Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Invited Guest

On October 20, 25 European heads of state will gather in Lahti, just north of Helsinki, Finland, for an informal summit meeting and dinner which is intended in part to pave the way for the EU-Russia summit that is to be held in Helsinki on November 24.

Putin’s Lahti invitation came from Finland’s President Tarja Halonen. Coming directly in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Anna Politkovskaya, this invitation looks distinctly like a diplomatic error. Moreover, a number of European countries are concerned about how Putin will exploit the meeting, which is likely to reveal splits and differences among the members.

On October 15, the FT published a report by George Parker in Brussels, underscoring the uneasiness felt by many at the prospect of Putin’s presence at the event. An excerpt:

Mr Putin’s visit is expected to dominate the Lahti summit in Finland and has left some European leaders fearing the event could become a toe-curling exhibition of EU disunity in its relations with Moscow.

The Finnish EU presidency hopes Mr Putin’s visit will help to prepare the ground for next month’s EU-Russia summit, which will herald the start of talks on a new “strategic partnership” between the two neighbours, particularly in the energy field.

But some diplomats fear the Friday night dinner will see Europe’s 25 leaders promoting their own national interests, giving Mr Putin first-hand proof that the EU cannot act as a single powerful negotiating partner.

“You can easily imagine him saying with a smile at the end of the dinner that he has heard lots of different voices around the table,” said one EU diplomat. “That would be a disaster for the EU.”

Russia has proved adept at exploiting European divisions in the past, striking bilateral gas deals with several countries including Germany, and building warm relations with Paris. New member states such as Poland favour a much tougher relationship with Moscow.

The EU has many issues to raise, including the recent clash between Moscow and Royal Dutch Shell over the oil company’s alleged environmental breaches in the Sakhalin field and the decision of Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, to reject foreign partners in the Shtokman project.

Matti Vanhanen, Finland’s prime minister, is also likely to raise concerns about tensions between Russia and Georgia and over the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

“The timing of this is awful,” admitted another diplomat. “We are making Putin the guest of honour and giving him a platform to give us a lecture on Gazprom and environmental policy.”

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