Chirac extends 'hand of friendship' to Putin

18th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 18 (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday was given a friendly reception by the leaders of France, Germany and Spain when they met for informal talks aimed at bolstering recently strained ties between Moscow and the European Union.

PARIS, March 18 (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday was given a friendly reception by the leaders of France, Germany and Spain when they met for informal talks aimed at bolstering recently strained ties between Moscow and the European Union.

French President Jacques Chirac invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to his Elysee palace for the first-ever such meeting, after holding bilateral talks with Putin.

At a press conference after the 90-minute four-way session, the leaders said it had been a useful preparation for an EU-Russian summit due in May.

"France, Germany, Spain and Russia see in this relationship a way of ensuring ... the definitive establishment of peace, democracy and the rule of law across the whole of our continent," Chirac said.

Among the issues under discussion were the so-called four "common spaces" meant to guide EU-Russian ties through 2007 - the economy, justice and internal security, external security, and education and culture, Chirac said.

The leaders also touched on international affairs, including Kosovo, Iran, the Middle East peace process, Iraq and Lebanon.

In a statement the men committed themselves to the implementation of UN resolution 1559 which calls for the full withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Putin's agreement was important because of Russia's long-standing links with Damascus.

Agreement was also reached for energy ministers of the four countries to meet in the next two months, and for increased aerospace cooperation.

But there was no explicit acknowledgement of the widespread international criticism of Putin for flouting democratic norms in his handling of the Chechen war, the press and business, as well as in his relations wirth Ukraine and the baltic states.

Zapatero said that in Russia as elsewhere the best way to fight terrorism was "the force of reason, the force of the rule of law and international cooperation."

Last month US President George W. Bush publicly criticized Russia's democratic shortcomings at a meeting with Putin in Bratislava, indicating a new chill in the US-Russian relationship.

Aides to Chirac said the purpose of the informal gathering was to "hold out the hand of friendship to Putin" to encourage him down the path of political and economic reforms.

Putin was making his first visit to the French capital since November 2003, but he and Chirac have seen each other several times in the interim - in 2004 at D-Day commemorations in Normandy and at the G8 summit, and in January at ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The two presidents met with 35 Russian writers attending the just-opened Paris book fair - deemed safer than a visit to the fair itself, where Putin could have faced protestors.

After a private lunch, Chirac accompanied Putin on a visit to an air force base outside the capital, a gesture of reciprocity after the Russian president took Chirac to see a top secret Russian space center last April.

Putin, Chirac and Schroeder first forged their alliance two years ago when they spearheaded opposition to the US-led war in Iraq. Chirac invited Zapatero, whom he sees as a new ally in the European Union, to join the group.

But the meeting risked annoying leaders elsewhere in Europe - notably in Poland and the Baltics - where any Franco-German effort to set the agenda for the EU's relations with Russia would be strongly opposed.

Chirac's office said other countries - and the European Commission in Brussels - should not feel slighted, as it was important to encourage all kinds of links with Moscow.

Iran was also on the agenda for the meeting. Britain, France and Germany are trying to secure guarantees that Tehran will not use its atomic energy programme - which Russia is helping to develop - to acquire nuclear weapons.

But Chirac said "there is no contradiction between the Russian position and that of France and Germany."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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