Yeltsin treasures spoils of diplomacy

Art in demand: Russian leader meets Kohl over looted war artefacts as Moscow's museums suffer at the hands of the mafia
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Clutching a selection of looted art treasures, Boris Yeltsin flew to Germany yesterday for a bout of high-profile bonhomie and backroom bartering with his "friend", Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The art works, to be presented today as "gifts" to their rightful owners, the German people, are expected to be the sweetener in tough negotiations over Nato's encroachment into former Soviet dominions. But the gesture has been soured by howls of protest in Moscow over the Russian President's unorthodox cultural exchange.

Mr Yeltsin wants to return all the spoils plundered by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War, as agreed by the two countries seven years ago. He has vetoed a decision by the Duma, the lower house of parliament, to keep the controversial artefacts on Russian soil.

His blocking move was rejected by a second Duma vote earlier this month, but yesterday the Federation Council, the upper house, put off consideration of the issue for a month.

Opposition politicians in Moscow argue that the war booty should stay in Russia because it was Russia, after all, which had won the war. Or, as the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky so eloquently put it: "The Germans are fascists, 20th-century barbarians ... We should have occupied the whole of Germany, taken out all industry and shot Germans."

As one might infer from those words, Mr Zhirinovsky is not in favour of restoring a single Goya or Durer to its pre-war ownership.

Not all Russians would go quite that far, but even mainstream politicians believe that Germany must continue to pay in some way for the destruction wrought during the war.

In an open letter to Chancellor Kohl, the Duma's leading art adviser, Yevgeny Ussenko, claims that German troops caused damage amounting to $1.3bn (pounds 810m) in today's money to Russian culture. "Compared to these losses, the German works of art taken to Russia were insignificant compensation," Professor Ussenko wrote.

The works, hidden by the Nazis in the vaults of country manors and castles, were tracked down at the end of the war by special detachments of the NKVD, the KGB's predecessor.

They include sculpture, ceramics, and archeological treasures as well as paintings. Some were returned to East Germany in the Communist era, but most of the loot remained locked in Russian cellars until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Two years ago Moscow's Pushkin museum displayed for the first time 63 paintings by European masters in an exhibition entitled "Twice Rescued" - a tongue-in cheek reference to their "rediscovery" under Russian curators' feet. All the works had come from the "war collection".

The row about the war booty, which both countries thought they had settled in their Friendship Treaty in 1990, remains the biggest obstacle to an amicable relationship. Art history is expected to take up much valuable time at today's discussions between the two leaders - time they would rather spend haggling about Russia's place in European security.

As an avid fan of Nato's eastward expansion as well as the self-appointed champion of Russian interests in the West, Chancellor Kohl is as close as one can find to an honest broker. Mr Yeltsin knows he cannot stop Nato creeping ever closer to his borders, but he is relying on the German leader to press for an accommodation which will not undermine Russia's security and pride.

Today's meeting is likely to offer the last opportunity to reach an agreement on guarantees to Russia in exchange for Moscow's nod towards Nato's plans. Russia hopes to sign a document elevating it to a Nato "partner" at the end of next month, and in July the Atlantic alliance is expected to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to submit their membership applications.