The great Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova invented, to the joy of philologists, the word "un-meeting." Her invention suits very well the function planned at the end of this week, when French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are set to arrive in Moscow.
The Russian public has been wondering if it will be a meeting of "the European Big Three," similar to those held during the drawn-out choice between a peaceful and a military solution to the Iraqi crisis. Or will there be two separate summits?
German Ambassador to Russia Hans Friedrich von Ploetz recently said no tripartite meeting would be held, as when the German chancellor arrives in Russia on his short working visit (April 2), the French president will be leaving. However, Chirac has shifted his visit, for internal reasons, to April 3, and utterly confused everyone.
But there is no reason to worry because there is no special need for a tripartite meeting. The state leaders solve many problems just as ordinary people do, over the phone. Nothing much will change if Vladimir Putin talks with his European colleagues consecutively and not simultaneously.
But the excitement this provoked in the Russian political community is notable. It shows that many people in Moscow are pinning their hopes on interaction between Europe's three largest countries because it would be beneficial for the solution of certain international problems, some of which are of particular interest to Russia.
Indeed, what could be the agenda of the Moscow meeting - or un-meeting? One could point to at least two major problems: relations between Russia and Europe and between the West and the Muslim world.
The issue of Russia-Europe relations dates back several centuries. Europe has, in essence, always refused to understand that Russia will never become a 100% West European country, while Russia has refused to accept that this is why the West does not recognise it as "one of the family." So, what should they do in this situation? Keep a distance from each other or interact more energetically?
The problem has recently taken the form of trade disputes connected with the results of EU enlargement and NATO expansion, though it is as yet another crisis of morals and values of two European sub-civilisations. Russian politicians speak about new dividing lines in Europe, while Europeans call Russians "aliens" in terms of political traditions and style. And all this is proceeding against the backdrop of disputes about the constitution of united Europe and contradictions between the old and the new and the big and the small EU members.
Optimists in the EU try to console Moscow by saying that EU enlargement will bring the EU and Russia "closer to each other." Pessimists in Russia say the joy will be questionable since it will take NATO warplanes only 5 minutes to reach St Petersburg. And trade debates make the picture completely unintelligible. As a result, trust between the two halves of Europe has been undermined and something must be done urgently before the EU-Russia summit in Moscow to prevent a deep and drawn-out crisis.
Put simply, we should normalise our relations in a form that will suit the general public. Russians should believe in Europe again and see that disputes cannot overshadow the fact that all of us are residents of the same European home and can discuss our problems over a cup of coffee in the corner bar and not through an iron curtain. Or the sides can agree to simplify their visa regimes or take some other similar steps that would give the negotiators a chance to keep bargaining without the public breathing down their necks.
One more problem that calls for emergency attention of the European leaders is Kosovo. Everything in the former Yugoslavia in the past five years has been a serious trial for East-West relations in Europe. Russia has forgotten none of the events of 1999 and subsequent years, as is clearly seen now that everyone knows Moscow was right in 1999 while Europe supported the wrong side in the Kosovo conflict. Russians will never understand how it could take the side of the Kosovo Albanians, who had been consistently, from one year to another, seizing other people's territory and creating military organisations to force locals from their homes. Russians will never understand how Europe could support their regime for five years, which has now resulted in yet another (and possibly not the last one) ethnic cleansing campaign.
We must begin from scratch in Kosovo, formulating the new goals and methods. This is a task for such leaders as Chirac, Schroeder and Putin.
And lastly, there is a larger problem and it does not concern the Middle East or Iraq alone, but Europe's relations with the Muslim world as a whole. Its roots go back centuries. The Iraqi war has left these relations in a deadlock. The Middle East initiative of President George Bush, who hoped to inoculate Muslim countries with the Western model of democracy, was stillborn. We know now what we should not have done. But what should we do? There are no ideas about the key knot of world politics - relations between the outraged Muslim and the frightened Christian worlds. And the three European leaders could at least proclaim the need to search for fundamentally new solutions.
If they invent something new for any of the above problems, we shall have the right to say that the European Trio will survive as a fact of international political life without formal regular summits as long as the three leaders have a common political philosophy.