A suitable time for President Putin’s visit

The arrival in Athens today of Russian President Vladimir Putin marks the first official visit by a Russian head of state since the foundation of the modern Greek republic. It is therefore of considerable political importance, although the visit itself is to reciprocate one made by Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos to Russia in June of last year. For a number of decades, bilateral relations were somewhat awkward and not only because of the civil war in Greece that followed World War II or because of the Cold War. However, immediately after the fall of the military junta in Greece in 1974, the government of national unity led by Constantine Karamanlis set about building new relations with Moscow in an attempt to boost Greece’s footing on the international stage after the lukewarm response by Greece’s allies to Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus that year. In 1978, Karamanlis was the first Greek prime minister to visit the Russian capital. Cyprus issue It would be no exaggeration to claim that Greece’s Cyprus policy after 1974 was built, among other things, on the Soviet Union’s support in the Security Council and that of the communist states in the General Assembly, even though that support did not contribute to promoting a solution based on UN resolutions nor to preventing the Turkish Cypriots’ unilateral declaration of independence in 1984. One thing that post-dictatorship governments in Greece did notice, and particularly that of Andreas Papandreou, was that Moscow was always particularly careful and prudent regarding its relations with Athens, recognizing the USA’s role in the region and evaluating Turkey’s strategic importance as being far greater than that of Greece. During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, bilateral relations were not promoted to any great extent. It was only during the latter period of his administration and during the Yugoslav crisis that in repeated meetings between foreign ministers George Papandreou and Igor Ivanov a common perception was observed regarding the way to deal with problems in the Balkans. Naturally, however, the Greek government did not diverge from the policy of NATO or the European Union. What is interesting about Putin’s current visit is that it is taking place at a time when Moscow’s relations with Washington have marked a spectacular improvement, following the terrorist attacks of September 11. There is now cooperation between the two countries’ information services, the use of Russian air space by the USA to transport humanitarian aid, participation in search and rescue operations and above all permission for the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus to cooperate fully with the USA. As the Russian president begins his visit to Greece today, NATO’s winter meeting of foreign ministers also begins, a session that is to confirm the upgrading of Moscow’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic defense axis. So conditions are favorable for a substantial improvement in relations, free of past inhibitions that led initially to hostility and then to Western suspicion of Moscow. This also applies to Russia’s relations with Turkey. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the geostrategic tension between the two countries decreased considerably and economic cooperation is now developing normally. Greek-Russian economic relations have been improving in recent years; Greece’s deficit has been decreasing but is still over $200 million annually. Nevertheless, cooperation in the energy sector is expected to give a further boost to economic cooperation. Defense cooperation is of particular interest and is expanding into the sectors of satellite systems, missile technology systems, electronic warfare and air defense. Putin is due to arrive at 12.45 today and begin his visit with talks with Greek counterpart Costis Stephanopoulos. He is then due to visit Parliament Speaker Apostolos Kaklamanis, but he will not address a Parliament plenary as he had requested. Later he is to have a meeting with Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece and possibly with New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis. Tomorrow the Russian president is to meet Prime Minister Costas Simitis and on Saturday he will go to the monastic community of Mt Athos in northern Greece. He will also have meetings with Greek business circles during private dinners in Athens tomorrow and Saturday. From postwar chill to warmer relations Greek-Russian relations began to improve in the 1970s, after the postwar chill. 1978(September): For the first time since diplomatic relations between Greece and the USSR were re-established in 1924, the Greek minister for foreign affairs, Giorgios Rallis, visited the USSR and held talks with his counterpart, Andrei Gromyko. 1979(October): Greek Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis paid the first visit by a Greek leader to Moscow since the foundation of the USSR. He met his counterpart, Aleksei Kosygin, and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. 1983(February): Russian Prime Minister Nikolai Tikonov visited Greece and held talks with Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and President Constantine Karamanlis. 1989(November): Boris Yeltsin, then a member of the Soviet presidium and leader of the opposition, came to Greece in response to an invitation from Kathimerini and Skai Radio. 