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Yeltsin, Kohl to hold sensitive talks on NATO and ‘trophy art’

April 16, 1997

MOSCOW (AP) _ Despite their long friendship, President Boris Yeltsin and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl could have trouble finding common ground when they discuss NATO’s expansion and the status of World War II ``trophy art.″

Yeltsin flew to Germany today amid signs he may defy the wishes of the Russian parliament and carry with him a token piece of ``trophy art″ to return to Kohl.

Such a gesture would reflect Yeltsin’s efforts to remain friends with Kohl, but by itself it won’t be enough to settle a heated debate that’s been taking place in both countries.

Russians and Germans both believe their countries have legitimate claims to the thousands of art treasures seized by conquering Soviet troops at the end of the war.

Germans argue that the art work is part of their national heritage and was looted in violation of international law. Many Russians argue that the works are rightfully theirs, small compensation for the 20 million people they lost in what they call the Great Patriotic War.

``Yeltsin and Kohl are wise politicians who have found balanced, mutually acceptable solutions to complicated problems many times,″ Mikhail Shvydkoi, Russia’s deputy culture minister, was quoted as saying today by the Interfax news agency.

But Shvydkoi also said that Russia has ``given away enough already,″ a reference to the cultural items returned years ago to the former East Germany.

Yeltsin said Tuesday that he would take ``several pieces″ to Germany, but he did not say of what. The president, accompanied by his wife and eldest daughter, landed today in Stuttgart and headed for nearby Baden-Baden, where he was to meet with Kohl on Thursday.

Yeltsin’s statement provoked a scathing attack on the Germans by ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who accused him of returning contested art works to a nation of ``fascists, 20th-century barbarians.″

``They have destroyed 26 million Russian citizens through shootings and wars and diseases. And the Russians have to pay, it turns out? We, the descendants of those who fought, have to pay the Germans?,″ Zhirinovksy said.

``We should have occupied the whole of Germany, taken out all industry and shot Germans until we destroyed 26 million, one for each Russian.″

Russia’s upper house of parliament was expected to override a Yeltsin veto and approve a bill that would ensure that most of the trophy art remains in Russia. The vote took place today but results were not scheduled to be released until Thursday.

The lower house of parliament has already overridden Yeltsin’s veto, and if the upper house follows suit as expected, the measure will become law despite the president’s objections.

The new law doesn’t ban the return of trophy art, but establishes such complex procedures that most of it would be certain to stay put.

Yeltsin would prefer to negotiate directly with Kohl on the status of the trophy art, which includes priceless works by the likes of Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Francisco Goya and Eugene Delacroix.

NATO’s planned eastward expansion is also expected to take up much of the discussion. Russia is opposed to NATO expanding into Eastern Europe and is trying to negotiate a deal that would give it a voice in the security alliance.

The two sides hope to work out an agreement before a NATO summit in July, when invitations to new members are expected to be sent out.

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