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Germany: Schroeder Hints At Change In Opinion On Chechnya

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the German federal parliament yesterday that the West should reassess its relations with Moscow and make it a full partner in international security. But what interested many commentators were Putin's efforts to cast Russia's war against Chechen rebels as a fight against terrorism. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder surprised many by saying there might be a case for re-evaluating the Chechen conflict.

Munich, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a speech to German lawmakers yesterday in Berlin, presented Russia's conflict in Chechnya as part of the international fight against terrorism.

Putin implied a link between recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and his country's war against Chechen separatists. He said the rebels are ready to attack neighboring states as part of an effort to create an Islamic state between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. He said the years of conflict in Chechnya should come as a warning to the West of the threat posed by Islamic extremism.

Putin appeared to sum up his policy in two sentences.

"With terrorism, we cannot come to terms. We must leave them no peace." He added: "We must give no quarter to terrorists. They must feel themselves in complete ideological and political isolation."

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder later surprised journalists by suggesting that world opinion should re-evaluate the situation in the breakaway Chechen republic.

"Regarding Chechnya, there will be and must be a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion."

It isn't clear from the comment what Schroeder means, but political analysts say the remark came as a surprise since Germany has for years criticized Russia for its human rights abuses in Chechnya. Russia has been accused of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, as well as murder and torture.

As recently as July, Germany reacted sharply to reports that hundreds of Chechen men had been arbitrarily detained and in some case tortured in reaction to guerrilla attacks. Most were later released but senior Russian administration officials in the villages of Sernovodsk, Assinovskaia, and Kurchaloi resigned in protest at the way the roundup was conducted.

Political analyst Walter Strothman says he believes the German chancellor paid a political price for Putin's willingness to participate in the international coalition against terrorism.

Strothman says Putin's comments should be seen in the context of coming closer to an international coalition against terrorism.

The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says Schroeder appears to be suggesting a reassessment of the Chechnya conflict might be imminent. Another prominent newspaper, the Munich "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," says, "The West has no choice but to accept the Russian view that most of those active in Chechnya are terrorists." The headline for the commentary was: "Putin's Terrorists Are Now Our Terrorists."

The German chancellor also appeared to be open to a Russian approach to NATO.

"There is a NATO-Russia Council where NATO and Russia work closely together. If something more develops out of this cooperation, Germany would be the last country to have something against that."

A constant refrain in Putin's speech to the German parliament was that "the Cold War is over." He said the West must recognize that a new era has begun. He made clear that his references to the end of the Cold War were intended to show that Moscow feels excluded from important international decisions because the West retains what he termed "cliches and stereotypes."

Among other things, he criticized a lack of effective cooperation mechanisms. Putin called on the West to develop what he called a "new climate of trust" in recognition of the immense changes that have taken place in Russia.

Putin's remarks left some commentators with the feeling that Russia believes Germany to be the most important political power in Europe and one ready to act as an advocate for Russia with the United States. His approach was well-received in a country that sees itself as a mediator between East and West.

Putin continued his visit to Germany with a trip to the western city of Duesseldorf today for talks with business leaders. Russia is burdened with about $16 billion of Soviet-era debt to Germany and Schroeder made clear in a visit to Russia in April that Germany has little interest in forgiving the debts.

A foreign office spokesman told RFE/RL today that Berlin's attitude has not changed: "Germany expects Russia to pay its foreign debts on time. We believe it is in a position to do so."