1991(July): Greek Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis visited the failing Soviet Union, and agreed with President Michail Gorbachev on the need to maintain the integrity of borders in Europe in general, and in Yugoslavia in particular. 1993(July): Russian President Boris Yeltsin met Greek Premier Constantine Mitsotakis in Athens. 1994(June): Russian President Boris Yeltsin attended a European Union summit meeting in Corfu, where an EU-Russia cooperation agreement was signed. 1996(March): Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Theodoros Pangalos visited Moscow. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou’s plans to visit Moscow the previous year had been canceled due to his ill health. 1996(October): Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis took part in an international meeting in Moscow. 1998(February): Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov visited Athens, Thessaloniki and Mount Athos. 2000(June): Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos visited Moscow, the first visit to Russia by a Greek president. It is this visit that Putin is returning today. 2000(October): Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov made an official visit to Athens. 2001(July): Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis went to Moscow for the synod of the International Olympic Committee. Vladimir Putin, the leader with a thousand faces By Petros Papaconstantinou Kathimerini As soon as it became obvious that the Soviet Union was nothing more than a paper tiger, as Mao Tse-tung used to say, Western leaders began to look at every new leader in the Kremlin as the Russian Kemal Ataturk they dreamed of. He would be the politician to cut all links with the crumbling empire and inspire his compatriots with a new sense of national destiny, chiefly characterized by reform and pro-Western orientation, which explains Western leaders’ Gorby-mania during the years of perestroika and their unqualified support for Boris Yeltsin. Something similar is the case with Vladimir Putin. The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine welcomed the new Russian president on his first official visit to Germany as the first German-speaking Russian leader since Lenin. The American press recently called him the most Western-style leader of Russia since the time of Peter the Great. The truth is that the enigmatic leader in the Kremlin will need more than just good luck to confirm these flattering comments. A pragmatist to the core, the former KGB agent rose to power with extremely modest ambitions – the first of which was to salvage the cohesion of the Russian state that was being threatened by autonomy movements such as the one in Chechnya. Then there was the task of restoring the Kremlin’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet states. Fully aware of the country’s desperate economic straits, Putin gave top priority to the economy rather than to geostrategic concerns. Just a few months ago, he asked Fidel Castro to waive the rent on Russia’s bases in Cuba, invoking the Kremlin’s long years of generous aid. When Castro replied that Cuba owed a lot to the Soviet Union, but nothing to the Russians, Putin chose to close the only Russian bases capable of spying on the USA. Traditionally a major supporter of the Arabs, Russia has backed Israel’s attacks on Palestinians over the past few days. This support can be explained by the rapidly developing economic ties between Moscow and Tel Aviv after the emigration of 1.5 million Russian Jews to Israel. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan has called into question Putin’s entire foreign policy philosophy. For the first time in their history, the Americans have sent troops into Russia’s soft underbelly. Moreover, US President Bush’s insistence on pushing ahead with anti-missile defense and the expansion of NATO toward the east, despite Russia’s opposition, underlines Russia’s limits as a regional power and its lack of influence in international issues. It is still too soon to predict how Putin will react to these developments. He could still choose a policy that has been promoted for some time by other sectors of the Russian establishment, particularly by Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzkov, that of selective cooperation, firstly with the European Union and then with other powers such as India and Iran, so as to outweigh the American factor. Putin said as much to the German Parliament in late September, when he said that Europe should become a strong, truly independent international force, linking its strength to that of Russia. A marriage of convenience between Russia and the European Union that would combine the former’s nuclear arsenal and energy sources with the economic power and technological know-how of the latter would indeed constitute a fundamental reversal of global correlations, similar in significance to the creation of the Franco-British entente before World War I. Nevertheless, at least for the time being, scenarios such as this remain in the realm of science fiction, firstly, because it is likely to be some time before the Europeans acquire a cohesive defense and foreign policy, and secondly, because they have no reason to risk an extremely dangerous split with the USA for a far weaker and more unpredictable partner.