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#6 - JRL 7236
The Times (UK)
June 23, 2003
The bear and the lion
Putin's state visit is a chance to consolidate relations

State visits, the highest ceremonial accolade Britain can offer, are planned at least two years in advance. They therefore tend to reflect the state of relations at that time. Two years ago President Putin enjoyed a warm relationship with Tony Blair. The Prime Minister saw in the President a reformer and a man with whom he could do business. Britain championed closer Russian relations with Nato, and Russia looked to Britain for investment, an influential voice in Washington and a partner in Europe.

When Mr Putin arrives tomorrow to begin this historic state visit the first since 1874, only 13 years after Tsar Alexander II freed Russias serfs some of the warmth will have cooled. The Iraq war, Russian annoyance at Britains unswerving support for Washington and a revival of Moscows links with France and Germany have made Britain a less attractive partner for Mr Putin. He mocked Mr Blair over the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction on his last visit to Moscow. He sees no need now to rely on any intermediary in relations with Washington. His position at home is making him more assertive abroad. And as his recent comments make clear, there will likely be a showdown over how to deal with Iran.

A state visit, therefore, is all the more important, if not for the reasons originally envisaged. By tradition, such occasions concentrate on pageantry, focus on historic links, reflect the personal interests of the visiting head of state and play down any awkwardness or political disagreement. And whatever the tensions two months ago over Iraq, the rich history of Britains cultural and political links with Russia, the dense web of human, economic and institutional connections created in the 12 years since the fall of communism and the common pursuit of Russias integration into the Euro-Atlantic alliance are a substantial basis on which to consolidate and reinvigorate relations.

That does not mean that politics will be left to one side. Unusually for a state visit, plenty of time has been set aside for talks with Mr Blair and the promotion of trade and investment. The Labour Left, human rights activists and Britains Muslim community insist that Chechnya be a central issue in all talks: the corrupting influence of the widespread and documented abuses of this squalid war are in danger of vitiating much of Mr Putins domestic achievement in consolidating a pluralist democracy and the rule of law. The issue is certainly awkward: Mr Putin resents any outside discussion of an issue on which he believes foreigners are ignorant and prejudiced. Mr Blair has promised to raise the issue, but might set it in the context of his experience of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Both men will be happier discussing business. Britain is now the largest foreign investor in Russia an extraordinary fact, given Germanys far closer and longer history of investment, but one explained largely by the huge involvement of Shell and BP in Russias energy industry. This is crucially important. For all its attempts to rebuild heavy industry, Russia is still almost unhealthily dependent on commodity exports, especially energy, as the guarantor of prosperity, and will be for years. Britain suddenly finds that it has the biggest stake of all in Russias future, giving this country an interest in related issues such as Moscows membership of the World Trade Organisation.

The main thrust of the visit will be to underline Russias integration as an ally and a partner of the West. Mr Putin is well able to take care of himself in managing his relationship with President Bush (and has his own strategy for dealing with what he sees as US neglect of Russias interests). He is courting other EU members when it suits him, and is even feigning friendship with China. The visit celebrates not only 450 years of Anglo-Russian relations, but an unusually productive past decade that should be the basis for a more productive, if more complex, future.

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