Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Slovenia where he will commemorate Soviet POWs who died building a road in the Julian Alps. He is expected to step up his campaign to end EU sanctions against Russia.
Traffic came to a halt in Austria on Saturday after a tunnel was blocked for security reasons during the Russian head of state's visit. Authorities reported a seven-kilometer-long traffic backup in front of the Karawanks tunnel, which connects Austria and Slovenia from under the Alps.
The Russian leader was scheduled to attend a centenary commemoration for a chapel in the Julian Alps. The church was built to honor 100 Russian World War I prisoners who died in an avalanche while building a mountain pass for the Austrian army.
Slovenia, a member of the European Union, has maintained friendly relations with Moscow even after the bloc imposed sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in early 2014 and its alleged involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
The sanctions are designed to block access to Western credit and technology for people and businesses linked to Russia's elites. Earlier this month, the EU extended economic sanctions on Russia until the start of 2017, despite misgivings from some countries, such as Slovakia, which are keen to debate their effectiveness.
Yet Russia's tactic of methodically lobbying southern and eastern EU member states is starting to seriously erode the bloc's unity on the issue, making it potentially harder to renew them.
Divide and flatter
The Kremlin sees Slovenia in particular as a ripe target for dangling the prospect of reopening Russian markets to its agricultural sector. Economic ties were strong before the sanctions, when Russia was a big export market for Slovenian food products before the Ukraine crisis. The country of little more than 2 million remains keen to be a transit country for a potential pipeline carrying Russian gas to southern Europe.
Italy, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Slovakia and Bulgaria are also prime targets of Moscow's soft power.
There have also been cracks in the EU's unity among larger nations. Supporters of continued sanctions were alarmed when German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, last month spoke in favor of gradually easing sanctions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel says she favors sanctions, but she faces a difficult election next year, and pressure from German business, which has been hurt by sanctions, will only grow.
jr, mg/rc (Reuters, AP)