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Russia: French President Heads To Russia On State Visit

French President Jacques Chirac is due to arrive in Russia on 1 July to begin a three-day official visit. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks with an expert on French-Russian relations to see what can be expected from the trip.

Prague, 29 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- President Jacques Chirac, who heads to Russia on 1 July for an official visit, is likely to welcome a respite from France's turbulent domestic political scene, where revelations surrounding a government slush-fund threaten to taint his political career.

Chirac is due to visit Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the southern city of Samara during his three-day trip. He will hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials. His visit follows last month's EU-Russia summit in Moscow, where both sides pledged to deepen mutual cooperation.

Analysts do not expect Chirac's trip to lead to any breakthrough agreements, although economic cooperation -- notably in the energy sector -- will be discussed.

France has always emphasized the independence of its foreign policy, especially in relation to its U.S. ally. So anytime the leaders of France and Russia get together, there is the possibility of statements or actions that will ruffle feathers across the Atlantic.

Simon Serfaty is director of the Europe Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He tells RFE/RL he does not expect Chirac to go along with any possible Russian attempt to heighten tensions between Paris and Washington.

"It would be unfortunate if there seemed to be a sort of common front developed by Moscow with any one of the European states. It would be reminiscent, frankly, of what the Soviet Union used to attempt to do in the 1970s and the 1980s -- for example, in the latter case, over the deployment of intermediate nuclear forces. I would like to think that President Chirac will know that there is no need to introduce further points of tension between the two sides of the Atlantic, between France and the United States."

Serfaty notes that relations between Russia and France have themselves had their ups and downs. Chirac's criticism of Moscow's policies in Chechnya -- partly driven by domestic political considerations -- have not gone down well in Russia and the issue may surface again at the summit.

"Mr. Chirac will not want to go too far, I'm sure, in raising that issue even though for domestic political reasons he will not want to shy away from it. We should remember that bilateral relations between France and Russia, on the one hand, and personal relations, for that matter, between President Chirac and President Putin have been very uneven."

Serfaty says Russia has made relations with the European Union a priority and it is in this context that Chirac will be received in Moscow. As Serfaty notes, France and Russia's bilateral ties, both in their geopolitical and economic breadth, do not match Moscow's ties with Berlin or with the EU as a whole.

"It's certainly not as important, say, as the economic relationship between Germany and Russia. And secondly, it is not as important for France, or for that matter Germany, as it is for Russia. And finally, neither France nor Germany are as important to Russia as the totality of the European Union."

In sum, both Putin and Chirac are likely to use the summit as a platform to project their statesmen-like qualities, without undertaking any ambitious bilateral ventures. To be sure, Putin will be hoping the meeting encourages greater French investment in the Russian economy. But Chirac, who faces re-election next year, is likely to be prudent in extending aid guarantees or credits -- lest his political opponents use the issue against him.

"There is going to be a very difficult presidential election during the spring of next year when President Chirac and probably Prime Minister [Lionel] Jospin will be the main candidates. And there is little doubt that much of what happens now in and out of France is influenced by domestic political concerns."

For that and other reasons, Serfaty concludes, observers should expect much hand-shaking and lofty words at the Franco-Russian summit -- but little of substance.