas of the economy, there is widespread agreement that the new government is being forced to look inward more than in the past.

Schroeder also pointed out to his Russian interlocutors that other Western countries were also placing restrictions on their future financial assistance to Russia. A Bonn official said: "Schroeder made clear to all his discussion partners that Russia must lay out firm foundations for economic recovery before it can expect new help from the Western industrial states."

Schroeder's view, as he told Primakov, is that "the work must be done" in Moscow. But he publicly described the new Russian economic program as a "good beginning" that ought to receive a friendly reception from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. German commentators say that Schroeder paid attention to the complaints he heard from German businessmen at a private meeting. The businessmen expressed frustration with Russian tax policies, problems in implementing contracts and other difficulties. Schroeder told them that his government was ready to intervene with Russian authorities in individual cases instead of only making a blanket approach on behalf of all German businessmen.

Still, Schroeder was said also to have discussed with the businessmen regional governor Lebed's suggestion that Germany should develop more business and political contacts with the Russian regions. Schroeder has said publicly that he will also recommend to the 17 provincial governments in Germany that they develop contacts with Russia's regions.

German commentators are uncertain about what remains of bilateral relations forged by Kohl and Yeltsin. One question has to do with the so-called "European triangle," the name given to the meeting in March between Yeltsin, Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac. Under the skeptical eyes of Washington and London, the three leaders agreed to develop triangular cooperation in a number of areas, including a tri-national university, increased exchange of scientists and more joint cultural projects.

None of these programs have been realized, and perhaps now they never will.