- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

PRAGUE — The Russian and Czech presidents have agreed that bilateral relations should not be held hostage by the past atrocities of the Soviet Union nor by Moscow’s more recent backsliding from democracy — especially when billions of dollars in trade and investment opportunities are at stake.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dangled $2 billion worth of engineering projects before his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, during a visit this week.

But business deals aside, Mr. Putin’s trip, which included a stop in Hungary on Tuesday, was also about repairing damage to Russia’s image as a reliable partner.

At the start of the year, with a full blast of winter sweeping across Eastern Europe, Russia cut the flow of oil to Ukraine over a pricing dispute.

Those cuts reverberated across Europe, where gas deliveries also fell when pressure dropped in pipelines from Russia via Ukraine.

The Czech Republic was unaffected, but other European countries suffered supply disruptions, as much as 40 percent in Hungary.

Acutely aware of European anxiety about Russia’s actions, Mr. Putin sought to allay any fears.

“When I hear that some countries fear dependency on Russian oil, well we are also dependent,” he said. “If the buyer is dependent on the supplier, then the supplier is also dependent on the buyer.”

Mr. Klaus chimed in, “I advocate depoliticizing energy issues — it is just business as usual.”

Jefim Fistejn, an analyst of Russian affairs, said politics — not economics — prompted Moscow to cut gas to Ukraine.

He said Russia sought a fourfold increase in prices from the Ukraine in apparent retaliation for its Orange Revolution, in which a pro-Russian administration was replaced by one more aligned with the West.

Both leaders received an unexpected broadside Wednesday from former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who joined forces with two Nobel Peace Prize winners to condemn the current state of affairs in Russia as “a return to autocracy.”

Mr. Havel, a playwright, made a name for himself for refusing to remain silent in the face of a communist dictatorship in the former Czechoslovakia.

Writing an opinion piece in one of the country’s leading newspapers, the former president was joined by Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African President F.W. De Klerk, as well as former United Nations human rights advocate Mary Robinson, among others.

The opinion piece calls the war in Chechnya a Kremlin diversion “meant to conceal the new development of a centralized power that has no limits in other words, the war conceals a return to autocracy.”

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