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19th Oct 2019

Feature

Invitations sent out for next EU-Russia 'summit'

  • EU leaders with Putin and Poroshenko at a mini-plenary in the Asia summit in Milan (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Russia’s Vladimir Putin became persona non grata in EU capitals when he annexed Crimea.

They didn’t blacklist him. But, in March, EU leaders decided to “cancel the next EU-Russia summit” and to “not hold bilateral regular meetings”.

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The ban doesn’t cover multilateral events, like the recent EU-Asia summit in Italy, or special events, like the earlier D-Day memorial in Deauville, France.

It also doesn’t stop EU leaders from politicking with him in the margins.

They held four bilaterals and a mini-plenary at the EU-Asia event, dominating media coverage.

The next unofficial EU-Russia 'summit' will be in the Czech Republic and in Poland on 26 and 27 January.

The Czech event will mark the Terezin Declaration.

Nazi Germany created a Jewish ghetto in the Czech town of Terezin. The declaration is a promise by 46 states, including Russia, to conserve Holocaust monuments.

The Polish solemnities will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a concentration camp where the Nazis killed 1.1 million people, most of them Jews.

Leaders will be in the Czech Republic on 26 January and on the morning of 27 January before moving to Auschwitz.

Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko have already confirmed they will go to Prague Castle.

The Czech foreign ministry also expects the British, French, German, and US leaders to be there.

The Poles have notified about 40 embassies - including EU states, the US, Russia, and Ukraine - in Warsaw to send national delegates.

Confirmations are expected closer to the date.

It’s not about the VIPs

Russian and Ukrainian soldiers from the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front opened the gates of Auschwitz at about 3pm on 27 January 1945.

It was mostly deserted.

There were a few thousand inmates left. But the Germans had fled and taken most of the prisoners with them.

The Soviet Union’s subsequent oppression of eastern Europe never stopped the Czechs or Poles from inviting Russian VIPs to WWII anniversaries before.

The hosts don't want the Ukraine crisis to disrupt the 2015 memorials either.

“It's important to invite as many world leaders as possible, especially from nations which played a vital role in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps”, Orly Joseph, a spokesman for the European Jewish Congress, an NGO co-organising the Terezin events, told EUobserver.

“There is a necessity to create a consensus around Holocaust memorisation and the battle against modern forms of xenophobia, intolerance, and anti-Semitism”.

The office of Wladyslaw Bartoszewski - a Polish former Auschwitz inmate who chairs the body handling the invitations - agreed.

“The event is devoted to the last survivors, not to politicians”, a contact said.

But for some, Putin’s war on Ukraine puts a question mark over the suitability of his attendance.

They also point to his nationalist-imperalist propaganda and to the fact he recently defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression treaty which preceded WWII.

Meanwhile, his crackdown on Russian liberals threatens to shut down Memorial, an NGO which documents Stalinist crimes.

EUobserver contacted a senior Memorial figure, but they were too afraid to speak out.

A suitable guest?

The EU elections in Poland in May already saw a debate on whether Putin should come.

The Polish PM at the time, Donald Tusk, who will be in Prague and Auschwitz in his new role as EU Council president, said the invitation is “very risky”.

The Czech and Polish foreign ministries declined to answer EUobserver’s questions.

But it doesn’t mean the debate has gone away.

"Putin's presence in Auschwitz pays lip service to the victims of the Holocaust”, one senior EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

“The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact did little to restrain Hitler … from a historical perspective, it created the conditions for Auschwitz to exist. Any Molotov-Ribbentrop apologist should not have a place at these solemn commemorations”.

Diplomacy aside, it remains to be seen what kind of popular welcome Putin will get.

People recently threw eggs at Czech president Milos Zeman at a 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism due to his pro-Russia views.

Polish police used water cannons to stop hardliners from attacking the Russian embassy in Warsaw on National Independence Day earlier this month.

“The situation is problematic and there will be lots of protocol issues. Putin is not the kind of person that you want to welcome these days”, a Czech source said.

Lukasz Lipinski, a deputy editor at Polish weekly Polityka, noted: “People don’t like Putin here. But I don’t know anybody who is not a loonie and who would throw eggs at someone in Auschwitz".

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