Putin builds bridges in Prague and Budapest but avoids Warsaw, for now

Russia's President Vladimir Putin with President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

The Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Central Europe this week in a trip designed to mend fences in a region which is still recovering from almost half a century of Soviet rule. Mr Putin spent three days in Budapest and Prague - and pointedly avoided Warsaw. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron followed Mr Putin's visit to the Czech Republic, and has this report.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin with President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK
A military band plays outside Prague Castle for the first visit to the Czech Republic by a serving Russian president for 13 years. Waiting for him at the Castle gates was the Czech president Vaclav Klaus, who later held a state banquet in Mr Putin's honour.

People in this region have long memories, and the relationship between Moscow and its former Soviet satellites was not a happy one. Mr Putin therefore was keen to tell Hungarians and Czechs that Russia hadn't forgotten the indignities of Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. The last Russian president to visit the Czech capital - Boris Yeltsin in 1993 - described the Soviets' "brotherly help" in 1968 as an act of aggression. Mr Putin said on that, he concurred with his predecessor.

"When President Yeltsin visited the Czech Republic in 1993 he was not speaking just for himself, he was speaking for the Russian Federation and for the Russian people. Today, not only do we respect all agreements signed previously - we also share all the evaluations that were made at the beginning of the 1990s...I must tell you with absolute frankness - we do not, of course, bear any legal responsibility. But the moral responsibility is there, of course."

Now, however, Russia is keen to move on and forget the past, and has apparently found willing partners in Prague and Budapest. The talk this week was of investment opportunities and securing Russian oil and gas supplies in a region which has been rattled by the recent disputes with Georgia and the Ukraine.

But other, even thornier issues did come to light - chief among them Russian policy in Chechnya. Mr Klaus's predecessor as president, Vaclav Havel, made enemies in the Kremlin with his criticism of alleged human rights abuses in the troubled Russian republic. Mr Klaus, under pressure to raise the issue with his Russian counterpart, didn't shy away from the problem of Chechnya. He did, however, employ a far less confrontational tone.

"Right at the start of our talks we discussed the situation in Chechnya, and truly in great detail. We're concerned about the situation there, but I think I'm right in saying that Mr Putin is as at least as concerned as we are. Because I believe it's in his own interest and in Russia's interest that the Chechnya problem is resolved."

Mr Putin's visit was about mending fences with the Czechs and Hungarians. But he didn't visit Poland - the largest and most influential former Communist country in the EU. Moscow has been angry at what it sees as Polish meddling in its backyard - Ukraine and Belarus. But that could soon change. A much publicised visit to Warsaw by Mr Putin's personal envoy took place last month, to pave the way for an exchange of visits between the Russian and Polish presidents. Evidence of a thaw perhaps after a long winter.