The International Herald Tribune reports:
As he prepares for a crucial meeting with top European Union officials that starts Thursday, President Vladimir Putin is finding out that his confrontational policies toward several European countries have unexpectedly united the 27-member bloc, diplomats said. EU foreign ministers agreed at pre-summit talks Monday in Brussels to postpone negotiations for a new trade accord with Russia after opposition from Poland and Lithuania. "Unless there is a major shift during the summit, Putin has miscalculated," said a top EU diplomat involved in the meeting in Samara, Russia, that will include Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president. "Putin assumed he could divide Europe by playing off Poland, Lithuania and Estonia against Germany or France so that he could get talks for the trade accord started," the diplomat, who requested anonymity, said. "The EU is sticking together because of his heavy-handedness. It is the exact opposite of what he had intended."
Merkel, who intends to confront Putin on human rights and press freedom issues, was not prepared to isolate the new member states to launch the trade talks. She and other EU leaders are also frustrated with Putin's refusal to endorse independence for Kosovo and his sharp criticism of U.S. plans to deploy elements of its antimissile shield in Eastern Europe. But the core of the dispute between Russia and the EU is Russia's reluctance to accept an enlarged EU that includes those East European countries once in Moscow's sphere. "Russia never accepted this enlargement," said Pawel Swieboda, director of demosEuropa, an independent research center in Warsaw. "He sees how the new members have begun to change the EU's external policy."
Before the 10 formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe joined the EU in May 2004, foreign policy was set by the older, powerful member states. While the bloc sought to devise a strategy for partnership with Russia, Berlin, Paris and Rome pursued their own national interests, particularly in signing energy contracts with Gazprom, Russia's giant state-owned gas giant. When the new members joined, their interests were hardly taken into account. "The integration of the new member states into the EU's foreign policy was not taken seriously," said Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Studies in Sofia. "Some of the old member states believed it would be business as usual with Russia. France and Germany did not want EU foreign policy to be held hostage by any new member state." The so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine in December 2005 changed that. During the standoff between the pro-western leader, Viktor Yushchenko, and Viktor Yanukovich, whom Putin supported, the Polish and Lithuanian presidents mediated.
"Putin resented this interference by the EU because Ukraine was regarded as Russia's sphere of influence," said Pavol Demes, director of the Slovak office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "The implications of an enlarged EU were becoming evident." Since 2005, Polish and Lithuanian diplomats say Russia has sought revenge by imposing a ban on Polish meat imports worth €350 million, or $473 million, a year, and by temporarily halting oil deliveries to Lithuania. Until these issues are resolved, Poland and Lithuania will continue to block the start of the new trade accord with Russia. The European Commission has stood by both countries. "We have made it clear to Russia that these are EU, not bilateral, issues," said the EU diplomat. Putin's use of energy as a political tool also spurred several of the new member states, heavily dependent on Russia for their energy needs, to challenge the EU to establish a common energy policy.
The EU started to take their concerns seriously in January 2006 when Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine, a major transit country for Russian gas to Europe, and a year later when Russia stopped oil deliveries to Belarus. "The energy issue is crucial for establishing what kind of relationship we want with Russia," said Marcel de Haas, a security expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. "Many of the big countries continue to forge new energy contracts with Russia. But this issue will not go away because of our dependence on Russian energy." Despite this dependence and the way individual member countries make their own deals with Russia, the EU will this week delay starting the new trade talks until Russia's disputes between Poland and Lithuania are resolved. Petras Vaitiekunas, Lithuania's foreign minister, welcomed this solidarity. "If the strategic partnership with Russia is important for the European Union, it is twice as important for the member states who are Russia's neighbors," he said. "We are the first to win or to suffer when EU-Russia relations change."