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Visit to Britain Marks Western Debut for Putin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russian President-elect Vladimir V. Putin made his debut as a world leader Monday, launching a fierce defense of his war in Chechnya in between breakfast with potential investors and tea with Queen Elizabeth II.

Putin’s first presidential trip to the West came at the invitation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has drawn severe criticism at home for taking the lead in making friends with the new Russian leader.

Blair, who began his overture by visiting Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, a month ago, insisted that Putin’s election offers an opportunity to improve relations with the troubled and temperamental former superpower.

“Some say that because of our concerns about Chechnya, we should keep some distance from Moscow,” Blair said. “I have to say that while I share those concerns, I believe the best way to register those concerns and get results is by engaging Russia, not isolating Russia.”

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For his part, Putin seemed to relish both the attention and the controversy. He displayed a rare, broad grin as he sauntered to greet Blair at the door of 10 Downing St., looking as pleased and self-conscious as a homely boy who’d gotten a date with the prom queen.

But when confronted with questions about Chechnya at a news conference later in the day, Putin turned combative.

“Russia cannot tolerate a situation in which one of its territories is used as a bridgehead for an invasion of Russia and an attempt to break up the sovereignty of Russia,” Putin said, raising his voice and gripping the podium. “Russia could never acquiesce to such a thing, and no other civilized country would either.

“This does not mean we are going to solve this problem at any price or by any means,” he continued. “We will observe human rights on this territory, and we will investigate all criminal acts committed there, regardless of which side is targeted or who commits them.”

A noisy crowd of about 100 protesters chanted slogans at Putin as he entered and exited the prime minister’s residence. Some demonstrators carried placards reading “Stop the Genocide Now.”

“We are protesting against the arrival of Mr. Putin while he has the blood of the Chechen people on his hands,” said Tanzeen Wasti of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. “There should be no dealing with him until he respects human rights and gives independence to the Chechen people.”

But Putin insisted that the protesters, and indeed the West as a whole, have failed to properly frame the debate over Chechnya.

“We aren’t interested in enslaving the Chechen people. We are trying to free Chechnya from international terrorists and extremists who pose a threat not only to Russia but to other countries on the continent as well,” he said. “I have every reason to believe that this international radicalism, hiding behind Muslim slogans, threatens several countries in Central Asia, in the Caucasus, and we can see its manifestations in several European countries.”

In Europe, Putin said, “Russia is fighting this battle alone. And that’s not right because these are our common enemies.”

Putin’s harsh language did not appear to dismay his hosts. Rather, it appeared to impress them.

“I think you have all heard the passion with which President Putin has defended the position of Russia vis-a-vis Chechnya. I think it’s important to recognize how deeply held that belief is,” Blair said. “Although the differences between the West and Russia over Chechnya are very clear, I do believe it’s right that we have an understanding and a dialogue over the respective positions. That is the very best way to try to resolve this difficult issue.”

Putin’s political fortunes have been closely tied to Chechnya. After becoming prime minister in August, he gave orders to send in troops to rid the separatist republic of rebel fighters.

Russian forces have retaken all the major cities in Chechnya and have pushed the rebels into their mountain bases, from which the fighters have begun to launch ambushes and other guerrilla attacks. More than 2,000 Russian troops and uncounted Chechen civilians and rebel fighters have been killed. The Russian public has largely supported the war, though there are increasing signs of discomfort over the mounting death toll.

In Moscow, parliament members on Monday announced the formation of an independent commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya. Putin told reporters in London that he had learned of the commission’s establishment from news reports, and he pledged to support its work.

“This is precisely what Tony Blair called for in his visit to Russia,” Putin said.

Blair has stepped ahead of his European allies and the United States in cultivating the new Russian leader. Russia traditionally has had closer relations with France and Germany, but both these countries have taken a back seat on Russia in recent months for domestic political reasons. Similarly, the Clinton administration has dealt with Russia quietly for fear of drawing more criticism onto Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential campaign has struggled to shake off charges that he has been too accommodating of Russia.

Blair said he hopes that Britain can serve as a “bridge of understanding” between Russia and the West, particularly the United States.

“I believe that Vladimir Putin is a leader who is ready to embrace a new relationship with the European Union and the United States, who wants a strong and modern Russia and a strong relationship with the West,” he said.

Blair’s efforts recall former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s initiative in 1984 to woo Mikhail S. Gorbachev, hosting him in Britain even before he became Soviet leader. Thatcher famously dubbed the young Politburo member a man with whom “we can do business.”

President Clinton has said the same about Putin, who managed to deliver last week on a long-unfilled Russian promise to ratify the START II nuclear arms reduction treaty. The ratification cleared the way for a summit between Clinton and Putin, which the White House said Monday would take place June 4 and 5 in Moscow.

Putin’s first meeting Monday was a breakfast discussion with business leaders sponsored by the powerful Council of British Industry. Putin vowed to do all he could to create a more favorable climate for investment in Russia.

“Russia is not a shortened map of the ex-Soviet Union. It is a country which has tremendous self-confidence, a self-confidence based not only on our experience of reform but on errors we have committed,” Putin told them.

Although Putin’s trip was not considered a formal state visit, he traveled to Windsor Castle outside London for a “courtesy call” on the British head of state, Queen Elizabeth. The two shared tea and conversation during a half-hour audience closed to reporters.


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