Prague Forum Discusses Russia's Regional Assertiveness

By Elena Nikleva | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Prague ( - Russia's willingness to use its energy clout to promote its interests in Europe and its efforts to oppose U.S. missile defense plans in the region were a major focus in a recent gathering of prominent individuals in the Czech capital.

The 11th Prague Forum 2000, an annual international conference on global issues founded as a joint initiative of former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, was held amid growing uneasiness here about Russia's new assertiveness in Europe.

This year's event coincided with the first anniversary of the murder of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a fact noted in Havel's opening address and on many other occasions during the forum.

Politkovskaya covered human-rights issues, especially relating to the war in Chechnya, and was a fervent critic of President Vladimir Putin. She was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building, a still unsolved murder that generated considerable speculation about possible Kremlin involvement.

In a special forum-linked edition of the newspaper Hospodarske noviny , Havel, a renown dissident who spent many years in communist jail during the Cold War era, said that Russia recalls the imperial and Soviet eras and has still not come to terms with its current borders. Russia doesn't know where it begins and where it ends, he said, reflecting on Moscow's bid to play a role in its former sphere of influence.

According to Havel, the current debate in the Czech Republic on the deployment of a radar facility that would form part of the U.S. ballistic missile defense plan in Central Europe only strengthens Moscow's view that it has a say in the former area of Soviet dominance.

Havel also provided a moral dimension to the debate over the missile defense facility - which many Czechs oppose - by reminding his compatriots of the obligations they had towards the U.S. for its role in World War II and for securing Prague's safety within NATO.

Recent examples of Russia's attempts to influence developments in the region to its advantage include its decision to limit the import of Polish meat and milk products, and a threat by the state-owned energy giant, Gazprom, to reduce natural gas supplies to Ukraine following the results of parliamentarian elections there.

These and other examples of Russian maneuvering fueled debate during the forum's discussions on Russia-E.U. relations. Some panelists charged that Russia was trying to challenge and divide the European Union. Small and energy-dependent countries such as Slovakia or Bulgaria were seen as particularly vulnerable to Moscow's energy pressure.

(Recently the European Union proposed an energy package to limit foreign ownership of European energy firms as a measure to counter Russia's energy-driven politics. Some Central European energy firms have sought alliances aimed at seeing off unwanted attention from the Russian state sector.)

The Prague conference also heard claims by Hungarian opposition leader Viktor Orban, a former prime minister, that across Central Europe a network of Russian influence was being activated through appointments in police, diplomatic and other sectors of people with connections going back to the Soviet era.

" Russia's current policies both at home and abroad, especially employing energy, are disquieting," Oldrich Cerny, executive director of Forum 2000 foundation, told Cybercast News Service.

"In this part of the world people still have not forgotten what happened between 1945 and 1989," Cerny said. "That is why we are probably more concerned than some other E.U. countries and voice those concerns."

Russia's "comeback" as a major focus in news reports and public debate here is increasingly evident after a relative lull.

Jiri Schneider, program director of the Prague Security Studies Institute said in an interview that after Soviet troops withdrew from former Czechoslovakia in 1991, Russia to some extent became less present in the public discussions here.

Moreover, in the early nineties, Russia didn't have a policy towards Central Europe with the exception of opposing NATO enlargement. These countries were not at the center of Russia's attention anymore, and after four decades of military presence Czechs were quite happy about that, he added.

A renewed assertiveness of Russian policies towards its neighbors and the EU has brought Russia back into the European debate, Schneider said.

The overall theme of this year's Forum 2000 was Freedom and Responsibility, a topic that echoed a famous essay by Havel in 1991, on "responsibility as destiny.""

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