Cracks in EU Unity on Russia Sanctions Get Wider
Alex GORKA | 20.10.2017 | WORLD /

Cracks in EU Unity on Russia Sanctions Get Wider

When small countries are at one, their opinion starts to carry weight. In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the voices calling for changing the European policy on Russia are getting louder.

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said in an interviewwith BBC that the relations between the West and Russia should improve despite all the existing differences. She does not consider Moscow as an enemy. According to the president, the West is ready to meet Russia halfway but Moscow should be first to make steps aimed at normalizing the relationship. Estonia has always been a staunch advocate of tough stance on Russia, now it appears to soften its stance.

Speaking at the 137th meeting of Inter-Parliamentary Union in Saint Petersburg (Oct.14-18), Andrej Danko, Slovakia’s Speaker of Parliament, said that, despite the sanctions, the economic ties between the West and Russia are thriving. Many EU and US companies were involved in economic activities in the country. He also mentioned the existence of special relationship between Slav nations. Talking to Saint Petersburg’s governor Georgy Poltavchenko, the speaker emphasized the importance of cultural ties and the need to teach Russian language in Slovak schools.

As a result of Austrian legislative elections held on 15 October 2017, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) emerged as the largest party in the National Council. The winner is led by the country’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz who advocates normalizing the relations with Russia, including easing or lifting the EU sanctions. The Austria's right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) came in third place in the election, gaining 51 seats - only one seat less than the Social Democrats (SPÖ) with 52 seats. With the two current governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP, in a "deep dispute in every respect”, the Freedom Party has a good chance to join a ruling coalition. The party calls for lifting Russian sanctions and recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. FPÖ politicians have traveled to Crimea, demonstrating their opposition to the policy adopted by the EU.

The legislative election in the Czech Republic is scheduled to be held on October 20-21, 2017. Eurosceptic Andrej Babis, the second-wealthiest man in the country and the leader of ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) Party, ispoised to win. The party, which has attracted voters from both right and left, is pulling support away from traditional parties and is leading in polls. Babis opposes sanctions on Russia and seeks more trade with Moscow. He has previously called the Russia sanctions “nonsense.” The politician attacks the European Union and says NATO’s mission is outdated.

President Milos Zeman, a politician advocating friendly ties with Russia, has said that if ANO wins, he will name Babis prime minister. In a speech to the Council of Europe on October 10, Miloš Zeman deemed the sanctions ineffective and the reunion of Russia with Crimea “irreversible.”

On October 5, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev blasted the punitive measures as “harmful” for his country’s business.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has always strongly opposed the anti-Russia EU policy. In late August, the Hungarian leader welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Budapest as a guest of honor. During the visit, the Russian president announced that Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, would launch the construction of two new blocks at the Paks nuclear power plant in early 2018, a project valued at €10.8 billion. The Russia-Turkey Turkish Stream gas pipeline is to go via Bulgaria and Serbia to reach Hungary. When US President Donald Trump pledged to deliver US liquefied natural gas to CEE states in July, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto signed a road map agreement with Russian Gazprom. Despite its EU membership, Budapest is conducting business as usual with Moscow.

Croatia and Slovenia maintain good relations with Russia and call for easing the sanctions.

Poland is the only CEE country taking a tough stance against on Russia but it faces a conflict with the EU.

The desire to normalize the relations with Russia is evident. A Pro-Russian belt is being shaped in Eastern Europe as the sanctions hurt the countries of the region more than others. It’s not the relatively small states of CEE only. The German government had a sharp reaction to the round of sanctions imposed by the US Congress over Russian meddling in the US presidential elections in 2016. It has been lobbying for Nord Stream 2 gas project despite problems with EU legislation. German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has always been critical of Russia sanctions. Italy, Spain, Greece and Cyprus see the sanctions as a problem.

The trend is obvious. Russia sanctions are growing unpopular in the region. The process is gaining momentum because the punitive measures run counter to the national interests of CEE countries.