G-8 quandary: Dealing with Putin

Posted in Europe , Russia , Other | 05-Jun-07 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to selected media from Group of Eight countries in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow as Stefan Aust (R), editor-in-chief of the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel listens to him in this photo released June 4, 2007.

BERLIN: After defusing a potentially divisive dispute over climate change that was expected to dominate the Group of 8 summit meeting this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing another delicate task: dealing with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

In weekend interviews with journalists from the G-8 countries, Putin threatened to target sites in Europe if the United States proceeded with deployment of its antimissile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Putin, who has clashed previously with Merkel over his record on human rights, press freedom and the right to peacefully demonstrate, will join British, Canadian, French, German, Italian, Japanese and U.S. leaders Wednesday night for an informal dinner before the official opening of the summit on Thursday in the northern German resort of Heiligendamm.

When challenged by the journalists about his human rights records, his clampdown on the media and harassment of the democratic opposition, Putin brushed aside the criticisms. He said his reputation as an impeccable democrat - as he was described by Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor - was valid. Putin said that his problem was that he had been misunderstood.

The chancellery did not react officially Monday to Putin's remarks and no prominent German politician issued a statement. The Foreign Ministry of Germany, which represents the other 26 EU countries as the holder of the bloc's rotating presidency, also remained silent.

As final preparations were made, the government got a welcome boost of support for security arrangements for the summit meeting. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was criticized last week for the tight measures he ordered for the summit. But after weekend violence in the northern city of Rostock wounded hundreds of people, including more than 400 police officers - some of them seriously - public opinion Monday started to swing toward Schäuble's measures and against the demonstrators.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a legislator and foreign policy expert in Merkel's conservative bloc, explained the reasons for the reticence over Putin's remarks. Merkel, he said, "wanted an atmosphere that was bearable at the G-8 summit. She will be polite but firm. There is no point in provoking Putin now. In some ways, this summit is about damage limitation."

Other observers inside and outside Germany said Putin's comments were more an expression of frustration than of self-confidence: He could not divide Europe, and particularly Germany, Russia's traditional Western ally, over the U.S. missile-defense plans.

"Merkel is not Schröder. She has stood her ground with Putin by being firm but polite over human rights and other issues," said Karl-Heinz Kamp, a security analyst at the conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. "Merkel cannot really be faulted in her relationship with Russia. She has offered to cooperate with Putin over missile defense but Putin has rejected this. Actually, by rejecting all these overtures not only by Merkel but also by NATO, the ball is in his court. Putin comes out badly from all of this."

James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman, said, "As far as I am aware, the only country speculating about targeting Europe with missiles is the Russian Federation."

"These kind of comments are unhelpful and unwelcome," he added.

Denis MacShane, a British member of Parliament and foreign policy expert, said Putin's tone was a cause for concern and that Merkel had to stand firm during the summit meeting and not be intimidated by Putin.

"Russia has always tried to use Germany as the wedge in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Now we have the missile-defense issue with Putin's warnings about targeting sites in Europe," said MacShane, in a telephone interview. "It is very, very alarming. Merkel, with support from the other G-8 leaders, must stand up to this bullying and not let Russia divide Europe."

Merkel took a tough stance last month during the EU-Russia summit meeting in Samara when Putin tried to justify a Russia embargo on Polish meat and Moscow's assault on the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.

This sense of solidarity, rare in the EU, surprised Putin, according to MacShane. "Samara showed that Merkel was not prepared to be bullied or intimidated by Putin," he said. "Merkel's past, having lived in communist East Germany, has made her able to stand up to Putin. I hope the other G-8 leaders will support her."

At the summit meeting, the analysts said, Merkel will find support from Britain, France, Canada and the United States. But they also said that Merkel, despite Putin's attempts to push missile defense onto the meeting agenda, wanted to focus on other issues. "The German presidency has established what its priorities are and that is Africa and climate change," said a spokesman for Blair. "If other issues want to be discussed, I'm sure they can be."

Merkel earlier had hoped that the summit meeting would resolve the status of Kosovo, the Balkan province legally still part of Serbia but which has been under a UN protectorate since 1999. Russia has vehemently opposed a UN plan that would grant Kosovo independence, insisting that talks between Serbia and Kosovo be resumed before any new UN resolution is discussed. "Forget about Kosovo at the G-8 summit," Kamp said. "At the summit, Merkel has other worries with Russia."

Only last week, President George W. Bush appeared to lay the groundwork for a harmonious meeting when he presented his own policies for combating climate change. The timing, analysts said, was perfect. Germany's Social Democrats, Merkel's coalition partners, were already warning of a damaging row because of U.S. intransigence over the issue.

While Bush's proposals fell well short of endorsing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, Bush allowed Merkel to save face. "It helped Merkel," said Kamp. The U.S. proposals are still inadequate for Merkel, who wants a concerted multilateral approach for tackling this issue.