Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, one of the European Union’s most outspoken critics of sanctions against Russia, held talks with President Vladimir Putin ahead of a meeting with Angela Merkel and the leaders of ex-communist members of the bloc on Friday.
“Today we’ll work with you as a chairman of the European Council in order to improve, in particular, our trade and economic ties with Europe,” Putin told Fico at the beginning of the meeting, which started at about 10:35 p.m. Thursday in Moscow. Positive Slovak-Russian ties “give us all possibilities to return” economic relations to previous levels, Fico responded. He has said he plans to discuss “big energy projects” with Putin.
Fico, whose country holds the EU’s six-month rotating presidency and therefore helps set its agenda, has called the EU sanctions first imposed in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine “absurd.” EU leaders have extended the sanctions against Russia until Jan. 31. They’ll meet again in the Slovak capital on Sept. 16 to discuss the future of the 28-member trading bloc following the U.K.’s vote to leave.
“Fico’s Russophile tendencies are well known,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels, said before the meeting. “While the discussion will likely focus on energy projects crucial for Slovakia’s economic interests, the two leaders will probably also stray into questions of future Russian-EU relations, as the trip comes in the run-up to the informal summit on the future of the EU.”
After returning from Moscow, Fico will head to Warsaw to take part in a meeting of his Czech, Hungarian and Polish counterparts with Merkel on Friday. The German leader told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland last week that she saw no reason to lift sanctions because Russia hasn’t met the conditions such a move requires.
Tensions escalated earlier this month between Russia and Ukraine when Putin accused the government in Kiev of engaging in “terror” on the Black Sea peninsula. Ukraine said the incident, in which Russia says two servicemen were killed, never happened, although both sides have bolstered forces along their borders.
Several other EU leaders have come out against continuing the sanctions, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Fico, who was a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party before the regime’s fall in 1989, has derided the penalties as solving “nothing at all.” He has also sided with Russia by condemning the ban of the country’s para-Olympians from competition in Rio de Janeiro, saying they were being punished in a case of “collective guilt.”