Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a commemorative visit to Slovenia on July 30, visiting a memorial to Russian prisoners of war who died in the winter of 1916, as well as holding talks with Slovenian President Borut Pahor.
While both Putin and Pahor stressed that it was purely a commemorative visit, there is speculation that this is part of Moscow’s ongoing campaign to reach out to EU member states with a potentially softer outlook towards Russia in a bid to persuade the bloc to relax sanctions imposed in 2014.
Putin said the visit had been initiated for “historical and commemorative reasons”, but noted it offered an opportunity to discuss the entire spectrum of Slovenian-Russian relations as well as Russia's relations with the EU and Nato, given that Slovenia is a member of both.
He said that trade had unfortunately declined with the EU as well as the US, but noted that the EU had had much higher trade volumes than the US and had accordingly been more affected by the sanctions.
"Despite the difficulties, we maintain intensive political contact. However, unfortunately, we have seen a decline in our trade and economic relations of late; trade has fallen by more than 45%," Putin said according to a statement on the Kremlin's website.
"[T]rade declines are not good news, of course. That is why I am especially grateful to you for the opportunity to talk about what we can do today to maintain our economic and trade ties and to find new ways to develop our relations," the Russian president added.
Several Moscow-based EU diplomats quoted by Reuters claimed Russia's tactic of methodically lobbying southern and eastern EU member states is starting to seriously erode the bloc's unity on the issue.
Italy, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria are among Moscow's prime targets, diplomats said.
Sanctions were imposed by the EU and other western countries after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and a pro-Russian separatist revolt broke out in eastern Ukraine. Russia has imposed counter-sanctions.
Pahor told journalists that the distance between Russia and Slovenia as an EU and Nato member had widened in recent years, Slovenian Press Agency (STA) reported.
"My wish is to try in a peaceful manner to remove the reasons for divergences... The freedom-loving world needs the cooperation of everyone," said Pahor.
Outside the EU, Russia was Slovenia’s export top destination in 2015 even though a negative trend has been present since 2013, when 18.9% of Slovenia’s total exports of goods to EU non-member countries went to Russia. After peaking in 2013, the share went down to 18.4% the following year and declined further to 14.3% in 2015. According to Slovenia’s ambassador to Moscow Primoz Seligo Slovenia-Russia trade dropped by 30% in 2015 due to the sanctions policy, the decline in world oil prices and ruble exchange rate fluctuations.
Meanwhile, Russian Tass quoted Russian Telecommunications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov, who co-chairs on the Russian side the intergovernmental commission, saying that shrinking of the Russian-Slovenian trade turnover is “not dramatic” and a return to growth in bilateral trade is achievable. He said he believes increasing trade turnover to €2bn a year is quite realistic, as this level was registered a few years ago.
He added that the Russian counter-sanctions concerned a "very concrete sphere", adding that they did not pose any obstacles for cooperation in other areas.
Russia and Slovenia have more than 30 large projects supervised by the intergovernmental commission, Nikiforov said.
Russian companies have shown interest in building a railway line worth €1.5bn in Slovenia, he added.
Russia’s Sputnik reported that Moscow sees the expansion of agreements on Russian oil and gas supply to Slovenia as “promising”.
"Promising areas of cooperation are expansion of gas network in Slovenia, inclusion of Russian oil and gas companies in the consumers network on the Slovenian territory, promotion of Slovenia-based facilities for oil and oil products transfer, supply of Russian energy equipment for Slovenian power plants," materials previewing the Russian presidential visit to Slovenia said on July 30, according to Sputnik.
Putin’s visit was dedicated to the centenary of the Russian Chapel, a memorial site below the Vrsic mountain pass dedicated to Russian prisoners of war who were buried in a avalanche in winter 1916, while building a strategically important supply route to the Isonzo front for the Austro-Hungarians.
On July 30, the presidents unveiled a memorial in Ljubljana to Russian and Soviet soldiers who died on Slovenian territory during both world wars. The monument comprises a colonnade of eight marble pillars of different height, the highest five metres tall, in a semi-circular arrangement topped by bronze cranes. The names of 3,000 soldiers killed on Slovenian territory are inscribed into the marble.