bne IntelliNews -
Russia is no doubt delighted to see the invitations to its May 9 event to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II illustrate the tensions in the EU over the ongoing geopolitical stand off. Nowehere is this more obvious than in Central Europe.
Slovak President Andrej Kiska announced on March 18 that he will turn down the invitation due to Russia's annexation of Crimea a year ago, as well as the conflict in East Ukraine. In contrast, Czech President Milos Zeman is once again courting controversy by agreeing to attend the event, which is expected to be boycotted by most western leaders.
"Considering the developments in Ukraine and Crimea, I don't want to take part in a celebration of army power at a military parade, but I do want to commemorate those who deserve it most from us, namely the soldiers who died in WWII," Kiska said according to TASR.
The contrasting stances highlight the way that Zeman, an opponent of sanctions on Russia, continues to disrupt the Czech government's attempt to show that the country is united in support of the EU stance against Russia. Meanwhile in Slovakia, Kiska - an independent and political novice who upset expectations by winning the presidential election in March 2014 - plays almost the opposite role. While he has clearly proclaimed his support for a strong EU policy towards Moscow, the Slovak government remains somewhat ambivalent.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on March 17 that Moscow expects Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico to attend, TASS news agency reported. However, Fico's spokeswoman Beatrice Szaboova refused to confirm, saying only that a decision on his participation has not yet been made.
Russia has invited 68 world leaders to participate in the celebrations. Among those who have confirmed they will attend are the Chinese, Indian, South African, Vietnamese, and North Korean, Lavrov says.
Poland and the Baltic states, which have been pushing for the EU to toughen its stance towards Russia for more than a year, will not be going to Moscow. "There is no way that the president of Poland would partake in this celebration … amid the continuing war in Ukraine," President Bronislaw Komorowski said on Polish television on March 17, according to Tass. Komorowski has instead invited Western leaders to an alternative commemoration in Gdansk on May 8, infuriating Moscow.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside several others, have said they will not attend the Russian event. However, at EU level there is little consensus. Countries such as Greece have already announced they plan to attend. Some suggest that the likely presence of other European leaders - including, according to the Russian press, delegations from France and the Netherlands - will strengthen speculation that EU commitment to maintaining sanctions against Russia is waning.
Merkel has said following talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Berlin that the issue of prolonging sanctions against Russia will be decided by June. Political discussions on the economic measures will be resumed at the European Council summit on March 19-20, with a focus on compliance with Minsk ceasefire agreements for the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
At the other end of the scale to Poland, Hungary is now one of Russia's staunchest allies in the European bloc, after signing deals on nuclear energy and gas in recent months. For the meantime, it seems Budapest is not especially keen to discuss the May 9 event. However, given Putin's controversial official visit to Hungary in February, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban's penchant for thumbing his nose at policymakers in Brussels, it may be safe to assume the plane is already booked.
Slovakia, previously a clear opponent of the West's stance on Russia, has been turning its foreign policy around in recent months. Pressure from Washington and Brussels, and Russia's insistence that it will divert gas flows headed to Europe away from Ukraine appear to have had a strong effect. Slovakia, which carries the gas westwards from the Ukraine border, would be the biggest loser in the EU should Moscow shift gas transit to the south as it claims it plans.
In September, Slovakia opposed some of the proposed EU sanctions against Russia relating to capital markets and the ban on exports of some dual-use goods and technologies. Moreover, it claimed the country could lose up to 10,000 jobs if Russia decides to respond to the EU's sanctions by banning car imports from Europe. However, it has since become a stalwart of the effort to send EU gas to Kyiv; the country has meanwhile reported Russian deliveries under its own contract have been cut.
However, the Slovak political establishment, and particularly the ruling Smer party, still has close ties to Moscow. On top of the clear pressure Moscow is able to exert via the energy sector, that makes policy - and therefore a flight to Moscow in May - a tricky call for Fico.
In the Czech Republic, former Social Democrat premier Zeman exhibits no such ambivalence. He has long been noted for his Russian links, and has raised fury with several controversial statements over recent months, including calling the conflict in Ukraine a "civil war". These comments have provoked a war of words between Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek and Prague Castle, with many claiming Zeman is actively seeking to undermine foreign policy.
Criticism at home over Zeman's planned attendence at the Moscow commemoration is growing as the date approaches. The Czech president, however, claims his absence would be disrespectful to the Russian soldiers who helped oust the Nazi regime.
Opposition politicians have urged the government to refuse to finance the president's trip. However the request, filed by former lower chamber speaker Miroslava Nemcova from the rightwing Civic Democrats, was declined by the Social Democrat-led government. Illustrating the difficulty of his position, Prime Minister - and sworn Zeman enemy - Bohuslav Sobotka insisted the government must follow protocol.
The government has been careful to try to tread a neutral line on Ukraine. Like Slovakia, it has supported EU sanctions after some initial hesitation, but Sobotka has questioned their usefulness, though not in such forthright terms as Fico. Voters for Zeman and the Social Democrats - who are increasingly found in the provinces - tend to be sceptical of sanctions and receptive to fears about the effect on the Czech economy.
In Prague, Zeman's decision to go to Moscow is only stoking the public anger that has been rising around the president for some time. A petition signed by 11,000 Czechs was delivered to the Senate on March 18 calling on the the upper house to investigate Zeman's actions and consider impeachment proceedings. According to the organisers, Zeman's opposition to sanctions against the Putin regime means the president is acting against the interests of the Czech Republic, reports Radio Praha.
The petition comes at a time when support for the increasingly controversial president is declining. A survey by STEM agency showed in February backing for Zeman fell to 43% from 57% four months earlier. Zeman's pro-Russian stance provoked street protests late last year. The president was booed and pelted with eggs during celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17.
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