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18th Jan 2019

Greece keeps EU in limbo on Russia sanctions

  • Kotzias: Has met with controversial Russian figures in the past, but known as a pragmatist (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

The new Greek government declined to say if it will back Russia sanctions until the last minute before a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Thursday (29 January).

Going into the EU Council building, Greek FM Nikos Kotzias said only: “Greece is working to restore peace and stability in Ukraine and at the same time to prevent a rift between the European Union and Russia”.

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His ambassador had earlier the same day declined to approve an EU text authorising new Russian listings.

He told his EU peers he couldn’t do it because Kotzias was in a plane en route to Brussels at the time and couldn’t be consulted.

Meanwhile, the new Greek energy minister, Panagiotis Lafazanis, told the Athens News Agency in Greece: “We are against the embargo that has been imposed against Russia. Greece has no interest in imposing sanctions on Russia. We have no differences with Russia and the Russian people”.

He spoke after Greece, earlier in the week, refused to endorse an EU statement blaming Russia for a rocket attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

But his remarks stand in contrast to a statement by the new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis.

Varoufakis wrote on his blog on Thursday that Greece didn’t endorse the Mariupol statement not because it opposes sanctions, but only because it wasn’t properly consulted.

Thursday's draft conclusions - which must be adopted by unanimity - speak of extending existing visa bans and asset freezes for another six months and adding more names to the Russia blacklist. They also speak of new economic sanctions if things get worse.

The British, French, and German ministers endorsed the ideas upon arrival in the EU capital.

Britain's Europe minister David Lidington said: “It’s very important that we maintain unity in the face of this most apalling strike on Mariupol”.

France’s Harlem Desir said new sanctions should target not just Russian agents in Ukraine but “also the people in Russia who support them”.

German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier noted that Greece has "certainly not made the situation easier”.

One school of thought is that Athens is trying to use its foreign policy veto to get Germany to agree to softer terms on its bailout debt repayments.

Asked by press on Thursday if this is true, Lithuania's foreign minister Linas Linkevicius appealed for “decency”.

“There are some things that are not for trading with. This is a painful and very dramatic situation … people are being killed everyday. Civilians were deliberately killed [in Mariupol]. This is not a game”, he said.

The more hawkish EU countries have threatened to block any formal conclusions of Thursday's meeting unless the text authorises further sanctions.

But ministers tried to play down the idea of a foreign policy crisis.

Polish FM Grzegorz Schetyna, also a sanctions advocate, said he is “optimistic”.

“This is the first meeting [with the new Greek government], so we must be sympathetic and open”, he noted.

The FM of Belgium, another po-sanctions state, Didier Reynders, added: “We are waiting for a clear statement from our Greek colleague inside the room”.

Analysis

Who's next on the EU's Russia blacklist?

The EU’s next round of Russia sanctions is to be limited to blacklisting more names, with diplomats and kremlinologists helping EUobserver to identify potential targets.

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