Europeans Look for Improvement in U.S.-Russia Relations

The Greek foreign minister sees a "very important moment" for engagement.

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The Europeans are closely watching to see how the Obama administration handles the giant on their doorstep, Russia.

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, in town this week for consultation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told U.S. News that she welcomed signs that the Obama administration is moving to patch up tensions with Russia that developed over recent years. "It is a very important moment. [Russian] President Medvedev said he's ready to engage with the United States," and the Obama administration is sending similar messages, she said. "My main message," she added, is that "we have to build more bridges.... For the Europeans, it is more or less clear Russia is a very important partner."

Bakoyannis is an important voice on European political and security matters because, during 2009, Greece chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Bakoyannis is the chairperson-in-office.

Europe and the United States, she said, need to keep focused on the aftermath of last summer's conflict between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because the situation there remains dangerous. "2008 has shown that there are no frozen conflicts," she warned. "We are wiser now. We know they can become hot very quickly."

The situation in Georgia is on the agenda during a three-day visit to Washington for meetings with Clinton and other senior U.S. officials. Bakoyannis emphasized working through the mechanism of past talks between Russia and Georgia sponsored by the OSCE, the European Union, and the United Nations.

Another potential trouble spot for Europe is Kosovo, which declared its independence with the backing of most Western countries about a year ago. "For the moment, it is in very, very bad shape," she said, adding that the priority now is to stabilize Kosovo's governmental institutions and economy. She also called for stronger efforts to integrate Serbia—"a new Serbia" that is democratic and led by people who opposed Slobodan Milosevic—into Europe, in part to "not leave a black hole" in the Continent.

Bakoyannis said the advent of the Obama administration had produced a moment of "very rare momentum" in U.S.-European relations. She welcomed Obama's decision to close the prison holding terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and said that Clinton's desire to listen to Asian partners on her just-completed Asia swing was "a very important message," even for Europe. "All the messages that have come through from the Obama administration have been very positively received in Europe," she said. "The will, at least from the European side, is absolutely there."