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Poles, Balts Seek Tough EU Stance On Russia

Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, "highly doubts" there will be sanctions against Russia
WARSAW -- Poland and the ex-Soviet Baltic states hope to stiffen the European Union's backbone in its stance on Russia at an emergency summit next week but fear Europe's heavy reliance on Russian energy will dilute the bloc's message.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, an outspoken critic of Moscow's assault on Georgia, has flown to Estonia to try to hammer out a joint position with the three Baltic republics ahead of the September 1 summit in Brussels.

"Today it is essential that the EU speaks with one voice that is strong and firm [on the Georgian conflict]," said Slawomir Novak, a senior aide to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Estonian President Toomas Ilves called for a review of the whole relationship with Russia, saying a partnership and cooperation accord now under negotiation should be shelved. "The hope that this crisis will simply pass and that we can go back to business as usual is very naive," he said in Berlin this week. "It is utopian to think of a partnership agreement with Russia now. If Georgia's territorial integrity is not guaranteed, then we're thrown back 40 years."

EU heavyweights France and Germany, have also upbraided Moscow over its military actions, its failure to recall all its troops from Georgia after a French-brokered cease-fire, and its recognition of the independence of two rebel Georgian provinces.

But Paris, Berlin, and Italy too have also stressed the need to maintain strong ties with Moscow, Europe's top energy supplier, sparking fears among ex-communist states that the EU will manage only tough rhetoric that lets Moscow off the hook.

At a Brussels news conference on August 28, Russia's envoy to the EU said he doubted the bloc would impose sanctions. "I highly doubt it might ever happen; it would be more to the detriment of the EU than to Russia," Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the EU, said.

Even some other ex-communist states such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, which both experienced Soviet invasions in the communist era, are wary about overreacting in a crisis that has again underlined EU divisions on how best to handle Russia.

Prague, in particular, does not want to provoke a major confrontation with Moscow that could harm its six-month presidency of the European Union, due to start in January.

Sanctions Option

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France, which currently holds the EU presidency, said on August 28 that the option of economic sanctions against Moscow was on the table, but he gave no details and many analysts say such a move would be counterproductive.

Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said dialogue must precede sanctions but said they should not be ruled out. "I am not a fan of sanctions. Now is the time for talks but we should have concrete moves in our pocket," Kwasniewski told Reuters in an interview, adding that Russian business might lobby the Kremlin to be more pragmatic if its interests were put at stake.

One measure mooted among officials is suspending talks on visa liberalization -- an issue dear to the Russian elite.

Poland also hopes to use the crisis to press for a stronger EU commitment to Ukraine, a large ex-Soviet republic that hopes one day to join the EU and NATO.

"Poland will want the EU summit to make the commitment to Ukraine and the Caucasus states as tangible as possible," said Pawel Swieboda, head of the demosEuropa think tank in Warsaw.

Some fear Moscow may try next to meddle in Ukraine, home to a large Russian-speaking population as well as to Russia's Black Sea fleet. Like Georgia, Ukraine has a pro-Western president keen to move his country away from Moscow's sphere of influence.

Poland has long championed membership of the Western clubs for Ukraine, which holds a summit with the EU on September 9.

Swieboda said Poland and the Balts might also push for renewed efforts to forge a common EU energy policy with the aim of reducing the bloc's reliance on Russian natural gas and oil.

A senior Lithuanian diplomat said Vilnius wanted to beef up EU humanitarian help to Georgia, including sending peacekeepers.

If the EU fails to translate its angry words on Russia into meaningful action, one long-term consequence could be that Central European member states will increasingly seek bilateral security deals with the United States, said Michal Thim of the Association for International Affairs in Prague.

"They will think it is the only guarantee against the potential threat posed by Russia," Thim said.

Poland and the Czech Republic have already triggered Russian ire with their decision to host a U.S. missile defence shield, seen by Moscow as a direct threat to its own national security.

Warsaw agreed to take part in the shield project only two weeks ago, as the Georgian crisis raged, a decision Moscow said proved it was really aimed against Russia. Washington says the shield is meant to protect against attack by "rogue states."