Russia has stepped up its efforts to consolidate ties with governments and forces in EU countries sympathetic to Moscow, for historic or economic reasons, or both. The EurActiv network reports.
A recent visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Austria, only days ahead of a EU summit beginning today (26 June), is perceived by some member countries as an offense, EurActiv was told.
Western powers warned Russia yesterday that they could impose new sanctions if Moscow did not do more to defuse the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Many of the EU's member states are wary of antagonising their major energy supplier and concerned about Russian retaliation if they imposed tough trade sanctions on Russia.
So far, the EU has imposed limited measures, targeting 61 people in Russia and Ukraine with asset freezes and travel bans, as well as two energy companies in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, taken over by Moscow earlier this year.
Britain, France, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have pushed for tougher sanctions on Russia while Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Malta have been among the most reluctant EU states. Consequently, it appears as highly unlikely that EU members could adopt a decision to move to the third stage of sanctions aimed at particular sector of Russian economy.
On the occasion of Putin’s visit to Vienna, Gazprom, the Russian gas export monopoly signed a deal with OMV to build a branch of the South Stream gas pipeline to Austria, a staunch defender of the project in the face of opposition from the European Commission.
Italy, the largest client for gas from the South Stream pipeline, is spearheading efforts in support of South Stream on behalf of the countries through which the gas pipeline would pass. These are Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Greece.
Gazprom plans to start building the South Stream gas pipeline across Bulgarian territory, although the work was halted because of Brussels’ objections to the project accompanied by an infringement procedure against Sofia. The controversy seems to lead to the fall of Stanishev’s government.
In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán signed a €10 billion loan agreement with Russia to build two additional reactors in the country’s only nuclear central in the central city of Paks. The move to increase the country’s dependence from Russia was strongly criticised by the centre-left opposition and supported by the radical nationalist Jobbik party.
Russian companies play an important role in Bulgarian energy sector. Lukoil owns the country’s only refinery designed to exclusively process Russian crude oil. A number of Russian projects, as a nuclear power plant at the town of Belene, are under discussion.
Fearing consequences of sanctions
The Bulgarian socialists have recently adopted a resolution against further sanctions on Moscow in the context of the Ukraine crisis. The declaration says that Bulgaria should "not align with anyone’s position”, which appears to be distancing the country from its EU and NATO allies. Sergei Stanishev, the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist party, is also President of the Party of European Socialists.
In the Czech Republic, government position seem to have softened somewhat since April when Lubomír Zaorálek, minister for foreign affairs took a strong position towards Russia.
“I think the EU is much better prepared [for potential economic war] than Russia,” Zaorálek told EurActiv Czech Republic in an interview at that time.
Czech government that has been since then under intensive lobbying from Czech industrial companies appears to be more cautious in its official positions. According to social democratic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Moscow’s action in Ukraine is unacceptable, but Russia remains an important trade partner for European countries.
Although the sanctions were never questioned by the government, Tomáš Prouza, Czech State Secretary for European Affairs, warned this week against blanket economic sanctions. “If we get into economic war where we mutually pile up blocked commodities, there is no doubt that Russians will be able to escalate the situation faster than we do,” he said in an interview with EurActiv Czech Republic.
Prouza added that it made no sense to seek sanctions which would harm the EU as much as Russia. “If sanctions are meant to be a punishment for someone who violates international law, we need to search for such a type of sanctions that will really punish the one who should be punished, not the one who defends the law”, he said.
In case the EU needs to adopt more sanctions, it would make more sense to focus on investments or an access to financial market that are vital for Russia, Czech official explained.
Russia is only the seventh largest importer of Czech goods, but in recent years it has played an important role in export strategies of the government, which is concerned mainly about the future of engineering and automobile industry products in the Russian market.
Similar worries are voiced by Slovakia. Social democratic Prime Minister Robert Fico publicly warned that sanctions would have “brutal” consequences and could lower the Slovak GDP growth rate from 3, 1 % to 1 %, although it is not clear whether these number can be proved by any impact assessment.
‘Lobbying like hell’
German companies are reportedly “lobbying like hell” to avoid economic sanctions on Russia. According to critics, the German government cannot find strength to effectively oppose Russia, which may be due to the legacy of World War II. Some see it as a humiliation that the country’s former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder now works as a Gazprom high official.
The official promoting a policy of “understanding Moscow” is Gernot Erler who is the foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier's special coordinator for Russia. But politicians from forces outside the government advocate more than just “understanding” the Kremlin’s positions.
German Left Party's (Die Linke) top candidate and current president of the GUE/NGL group in the Parliament Gabi Zimmer repeatedly spoke in support of Russia in the context of the Ukraine crisis.
“It is good that we understand Russia. Only if we understand and talk to each other, political conflicts can be settled,” she said after being accused by her opponents of being pro-Putin.
"The EU has been doing everything wrong in recent months", said Zimmer. Regarding Ukraine, it was a mistake that the EU put pressure on Yanukovich to decide between it or Russia, Zimmer told EurActiv.de.
A few days before the referendum in Crimea, Bernd Lucke, party leader of the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD), publicly said that he recognized its results. Crimeans voted in free elections to join Russia, Lucke said, adding that he would give priority to the right of self-determination over territorial integrity.
Europe-wide, many far-right parties are speaking in favour of Putin's policy in the Ukraine. In Germany, this is the case of the far-right and fascist National Democratic Party (NPD). The party's newly elected MEP, Udo Voigt, criticises the EU and the US: "Both stir up resentment in Ukraine against Russia. After the Cold War, NATO has gradually expanded to the east. The US tried to move closer and closer to the Russian border, presenting a threatening stranglehold." "Russia's patience" in the face of NATO “provocations” is “astonishing“, Voigt said.
The French National front is the only political force to have applauded Putin's takeover of Crimea. Questioned by EurActiv France on the issue during the campaign, FN leader Marine Le Pen had said that the European government’s’ attitude towards Ukraine was questionable as Crimea was “historically part of Russia”.
The National Front has always been a strong fan of Vladimir Putin and his will to power. In 2007, Jean-Marie Le Pen had already planed to draw a new border for Europe, from Brest to Vladivostok, or what he called the "Boreal Continent".
The "new" National Front of Marine Le Pen has a slightly different view, based on ideology. Aymeric Chauprade, a university teacher newly elected as MEP for Ile de France, expressed it last June in a "Call to Moscow" pronounced at the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament. He called on Russia on to resist giving any rights to sexual minorities.
The message appears to have been well received in the Kremlin, as Orthodox anti-gay sentiments appear to be one of the ideological fundamentals of Putin’s Eurasian Union.