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Putin Romances Central Europe

By Daisy Sindelar and Jeremy Bransten --> President Putin (left) with Czech President Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle (epa) PRAGUE, March 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Making his first official visits to Hungary and the Czech Republic, Russian President Vladimir Putin is shoring up his country's reputation as a stable energy provider, following its controversial gas shutoff to Ukraine in early January.

Reconciliation was one dominant theme of the Russian president's Central European tour.

Putin's trip to Hungary was the first by a Russian leader since 1992. It also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the uprising in which thousands of Hungarians were killed by Soviet troops.

Speaking alongside President Laszlo Solyom, Putin on February 28 acknowledged the pain and anger that many Hungarians still feel about the events of 1956. But, he suggested, it is a time for looking forward rather than to the past: "Today's modern Russia is not the same as the Soviet Union used to be. I have to say, sincerely, that we all feel in our souls the moral responsibility for those events."

Putin expressed similar sentiments on March 1 in the Czech capital Prague. He called the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of the former Czechoslovakia a "tragedy." Putin spoke again of Russians feeling "moral responsibility" for the invasion, in which Soviet tanks crushed reforms known as the "Prague Spring." But he said the past should not cloud present and future relations.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who repeatedly called for "pragmatism" in bilateral relations, said he felt the same way: "I don't see any reason today on March 1, 2006, I should try to settle with President Putin what [Leonid] Brezhnev's Soviet Union did in August 1968. We both know about it and understand it. It was an exceptionally tragic moment for us, but I am for a positive outlook on the present and the future."

New Partnerships

Putin said one good way to achieve this positive outlook was by forging new partnerships -- particularly in the energy sector, the heart of Russia's political focus during its chairmanship this year of the G8 group of major industrialized nations.

Putin has been eager to reassure consumer nations that Russia remains a stable energy supplier despite its decision in early January to cut off natural gas shipments to Ukraine following a price dispute.

Putin offered Europe reassurances. But he also had a warning. The Russian president said that when he hears European countries express concern at their dependence on Russian oil and gas, they should not forget that Russia is equally dependent on its European customers. In view of this, he said, Russia may also seek to diversify its export markets.

"The more our partners depend on us the more we depend on them and we will also think about diversifying our supplies. But as far as Europe is concerned, we will act with utmost responsibility with European partners as with everyone else and diversify transport options and work together with all of our partners, in the world and in Europe," Putin said.

Nuclear Plans

Putin stressed Russia's interest in joint projects with Europe in the field of nuclear power: "Russia is interested in broadening cooperation in the area of nuclear energy. We are ready to provide assistance in building new energy systems and upgrading the existing ones."

Russia is bidding for contracts to modernize Hungary's Soviet-era nuclear power plants and is also seeking to modernize the aging Czech nuclear power station at Dukovany.

Putin urged European countries to open their markets to Russian investment in the electricity sector.

Despite the warm tone of Putin's visit to Prague, some Czech lawmakers have protested the Russian visit, criticizing Putin's KGB background and the government's apparent retreat from democratic reforms. The Czech newspaper "Mlada Fronta Dnes" today published a letter coauthored by former Czech President Vaclav Havel calling on the world not to overlook Russia's policies in Chechnya.

Petr Kratochvil, deputy director of the Institute for International Relations in Prague, says many average Czechs continue to view Moscow with suspicion. But he says Russian officials have come to view the Czech government as a compatible partner in a sometimes hostile region: "All of them somehow perceived East Central Europe as being divided into these two groups. There's what they call the 'northern tier' -- Poland and the Baltic countries. And there's the 'southern tier' -- the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary -- which is much less critical of Putin's policies, both domestic and external."

As if to prove the point, the president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, traveled on February 28 to Ukraine, where he reaffirmed his country's support for Kyiv's pro-Western ambitions.

Meeting with his counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, Kaczynski pledged to act as a personal "spokesman" of Ukraine's ambitions to follow the path of its western neighbors in joining NATO and the EU.