Veto problem on EU-Russia treaty getting bigger

Andrew Rettman
February 26, 2007

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – Poland and Lithuania are becoming more deeply entrenched in a blockade on launching EU talks on a new treaty with Russia, as the clock ticks toward the next EU-Russia summit in Samara on 18 May.

When EU leaders met Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last November, the conversation was about meat and murder – the Russian embargo on Polish meat exports and the poisoning of ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko – with the treaty launch party put on ice.

Four months later, Moscow has still not set a date for lifting its export ban and Poland has not lifted its veto on treaty talks, leaving Brussels and Moscow stuck with an out-of-date “PCA” agreement drafted in the early 1990s and set to expire in November 2007.

No one can rule out that Russia will back down on meat and Poland will lift its blockade before May, with some Polish experts worried that Warsaw would face political “odium” in Brussels if it did not automatically react to a friendly gesture from Moscow.

But Polish officials are signalling the situation is not so simple, with Warsaw still interested in putting a clause into the EU treaty mandate allowing any EU capital to trigger suspension of talks in future if Russia does not play ball on bilateral trade or energy interests with EU members.

On top of this, some Polish officials are widening the veto discussion to encompass the EU’s internal negotiations on a new common energy policy, with Warsaw concerned at lack of EU solidarity on issues such as the German-Russian plan to build a gas pipeline bypassing Poland and Lithuania.

“Our veto was put in place for two reasons, not just the meat embargo but also energy relations. We are now negotiating the whole package of EU energy relations, conditions of security of supply, the question of the internal energy market,” Polish undersecretary of state Krzysztof Szczerski said in Warsaw last week. “These two things are connected.”

The druzhba problem
Meanwhile, Lithuania – the only EU state to publicly back Poland’s veto strategy so far – is threatening to add a veto of its own in order to get Brussels to help break Russia’s oil supply blockade on Mazeikiu Nafta, the only petrol refinery in the Baltic states.

Last July, Russia switched off a branch of its Druzhba pipeline supplying Mazeikiu, forcing the firm to pay more to bring in oil by sea in a situation that is seriously impacting the unit’s competitiveness in the cut-throat consumer petrol station business.

Russia said it needs to make technical repairs to the branch pipe. But Vilnius sees it as political punishment for selling the company to Polish firm PKN Orlen instead of a Russian company, with Lithuanian officials sceptical Moscow will ever reopen the Druzhba link by itself.

“I’m sorry but Lithuanians can become Poles – there’s an idea to block the [EU-Russia treaty] mandate,” Lithuanian undersecretary of state, Zygimantas Pavilionis, said in Vilnius on Friday (23 February). “[The treaty] will have to wait until the Russians stop playing games with our oil.”

Lithuania has been asking the European Commission and the Finnish and German EU presidencies for eight months to raise the subject with Moscow, he explained. But the issue has never been put on the agenda of high-level bilateral meetings such as the last EU-Russia “trojka” on 5 February.

“If we take for granted that Nord Stream [the German-Russian pipeline] will be built, we need guarantees there will be no gas intimidation, no Druzhba problems,” another senior Lithuanian diplomat told EUobserver. “The EU is saying to us ‘don’t you dare join the Polish veto.’ Come on! What do we have to do to get attention?”

Cold War not forgotten
In terms of political climate, Lithuanian leaders have in the past avoided criticising Russia, with the Lithuanian establishment still full of ex-communist party men who take a more canny view of Kremlin posturing than the ex-Solidarity activists currently in power in Poland.

Ex-communist Lithuanian prime minister Gediminas Kirkilas said Putin’s harsh speech in Munich two weeks ago is just hot air designed to please the army ahead of Russia’s 2008 selection of a new president, with Mr Putin talking about a new arms race sparked by US and NATO expansionist “provocation.”

“The stones and concrete blocks of the Berlin Wall have long been distributed as souvenirs,” Mr Putin said on 10 February 2007. “Now [the US and NATO] are trying to impose new dividing lines and walls on us – these walls may be virtual but they are nevertheless dividing, ones that cut through our continent.”

But in wider Lithuanian society, as in Poland and many former communist EU states, there is deep mistrust of the current Russian administration, with memories still fresh of the bloody struggle to establish independence and democracy in the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In Lithuania, tour guides take visitors to the TV tower in the heart of Vilnius where on 13 January 1991 Russian soldiers shot 13 peaceful protesters and drove a tank over a young woman called Loretta on live television. Home-made wooden crosses in the snow mark the spot today.