Sarkozy pays first official visit to Russia

FUTURE: Much as Vladimir Putin did after succeeding Boris Yeltsin, Sarkozy has sought to redefine French foreign policy, but the subject of Iran may be a difficult one to address


Wed, Oct 10, 2007 - Page 6

French President Nicolas Sarkozy once accused Russia of "brutality" in exercising its energy hegemony and said he's determined to punish Iran for its nuclear program. Now, the steely-tongued Frenchman may be about to meet his match.

Sarkozy was to pay his first presidential visit to Russia yesterday and today for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when many eyes are focused on the Russian president's political future and increasing global assertiveness.

"Russia is back on the world scene," Sarkozy said in an interview published yesterday in Russian daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta. However, he added, Russia "should assume and exercise the responsibilities that go side by side with its legitimate aspiration to be a great power."

Sarkozy sees Putin days before the Russian leader travels to Iran, where Russia is building a nuclear reactor that has contributed to concerns in the West about Iran's atomic intentions.

Sarkozy will be the first western leader to meet Putin since his announcement last week that he would lead Russia's biggest party into parliamentary elections in December, leaving the door open to a job as prime minister. That would allow him to keep Russia's reins even after his second presidential term expires early next year.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner drily called Putin's move "original," and lamented that Russia's opposition was not being taken seriously.

Much as Putin did after succeeding Boris Yeltsin, Sarkozy has sought to reassert and redefine French foreign policy since taking over from Jacques Chirac in May. For Sarkozy, talking tough on Russia has been a running theme.

He has expressed concern about human rights in Chechnya and media freedoms, and accused Russia in August of "a certain brutality" in using its energy weight to influence smaller neighbors once under Moscow's political control.

"When Russia cuts supplies of energy to one part of Europe without warning, trust suffers," he told Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

Sarkozy has also taken a firmer line on Iran's nuclear program, shifting closer to the US in his insistence on tough sanctions and even his mention of the possibility of war.

"No one should doubt France's seriousness and determination" on the Iranian issue, he was quoted as saying.