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Sweden's good intentions must avoid raw nerve in Moscow

Sweden's priorities for its six-month European Union presidency, which started on July 1, possess a welcome clarity. Top of its list are the fight against the financial crisis and recession, and the need for an international climate change accord at a Copenhagen conference in December.

Almost as important, if maddeningly tedious to average Europeans, is the matter of EU institutional reform. If Irish voters approve the bloc's Lisbon treaty in October, Sweden will have to broker deals on who is to be the EU's first full-time president and who is to replace Javier Solana as its foreign policy chief. The Swedes will also be busy with the practical steps needed to ensure the smooth enforcement of the Lisbon treaty in early 2010.

At the front of every Swedish official's mind, however, is the awareness that nasty surprises often turn upside down the best-laid plans of an EU presidency. France, in the second half of 2008, had the war between Russia and Georgia. The Czech Republic, in the first half of this year, had the Gaza conflict and the Russian-Ukrainian dispute over gas prices, a quarrel that led to the suspension of Russian gas deliveries to the EU for two weeks in the middle of winter.

It is no accident that two of these three events involved Russia, the EU and a former Soviet republic. EU-Russian relations are at their most brittle in the politically uncertain, economically stricken zone of the former Soviet Union that separates the EU's easternmost member states from Russia.

Moscow and Brussels conceive of this area in ever more different ways, with attendant risks for regional stability. The Kremlin sees a neighbourhood where it is entitled to a preponderant role for reasons of national security, economic interests, culture, tradition and prestige. European policymakers see a region where, without dangling any firm offers of EU membership, it is essential to strengthen democracy in states still under Russia's shadow 18 years after the demise of the Soviet Union.

The interests of the two sides rub uneasily next to each other. Plausible scenarios during the Swedish presidency include a renewed outbreak of fighting in Georgia; an attempt to remove Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, from power; another Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis; trouble in the pro-Russian Ukrainian region of Crimea; a showdown between Russia and Belarus (whose leaders, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, are at daggers drawn); and a crisis stemming from more political unrest in Moldova after last April's post-election riots.

What makes these tensions more disturbing is that they might come to the boil precisely when Sweden is running the EU's affairs. Put simply, Russia does not get on well with Sweden and, arguably, has not done so since the 18th-century Russian-Swedish wars of Peter the Great's era.

Some Swedes have vivid memories of the "Whiskey on the rocks" episode of 1981, when a snooping Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground near Karlskrona, a Swedish naval base. Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, touched the rawest of Russian nerves last year when he compared alleged Russian provocations in Georgia with Nazi tactics in central and eastern Europe in the 1930s.

Together with Poland, Sweden took the lead this year in setting up the EU's Eastern Partnership, a project aimed at supporting six ex-Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The initiative went down poorly in Moscow, but no more than the announcement by Ikea, the giant Swedish furniture company, that it was suspending investments in Russia - implicitly, because it was sick and tired of pervasive corruption in Russian business.

As the EU presidency's holder, Sweden would normally be expected to play host to a regular six-monthly EU-Russia summit later this year. So far, however, there is no agreed date or venue. Sweden's leaders suspect their Russian counterparts of wanting to signal their disapproval of Sweden's policies, either by not travelling to Stockholm for the summit, or by waiting until the last minute before confirming their attendance.

If, as in US-Russian ties, there is a "reset" button in EU-Russian relations, it appears to be either lost or unpressed.

Financial Times

tags: Sweden | Moscow

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