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Russia: Putin Reception Uncertain At EU Summit

  • Jeffrey Donovan

http://gdb.rferl.org/2F4246B4-E254-43D0-BA7D-BDB250B0E76E_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/2F4246B4-E254-43D0-BA7D-BDB250B0E76E_mw800_mh600.jpg Look who's coming to dinner (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, October 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to be the unofficial guest of honor at the October 20 European Union summit in Lahti, Finland.

Not everyone's thrilled about that. Diplomats, analysts, and commentators have complained this week that Finland, the current holder of the EU presidency, should never have invited Putin.



European diplomats have been quoted as saying the Kremlin leader will simply use the stage to exploit EU divisions toward Russia -- divisions heightened by the recent killing of Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya and by tensions between Moscow and Georgia.


Echoing that view, Polish analyst Eugeniusz Smolar, the president of the Warsaw Institute for International Relations, said the meeting with Putin "is rather premature. The members of the European Union should concentrate on getting some elements of common energy policy and common foreign and security policy -- before we talk to them."


EU Divide


A unified European policy toward Russia has long been elusive. Still, there have been signs, including at an EU foreign ministers' summit this week, that the EU is starting to find a more common voice.

"It would be rather disturbing and counterproductive if Germany, one-sidedly, would agree to some element of policy vis-a-vis Russia without waiting for the whole European Union to agree on that."


Individual states, with Germany in the lead, have often pursued their own interests with Moscow on issues such as energy. Poland and other EU states accuse Berlin of failing to consider their own interests, and ignoring Russian human rights violations, when dealing with Moscow.


Smolar says that to some extent, Russia has been able to use a "divide and conquer" policy toward the EU. He says Moscow has been able to reach deals with individual EU countries, particularly on energy with Germany, that to some extent have ended up pitting EU states against one another.


The Polish analyst says that the issue has become pressing ahead of the meeting in Finland and in light of next month's EU-Russia summit and Germany assuming the EU presidency in January.


"Human rights, respect for minority rights, problems with Chechnya, relations with Georgia -- this is something that's called European Neighborhood Policy. And Germany is preparing its position on the European Neighborhood Policy, which all countries of the European Union must agree with," Smolar says. "So it would be rather disturbing and counterproductive if Germany, one-sidedly, would agree to some element of policy vis-a-vis Russia without waiting for the whole European Union to agree on that."


Criticism


But at their meeting on October 17 in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers appeared to reach fresh consensus on Russia, criticizing the Kremlin for the economic blockade and other measures it has imposed on Georgia.


The move is a departure from the neutrality the EU has maintained since Moscow retaliated after Georgia's recent arrest of four Russian officers on spying charges.


Erkki Tuomioja, foreign minister of current EU chair Finland, used the occasion to play down the media reports of divisions among EU states on Russia.


"I am happy to say that the ministers had no trouble whatsoever, we were able to conclude [the discussion] and did not need to discuss the conclusions at all, there was total unanimity on them -- and on the thinking behind them. So much for the divided European Union," Tuomioja says.


EU officials in Luxembourg have been quick to stress that the union doesn't want to damage its long-term relations with Russia. Nonetheless, could the recent EU criticism indicate a possible change in the way Brussels approaches Moscow?


Journalist Murder


For example, outrage over the killing of Russian journalist Politkovskaya greeted Putin on his visit to Germany last week. Joerg Himmelreich, an expert in the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told RFE/RL that he believes the protests were significant.


German demonstrators hold pictures of Politkovskaya during Putin's visit on October 11 (epa)

"We have seen the first demonstrations in Germany ever since a Russian president came to Germany, blaming Putin as a murderer. I think this is going in a different direction," Himmelreich says. "Of course, it remains to be seen to what extent we really can find a new policy; but I think we already have [seen] the kind of change in public opinion on Russia [that] is quite remarkable, particularly here in Germany and particularly to the importance of German-Russian relations [for] the EU approach toward Russia."


Himmelreich says that under the Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany appears to be turning away from the Russian policies of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder. The Social Democratic former chancellor once called Putin "an impeccable democrat." Schroeder now heads a German-Russian energy consortium led by Gazprom, the huge Russian state-controlled oil company.


Merkel, by contrast, is seen as more critical of Russia and accommodating of the positions of Poland and other new EU states, which view Moscow with suspicion.


While in Germany last week, Putin made Merkel a tantalizing offer to provide Berlin with gas from Russia's Shtokman field. Instead, Merkel signed an energy treaty with France on balancing energy relations between the EU and Russia.


Himmelreich says that move underscores Merkel's new direction, which could prove key to the EU's policy toward Russia when Berlin assumes the bloc's rotating presidency on January 1.


"Chancellor Merkel will definitely try to find a common EU approach toward Russia. And there's already a strong indication that Europe will matter much more in the German approach to Russia, that Europe and the [EU] constitution question is the key topic of the German EU presidency in the first half of 2007," Himmelreich says. "That's an indication that shows how strongly an overall European approach toward Russia matters for Chancellor Merkel."


Whether that approach will be on display at Friday's summit remains to be seen. But perhaps Putin won't be able to proclaim, with a clever smile, that he has heard a variety of voices around the EU dinner table -- as some EU diplomats have feared.


(RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas contributed to this report)

Russia And Georgia
Beefed up security outside Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi on September 27 (InterPressNews)

NOT ALL WINE AND ROSES. Moscow's relations with Tbilisi since the collapse of the Soviet Union have often been tense and strained. Among the issues that have made the relationship difficult are Moscow's alleged support for the breakaway Georgia regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the continued presence of Russia troops on Georgian territory. Periodically, Georgian lawmakers propose withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) altogether. RFE/RL has written extensively about the rocky relationship between these two countries.


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